North Queensland elders say stolen wages entitlements unfair, much lower than expected

Families of stolen wages victims in North Queensland have waited decades for their entitlements, but have been left devastated by the payouts and are questioning how they were calculated.

The Queensland Government settled a long-running stolen wages case for $190 million in 2019.

The entitlements are being distributed to more than 10,800 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for wages earned between 1939 and 1972.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images of people who have died.

Among the recipients is the mother of Francine George, an elder of the Kukatj tribe in Normanton.

Ms George’s mother died in 2017 at the age of 88.

She said her mother only received an entitlement of $12,000 for more than 40 years’ work on cattle stations in various domestic roles.

“They were not given any monies; they were not told how much monies they have made during that time,” Ms George said.

Francine George, second from left, and her siblings shared in her mother’s stolen wages entitlement of $12,000.(Supplied: Francine George)

“They come into Normanton from those cattle properties and they were given, what we would refer to as a purchase order these days, to go to the shop and get supplies.

“During those times, they only ever came to town on special occasions like the Normanton races … and all the other times they worked.”

Entitlement calculations

Ms George said the government had the means to calculate the hours her mother worked, but her entitlement was a lot less than expected.

“There are records within Queensland Government for a lot of people [who] worked during that era. How did they come to that calculation?” she said.

An Indigenous woman in a yellow top hold up a letter about a stolen wages entitlement.
Francine George says the method used to determine people’s stolen wage entitlements does not add up.(Supplied: Francine George)

Townsville resident Hans Pearson led the class action.

Grant Thornton Australia was appointed as the administrator of the Stolen Wages Settlement Distribution Scheme.

The firm’s lawyer, Anthony Beven, said due to the lack of evidence and records of earnings, time passed and the death of many claimants, a methodology relying on anthropological evidence was used to determine the entitlements.

“The court said that the only way to do this in a fair way was to group people based on their age, whether they were Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, male, whether they were still living or deceased,” Mr Beven said.

“It was never intended to be a precise calculation of how many years people worked, how much their savings and wages had not been properly paid to them because that was just too difficult to prove.”

Men compensated more

An elderly man in a checked shirt and broad hat sits in his backyard with grass and a fence in the background
Townsville resident Hans Pearson led the class action.(ABC News: Sally Rafferty)

Ms George said she was concerned that men who were part of the class action received more money than women.

“It just doesn’t add up.”

Mr Beven said men were compensated more than women because they suffered greater deductions and withholdings, according to the evidence put before the court.

“The anthropological evidence, the historical records have indicated that men in particular were more heavily affected by the stolen wages practices,” he said.

“They [men] had more in terms of wages and savings withheld from them.

“It’s the best possible methodology that’s been developed over many years.”

Litigation costs

The $190 million settlement was Australia’s fifth-largest class action settlement and the largest-ever settlement involving Indigenous people outside native title claims.

But Ms George said claimants’ entitlements were chewed up by the $53 million in litigation costs.

“The buckets of money have dropped considerably,” she said.

“It’s not $190 million that the people are sharing in, it’s more like $120 million or even less and that’s going out to 11,000 to 20,000 people.”

The class action was funded by litigation funder Litigation Lending Services, which was entitled to a slice of the settlement under the Federal Court ruling.

Legal fees associated with the Stolen Wages Settlement Distribution Scheme were also deducted from the settlement amount.

Grandchildren were not eligible to register for the scheme because it fell outside of the requirement of a “direct family connection”.

Ms George said it had left many descendants still questioning the whereabouts of their grandparents’ stolen wages.

“I know a lot of people are not happy, around the Gulf and down in Mount Isa and over in Cairns, with how it’s been rolled out.”

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MPs refuse to release documents to ICAC’s entitlements probe

MPs under a public integrity investigation over the potential misuse of parliamentary allowances have refused to release documents requested by the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption, citing parliamentary privilege – prompting a warning that the inquiry may be abandoned.

Bruce Lander last month confirmed his office was investigating “the conduct of a number of Members of Parliament in respect of claims made by them for payment of the Country Members Accommodation Allowance”.

