Aborigines and citizenship: the myth of 1967


In 1967 a national referendum produced an overwhelming vote that Aboriginal Australians should be granted full citizenship, and that the federal government should have ultimate responsibility for Aboriginal affairs. The granting of citizenship is generally construed as evidence of a political normalisation of Aboriginal status for which massive injections of federal funds for Aboriginal housing, health, and education, would provide the practical reality.

Today I want to give you some idea of the various components of ‘citizenship’ which have impacted on the lives of Queensland Aborigines, both before, and after, the 1967 referendum. From file evidence, I will demonstrate the construction and manipulation of these components. By moving from the concept of ‘citizenship’ to the realities of Aboriginal life under State government control, we can better assess the practical significance of this policy milestone.

For most of this century there have been two categories of Aboriginal Queenslanders – those who were ‘under the Act’, and those who theoretically shared the civil freedoms of other Australians. The ‘Act’ was legislation initially passed in 1897, and updated in 1939 and 1965. It specifically targeted Aboriginal people and introduced the most intensive regime of surveillance and intervention ever imposed by governments. At the stroke of a pen, individuals and families could be forcibly extradited from their homes and confined to Aboriginal reserves. This was to be the fate of tens of thousands of Aboriginal people.

Aboriginal reserve communities have been built and operated by Aboriginal labour. Although 32 hours work a week was mandatory, there was no regulated payment until the late 1960s. Those ‘under the Act’ who did not work on reserves, were contracted out to employment where, when, and at whatever discounted rate of pay officials dictated. Their earnings went directly into government hands where they were subjected to a range of levies and taxes in addition to the standard income tax paid by all Australian workers. Under government management, which continued until only ten years ago, Aboriginal men and women working on missions and settlements never received legal rates of pay.

Aboriginal workers could not use their own savings without departmental permission, and this frequently was refused. Malpractice on Aboriginal earnings was so entrenched that the minister centralised the savings accounts in Brisbane in 1933 in order, as he said, to minimise fraud by police protectors. In order to intensify surveillance,wage-earners were allotted identification numbers. And to minimise critical inquiry, the government prevented these Queenslanders from even seeing their bank passbooks to check on the accuracy and honesty of transactions. This remained policy until the 1970s, and many people have found to their horror that their balances show little return after decades of compulsory work.

The 1897 legislation had applied to all those of mixed Aboriginal/European parentage. But in 1934, hundreds of other Queenslanders found themselves deprived of rights and freedoms and placed under departmental controls. Anyone with any Aboriginal ancestry was now targeted to be processed through a program of medico/hygiene policing – they were hunted, inspected, and marked for treatment. Where non-Aboriginal Queenslanders suffering disease were medicated locally, thousands of Aboriginal men and women were seized from all over Queensland and deported to Fantome Island. Where non-Aboriginal Queenslanders enjoyed the benefit of the free hospital system, Aboriginal patients had their bank accounts raided by the department to cover costs of running the institution. This continued until the Health department took control in 1943.

In fact those of part-Aboriginal parentage had already lost their State voting entitlements when the Electoral Act was amended in 1930. Outraged protests were run in the Courier-Mail under headings such as ‘Whites become Blacks’. Aboriginal department head, John Bleakley, lamely responded that “most half-castes lacked either the interest or the intelligence to exercise their voting prerogative”. But these same individuals, meanwhile, retained their Commonwealth voting rights, and an energetic campaign by these electoral officers to fill voting registers in the early 1930s exposed Queensland’s restrictive strategy. The federal government resisted pressure from Queensland to reduce eligibility to allay “confusion and discontent” arising from the discrepancy.

In 1939 new Aboriginal legislation was enacted in Queensland which once again redrew the parameters of those who would fall under direct government control. A new category – the ‘half-blood’ – was invented. This had a much narrower catchment, reverting only to those of Aboriginal/European parentage, or persons of part-Aboriginal parentage themselves having between 25% and 50% Aboriginal blood. This released many caught under the 1934 net, and Bleakley later admitted the changes were politically driven.

As members of the armed forces during the wars, Aboriginal Queenslanders were theoretically accorded all the standard rights of other Australians. Documents show, however, that during the second war the department applied to the Army for control of service pay. These soldiers then had to request permission to access their own savings; a request which was frequently withheld ‘for their own good’. After the war, if servicemen returned to their home communities, they were reduced to the indignity of total loss of rights, of primitive living conditions, of chronic unemployment.

