'Love letters' held by State

by Chris Griffith
Published April 1995 in Land Rights Queensland


my face


If you think Big Brother in Queensland was finally defeated with the destruction of the state's Special Branch files, then think again.

The State Government is still maintaining a comprehensive system of personal files about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and the intimacy of some information is breathtaking.

It is understood the government files, which were 'live' from the early 1900s to the early 1980s, contain even a 'love letter' and other highly personal correspondence between Indigenous People.

The current Queensland Government no longer accumulates the information, but it still maintains the information in two locations.

Most records are kept at the State Government Archive. They have been acquired directly from settlements and reserves.

However the Department of Family Services still houses social history cards, marriage cards, death cards, and even identity cards of people born from the mid 1800s onward. These are kept within the department's Community and Personal Histories section.

These cards, mostly created from the 1930s onwards, typically include the person's name, their parents' names, marriage certificates and details, and medical information.

Personal files also include letters between persons and the 'Protector', even letters requesting permission to marry.

Access to Department of Family Services' files is available to indigenous community members, who can view their own personal records, or their family's records where they are established to be the next of kin.

The department's Community and Personal Histories section is staffed almost entirely by Indigenous People who strictly monitor access.

For example, a family member, although a next-of-kin, may not be entitled to see a step mother's or step father's file where it details information about his or her previous marriage.

In special circumstances, researchers can gain access to these records, but they must sign a form guaranteeing they will not divulge any information before being allowed near the files.

Despite these safeguards, some question the appropriateness of government holding these files at all -- especially given their sensitivity, and the inappropriateness of government gathering the information in the first place.

The state government does not permit people to keep their files, nor can anyone request the destruction of information held about them.

The Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action (FAIRA) said the government must return these files to their owners.

FAIRA's legal officer, Bob Haebich, said Indigenous People "have had a gut full" of others deciding what was good for them.

"The content of these files is evidence beyond doubt that this distrust is justified," Mr Haebich said.

"The government must ask those who are morally entitled to these files, what is to be done with the files?

"In the meantime, these files should be immediately placed under the control of an indigenous organisation for safekeeping.

"It may be time for a legal test case to force the government's hand, should the government not act promptly to rectify the situation out of a sense of social and moral obligation."