He determined to broaden that inquiry to review “all claims for the Country Members Accommodation Allowance by any Member of Parliament over the last 10 years”.

It came amid a major scandal over the use of the previously-secretive scheme, with questions about the living arrangements and allowance claims of Upper House president Terry Stephens leading to the release of documents that implicated other Liberal MPs, including Ministers Stephan Knoll and Tim Whetstone, and Government whip Adrian Pederick.

All four of those MPs later resigned from their posts, along with veteran MLC David Ridgway, who quit after revelations he had signed blank time sheets for his chauffeur-driven government car while in Opposition.

Lander today released a public statement warning that a refusal by some unnamed MPs and their staff to cooperate with his investigation had hampered his efforts, leaving him unable to progress key lines of inquiry before his retirement from the Commissioner’s role at the end of the month.

He said “it will be a matter for my successor”, retired judge Ann Vanstone, “to decide whether the investigation should continue and if so the course of the investigation”.

“During the course of the investigation I have sought from Members of Parliament and their staff information relating to claims made for this allowance,” Lander wrote in his statement.

“Some Members and their staff have not provided that information to me.”

He said certain parliamentarians and their staff “have asked me to delay my request for documents and information until parliament has determined whether or not a claim for parliamentary privilege is to be made”.

Lander notes that “I do not think that the documents or information sought would be protected by parliamentary privilege” but concedes that is a matter for parliament to determine.

Complicating the standoff, however, is the fact parliament is currently in winter recess, with sittings no recommencing until September 8 – a week after Lander’s ICAC tenure ends.

“Although I am continuing to seek evidence and information from other persons and sources, the potential for a claim for parliamentary privilege has had the effect of delaying the investigation because I have not been able to examine documents and other evidence in the custody of the members and their staff, relevant to the matters under investigation,” he said.

“Also I have not been able to interview or examine the members or their staff.”

Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas said he had contacted Lander, who “made it clear that the requests he made thus far from Labor MPs have been fully complied with”.

He said frontbencher Eddie Hughes, who he insisted had claimed the entitlement within the rules, had been requested to provide documents and “he’s done so accordingly”.

“This is a substantial test of leadership for Steven Marshall,” he said.

“Every Labor MP has complied with requests of ICAC and if they hadn’t, I’d instruct them to – and if they failed to comply with that instruction I’d issue a sanction from the SA Labor Party.

“Steven Marshall just needs to instruct his MPs to hand over the information ICAC is requesting… he can’t accept a standard where he’s allowing his MPs to not comply with legitimate requests from ICAC for information regarding the country members allowance investigation.”

Malinauskas said the “question for Steven Marshall is, which members of his team are refusing to give ICAC the documents they’re after – and what have they got to hide”.

“Is Steven Marshall comfortable with having his own MPs not complying with legitimate requests of the ICAC to investigate the country members allowances scandal?” he said.

“He should not tolerate Liberal MPs failing to comply with legitimate requests of the ICAC.”

Asked about the issue after today’s national cabinet meeting today, Marshall said he did “don’t have any information with regards to that”, but “I expect all of my members to comply with the ICAC Act”.

“The legislation is particularly clear and I expect every single member of parliament to comply with those rules and legislation,” he said.

However, he noted that “privilege is something which is determined by the parliament itself” so “it would be a matter of parliament resuming” to resolve any impasse.

It comes after InDaily last month reported that SA’s Equal Opportunity Commissioner Niki Vincent has been unable to progress a separate proposed independent investigation into workplace harassment in state parliament because she was still waiting for parliament’s permission to launch the inquiry.

Further complicating scrutiny of the parliament in the fact a replacement Speaker and Legislative Council president can’t be appointed until both houses sit – with both positions causing consternation behind the scenes in Liberal ranks.

InDailyreported yesterday that veteran MLC John Dawkins will contest for the presidency in the party-room – and could yet nominate for the role without his party’s support if, as expected, he loses out to the Steven Marshall-endorsed Jing Lee.

Former Speaker Vincent Tarzia joined the ministry after last month’s unprecedented spate of resignations, leaving his former role sitting vacant, while Stephens has given notice he will stand aside once parliament resumes.

