What is pay the rent?
In essence, it is a private reparations system. The idea is that, without a treaty, non-Indigenous people continue to live and meet on stolen land, and, in recognition of this, we ought to pay our rent. The money goes to an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander organisation or cause, and preferably to the traditional owner group whose land we live or work on. First developed as a policy by the National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organisation (NAIHO) in Fitzroy in the 1970s, its devisers were clear: it is not charity – it is paying what is owed.
In the colonial context, the largest reparations payment I have been able to identify is the US$21 billion (in today’s dollars) Haiti paid to France after Haiti won its independence in 1804. A slave colony under France, an independent Haiti freed its slaves and threw out the slaveholders, with France subsequently imposing the reparations payment to compensate slaveholders for their ‘stolen property’. The final payment was made in 1947, the reparations having taken 122 years to pay off.
More contemporarily, South Africa has a reparations system for victims of apartheid, the fund currently sitting at around US$100 million (though yet to be paid out); the Canadian government has announced a plan to pay up to US$600 million to survivors of its own stolen generations policy; and New Zealand has paid close to US$1.5 billion in reparations to Maori claimants under its Treaty of Waitangi settlements.
These figures are underwhelming, particularly when compared to the Haitian reparations payments. And when we keep in mind what was lost – slaves, on the one hand, and an entire homeland on the other – they become outrageous.
What about Australia? So far no reparations have been paid by the federal government to Australia’s first peoples, though it looks like around AU$280 million has been paid out or promised by state governments as compensation for Stolen Generations survivors. There are also moves to compensate Aboriginal people for stolen wages, the worst case of which was in Queensland. There, during the 20th century, the Government ‘managed’ the wages of many Indigenous workers, resulting in gross misappropriations, estimated at AU$500 million in total, the money used to cover things like state budget shortfalls. The sum of AU$35.5 million was distributed as compensation to wages claimants between 2002 and 2006, with another AU$20 million promised recently. The net result is a AU$450 million profit for the Queensland government. The precise opposite of reparations.
We see, therefore, that the claims for compensation made by the Aboriginal self-determination movement in the 1970s for lands alienated were completely ignored. Nicolas Rothwell, the Northern Australia correspondent for The Australian, writes that “since the end of the self-determination era… the centralisation of indigenous welfare programs… has proceeded apace”. As we moved into what Gary Foley calls the “bureaucratic era of Aboriginal affairs”, the government has more and more carefully administered the management of Indigenous people, leaving little room for Aboriginal control or self-reliance. An ‘Indigenous industry’ has been put in place, run by and generally benefitting non-Indigenous businesses and NGOs. After careful, balanced analysis of government Indigenous policy, Rothwell concludes that “it is hard to point to a single top-down social reform or employment or home ownership project in any part of the centre or the north that has taken off”. What it has achieved is to “increase the sense of dependence in the indigenous community”. Rothwell suggests this is in fact an underlying goal – an effort “to break the political power of the large Aboriginal land councils and gain easy access to indigenous land”, and in so doing undermine one of the few victories of the self-determination movement.
All this underlines the need for a private reparations program until a meaningful political compact can be achieved. Such a program could perhaps even prefigure it.
How do we do it?
There is growing interest in the idea. Buzzfeed recently released a very good documentary on Pay the Rent, and Google turned up an excellent article published last year by the Australian Jewish Democratic Society. For good reason, Robbie Thorpe, a well-known Gunai/Mara campaigner, was a key source for both pieces, having called for the Pay the Rent program for decades. He suggests we all pay 1% or our income to a body led by Indigenous elders. This seems like a good proposal.
There are difficulties, however. I learned about Pay the Rent from Robbie Thorpe a few years ago, and at events I have helped run have organised a ‘rent collection’ before starting proceedings. But at the moment, I am unilaterally deciding where to send the money. So far, I have sent it to the Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative at the suggestion of fellow co-operative enthusiast, Les Cameron, and I’m happy to be able to help support them -- but it remains the case that I, not traditional owners, am deciding where the money should go.
What we need for Pay the Rent to be effective is an appropriate, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community-controlled body to pay the money to. The best mechanism for this would be a trust fund.
This proposal has its problems. As Clare Land writes, a “barrier to establishing Pay the Rent more widely could be Indigenous peoples’ lack of resources to organise as a polity which could receive and manage payments”. It puts a burden on Indigenous people to set up and administer a fund, a costly and time-consuming process, with no certainty the level of payments forthcoming would make it worthwhile.
Non-indigenous people could help set up the fund, but this still relies on Indigenous people going through the intra-community agreement process regarding the fund’s management. Another option could be to set up a kind of holding fund, which will pay out to the Indigenous-controlled fund once it has been organised. A benefit of this approach is that the level of money paid in could act as a test for whether it would be worth putting in the time and effort to set up the Indigenous-controlled fund in the first place.
The latter approach could be worth exploring. I know from correspondence with Lidia Thorpe’s office while she was a Greens MP, that the Victorian Traditional Owners Land Justice Group has a trust fund which could possibly be used for this purpose.
Whatever happens with a private reparations scheme, reparations should continue to be pushed for at an institutional level, whether through local councils, state or federal governments. It just may be, however, that a successful private reparations fund could make institutional-level reparations much more likely.
What do you think?
-  Robert James Walker, 'Resolving the Stolen Wages Claim in Queensland: The Trustee's Non-Fiduciary Duties' (2008) 2 Journal of Equity 77.
-  Robert James Walker, 'Resolving the Stolen Wages Claim in Queensland: The Trustee's Non-Fiduciary Duties' (2008) 2 Journal of Equity 91.
-  Foley; Anderson, ‘Land Rights and Aboriginal Voices’ (2006) 12(1) AJHR 84.
-  Clare Land, Decolonising Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles (Zed Books Ltd, 2015) 184.