The AWU successfully argued that as commonwealth employees, the hundreds of Aboriginal men working around Queensland on wartime manpower schemes must be accorded full employment equality. But the department won two concessions: there would be no access to alcohol; and the department retained control of all bank accounts. The multiple levies on the full wages provided a bonanza to the department.

During 1942 the department introduced a system of ‘social history’ cards. This enabled head office to accumulate untested data on every Aborigine in the State, allowing for much more efficient surveillance. These cards were still operating in the 1970s.

There is overwhelming evidence that Aboriginal wards of state have been condemned to live in grossly substandard housing on reserves which were chronically starved of funds at the most basic level. Every decade, this systemic neglect has been directly responsible for scores of fatalities caused by overcrowded and unsafe living conditions on these government institutions.

Conditions were generally no better for those Aboriginal families living in the general community as theoretically ‘equal’ citizens, including former wards granted ‘exemption’ from departmental controls. But the department washed its hands of these people, blatantly disregarding the colour bar which it admitted operated against Aboriginal residency in every Queensland town into the 1960s. In its ruthless push to assimilation, it actively conspired against the interests of Aboriginal families, routinely denying local councils permission to provide essential services on rural reserves, claiming this would only encourage occupancy. It was all too easy then to have families evicted as menaces to the health of the well-housed town citizens, to have huts and belongings burned, and to degazette reserves to make tenancy illegal for these homeless families.

In 1962 the federal government of Robert Menzies granted Aboriginal Australians full voting rights in federal elections, neatly reversing earlier rhetoric which had linked the granting of civil rights with a standard of ‘development’ sufficient to exercise them. Queensland’s laws, where the rights and freedoms of any person of Aboriginal ancestry depended on the disposition of the director, were condemned as grossly unacceptable in this new ‘liberal’ climate. As were the conventions of unpaid compulsory labour, discriminatory wages and managed savings accounts, forced detention on reserves, censored mail, controlled marriages, and schools lacking trained teachers.

To claw back some political respectability, Queensland brought in new Aboriginal legislation in 1965. This cancelled enforced confinement on reserves so that, as new department director Patrick Killoran boasted, every Aboriginal Queenslander would now be “born a free citizen”. A new category was created – the `assisted’ Aborigine – that is, anyone with a `strain of Aboriginal blood’ living on an Aboriginal reserve, or anyone decreed to be in need of `assistance’ by a magistrate. One’s place of residence was thereby designated as the prime criterion of incapacity.

Any veneer of liberalisation was illusory. Reversal of tenancy rights through the requirement to hold a ‘certificate of entitlement’, now facilitated tighter vetting of community populations. Control of permits to visit, or stay on, a reserve, enabled officials to eject dissenters and deny unsuitable visitors. To take employment away from an Aboriginal reserve was to risk permanent exile from home and relations. Wages and savings were still controlled; people could still be deported.

Another cosmetic ‘liberalisation’ in 1965 was the amendment to Queensland’s Elections Act to allow, but not to compel, Aborigines under government control to vote in State elections. A glimmer of cultural sensitivity, perhaps? No, merely playing politics to assuage hysterical lobbying from rural councils whose shires included newly enfranchised Aboriginal reserve communities and who feared the potential of Aboriginal control through voting dominance. How did the State government respond? They simply disqualified reserve residents from voting in local government elections.

The granting of citizenship ‘rights’ brought with it the danger that the official rhetoric of ‘assistance’ might be undermined as Aboriginal communities learned the extent to which those rights were violated. After pondering this dilemma, the government protected its hold over information by denying access to any political campaigners.

Regulations under the new Act demonstrate the intensification of social policing as a whole range of loosely defined conducts now became punishable offences: failure to conform to a reasonable standard of good conduct; exhibiting behaviour detrimental to the well-being of other persons; committing acts subversive of good order or discipline; to be idle or careless, to be negligent or refuse work, to behave in an offensive, insolent, insulting, or disorderly manner. Jails catered for dissenting men, and dormitories were redefined as places of detention for any women or children who breached discipline, who left or attempted to escape from a community, or who failed to obey instructions in hygiene, sanitation, or infant welfare.