InDaily contacted several MPs who had claimed the country members allowance, but none responded to inquiries.

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COUNTRY CLAIMS CRISIS: ICAC to investigate all entitlements dating back 10 years

UPDATED | The state’s Independent Commissioner Against Corruption has launched a major investigation into all claims made over the past decade by parliamentarians under a controversial country members’ allowance scheme, which has seen Liberal MPs forced to pay back tens of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars in a deepening scandal.

The Marshall Government has been under siege on the entitlements issue since questions about the living arrangements and allowance claims of Upper House president Terry Stephens snowballed into a broader scandal engulfing several other Liberal MPs, including Ministers Stephan Knoll and Tim Whetstone.

Early this month, the Opposition referred Stephens’ case to police, who sent it on to anti-corruption commissioner Bruce Lander.

But this week, the release of 10 years’ worth of expense claim forms to parliament reignited the controversy, with several Liberal MPs conceding they’d made “administrative errors”, some dating back several years.

In a statement released late today, Lander declared: “I intend to make further enquiries in respect of all claims for the Country Members Accommodation Allowance by any Member of Parliament over the last 10 years.”

“I think it is in the public interest that I make this statement in light of intense media speculation and numerous enquiries made to my office and to other agencies in respect of the subject matter of this statement,” he said in the statement.

“Earlier this month I commenced an investigation into the conduct of a number of Members of Parliament in respect of claims made by them for payment of the Country Members Accommodation Allowance.

“I have discussed with the Auditor-General any activities he may be conducting relevant to the matter to avoid duplication… the Auditor-General has advised me that he does not intend at this time to investigate the matter in light of his office’s statutory responsibilities to audit the financial statements of all statutory public authorities.

“In due course the Auditor-General and I will discuss what recommendations can be made for improvements to the manner in which claims are made for an allowance.”

Knoll this week agreed to pay back $29,574, insisting he was doing so only because of “ambiguity” over the allowance rules, which were amended by the Remuneration Tribunal in November 2018 to stipulate eligible MPs must “incur actual expenditure”.

Whetstone has repaid just $6,993 but amended 92 nights worth of claims, blaming “administrative errors” but insisting he was still eligible for the allowance on other dates he had not previously claimed.

One of those withdrawn claims coincided with dates he was on a taxpayer-funded 12-day study trip to the United States.

On one of the nights for which Knoll billed taxpayers he posted a photo of himself and his family attending the cricket at Adelaide Oval.

He has conceded he claims the allowance for nights he stays at his parents’ inner-city home, with his father Franz admitting they have a private arrangement for board.

First-term backbencher Fraser Ellis is repaying $42,130 – all his claims since the tribunal tightened the eligibility criteria – while Adrian Pederick and Peter Treloar have both conceded they have amended prior claims after a recent audit, but insisted they were still entitled to a full entitlement.

“I made three adjustments and I had plenty of spare nights that I could adjust to and that’s what I did,” Pederick told ABC Radio yesterday, while Treloar said: “I did find some errors, some anomalies but what I also found were a number of days where I could have legitimately claimed and didn’t.”

State MPs who live further than 75 kilometres from the Adelaide GPO are entitled to payments of $234 for each night they spend in Adelaide on official business – capped at 135 nights per year or $31,590.

Asked in parliament today by Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas whether he would sack his ministers over the repaid claims, Marshall said: “There is no doubt in my mind that there have been errors here.”

“They are unacceptable and I have made it very clear to my team from day one when this came to light that these errors are unacceptable… but I do not believe there has been deliberate dishonesty.

“I do not believe that this is a Government which is trying to sweep these problems under the mat. In fact, by contrast, what we are doing is shining a light on these issues.”

A harried Knoll did not respond to questions from media as he entered parliament today, while Marshall told reporters he “absolutely” backed his beleaguered frontbencher.

The involvement of the ICAC will spark even greater controversy for the Government, but could also prove a circuit-breaker given the Opposition’s determination to score a political scalp over the issue.

Under strict ICAC laws, ongoing investigations are subject to secrecy beyond what the commissioner chooses to unveil.

“This investigation will be conducted in private as is required by legislation… for that reason I do not intend to make further comment,” Lander said today.

The Liberals are particularly affected by the allowance scandal given the number of their members who serve regional electorates.

Labor has just two members currently claiming the allowance – Whyalla-based Giles MP Eddie Hughes and Legislative Councillor Clare Scriven.

Shadow Attorney-General Kyam Maher today said in a statement the Opposition “welcomes the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption’s investigation into the use of the Country Members Accommodation Allowance”.

“The Opposition notes Mr Lander’s statement that the Auditor-General is not looking into this matter – these remarks stand in stark contrast to the Premier’s claims this week that the Auditor-General was looking into the matter,” he said.

“Why did the Premier suggest the Auditor-General was looking into this, when it is clear he was not?

“Over recent weeks, Steven Marshall and his Liberal colleagues have refused to answer basic questions or take responsibility for their use to taxpayers’ money… it is still incumbent on Steven Marshall to show leadership and sack these ministers.”

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Coal River Farm, run by tourism council chief, loses bid to reduce worker entitlements to zero

A Tasmanian business owned by the head of the state’s tourism council will have to pay out $24,000 in employee entitlements after a failed bid to have the amount dropped to zero because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Coal River Farm — a restaurant, pick-your-own berry farm, fruit orchard and function venue in Cambridge, southern Tasmania — is owned by Daniel Leesong and his wife Melanie.

Mr Leesong, on his Tourism Industry Council Tasmania webpage, is described as “one of Tasmania’s leading business identities … [with] previous experience as company director, association executive and as a chief of staff to a Tasmanian premier”.

The Leesongs also operate a number of sites and restaurants across Australia and are in the midst of opening businesses in Perth and Fremantle, Western Australia.

In May, the company informed two of its employees — Ben Claxton and Salem El-Khoury — they would be made redundant from June 1.

Mr Claxton, who had worked for the company for a little over a year, was entitled to a redundancy payout of $4,769.23 and Mr El-Khoury, who had been employed with Coal River Farm for a little over five years, was entitled to $19,230.77.

Coal River Farm operates as a function venue, restaurant and tourism business.(Supplied: Coal River Farm)

On May 13, Coal River Farm applied to the Fair Work Commission to reduce the employees’ entitlements to nil on the basis it could not afford to pay them.

In its submission, the company said its food and beverage operation had experienced a 100 per cent loss in revenue “with no prospect of returning to pre-COVID levels for 24 months”, adding that its overall business had seen an 80 per cent drop in revenue and it had limited cash flow.

It also said it relied heavily on tourists from Asia and interstate travellers and was relying solely on JobKeeper to pay the wages of 22 employees on its payroll.

Furthermore, Coal River Farm’s operators submitted that they had significant liabilities, including a sizeable debt to the Australian Tax Office (ATO).

Prior to COVID-19, the company had also committed to long-term leases and spent a significant amount of money in preparation for the opening of stores in Perth and Fremantle.

The company argued that failing to open these stores may result in Coal River Farm becoming insolvent.

Screenshot of bank account tendered as evidence

But in his application, former employee Mr Claxton claimed the business was “not in fact in financial difficulty, but instead choosing to focus ample funds on growing its business rather than paying redundancy entitlements”.

In her findings, Commissioner Tanya Cirkovic said Coal River Farm had provided insufficient evidence to prove its claim that it could not afford to pay the redundancy entitlements.

“Despite being provided ample opportunity to adduce evidence to the commission as to its financial position, the applicant chose to rely on an unverified profit and loss, a screenshot of a bank account with no name and a document purporting to evidence the applicant’s creditors containing no information or detail,” she wrote.

She said she accepted Mr Leesong’s submission that the business was “facing significant challenges and that its future financial prospects are uncertain”.

“I acknowledge the very difficult challenges faced by the applicant in the current uncertain environment and note that it is a time of great stress and concern for the applicant and many other business owners,” she wrote.

Ms Cirkovic concluded that while she was sympathetic to the company’s “uncertain and difficult operating environment” she was not satisfied that there was enough evidence to show the employer could not pay the employees.

She said there would be no order to reduce the entitlements and dismissed the application.

Mr Leesong declined to comment.

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