But of course this climate of social coercion was not allowed to permeate the public sphere, where, at a 1967 national Aboriginal conference, the minister responsible, one Joh Bjelke-Petersen, extolled the new ‘liberalisation’ which had, he said, removed most of the restrictive measures while retaining certain protections. All lobbyists and agitators were enthusiastically labelled as communist activists; and special branch was kept busy compiling dossiers.

The federal government had, meanwhile, signed the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and ratification depended on the elimination of all racially discriminatory legislation in Australia. Queensland aggressively rejected federal pressure to lift restrictions, especially controls on Aboriginal savings. Not surprising when documents confirm that Treasury was profiting nicely: of the total credit pool of $1.8m of Aboriginal money, the State had invested $1.4m in high interest ventures and in hospital building programs. None of these benefits were returned to the account holders, most of whom were trapped in poverty.

It was in this climate that the 1967 referendum was passed, expanding federal influence into the Aboriginal affairs of the States, and releasing funding – $10 across Australia in the 1968/69 year – to reverse deficiencies in health, housing, and education. The hierarchy in Queensland was aghast at this potential to interfere in State matters, and federal projects and policies have been belligerently processed through a haze of anti-Canberra rhetoric. All options have been exploited to entrench State policies.

Contrary to specific directives that a separate housing fund be established, Queensland merged multi-million dollar grants through its departmental operating account. Contrary to the prime objective that houses be supplied on the basis of need, Queensland set a prerequisite of stable employment for its housing tenants, and mocked Canberra’s requirement for low rents as a paternalistic discouragement of ‘normal responsibilities’. The most desperate of Aboriginal families were thereby denied benefits of the welfare program. Ignoring guidelines dictating that houses be finished to normal standards, cost-cutting by the department routinely produced homes without ceilings or internal lining, and lacking power, toilets, showers, or laundries.

In contempt of the philosophy of Aboriginal self-determination, Queensland exploited the housing program to accelerate its ruthless assimilationist policy, scattering families within, and between, country towns. Families camped in poverty on rural reserves either acceded to these dispersal strategies or remained with relatives in overcrowded under-resourced shanties. Meanwhile, the department brazenly masked accountability under the vague entry ‘sundry town houses’. And most years hundreds of thousands of dollars remained unexpended, generating revenue for the department in interest-bearing investments.

Queensland exploited the Aboriginal housing program to lever into the private domain a network of liaison officers and domestic advisers. These operatives were instructed, and I quote, “to monitor how they care for their families, standard of housekeeping, work record, personal problems and difficulties, particular abilities…and any other material that may be of value”. Homes were inspected, school absenteeism policed, and domestic management supervised. There was great resentment at this interference in family life. Many mothers were loathe to consult medical and welfare personnel, fearful they would be labelled as inadequate carers and have their children taken from them. Others spurned feeding programs and child welfare centres as agencies of departmental policing. And the `social history’ cards at head office registered all.

In 1971 a new law was enacted. Touted as “favourable legislation” to enable Aborigines to “participate as fellow Queenslanders”, it replaced the mandatory `assistance’ category with a new network of controls. Now the `certificate of entitlement’ for reserve residence was jettisoned in favour of a `permit to reside’, making security even more tenuous. Any `favourability’ of the legislation served only to strengthen government controls: it remained an offence not to obey all official instructions, or to disturb the peace, harmony, or discipline of a reserve. In an attempt to obstruct the `subversive influence’ of outside informants, managers were empowered to question any person on any matter, and could demand for inspection any book, document or writing. This continued into the 1980s.

Wages for workers on Aboriginal reserves, introduced only in 1968 at half the basic wage, were now quarantined from industrial law by the mere writing of a regulation. During the 1970s and 1980s the government blatantly disregarded successive advice from its own legal experts that this regulation breached State industrial law and federal anti-discrimination legislation of the mid-1970s. While the department was quietly settling out of court a series of union-backed litigation against the illegal underpayment of government workers, Killoran boasted to the media that the regulation had never been disproved at law. He maintained this charade into the mid-1980s, when control of the communities passed to Aboriginal councils and legal rates were paid. This matter is currently under investigation by the Human Rights Commission, whose verdict is imminent.

This brief sketch of the civil and electoral experiences of Aboriginal Queenslanders indicates that ‘citizenship’ is not a singular status to be withheld or bestowed. Rather there is a range of aspects of ‘citizenship’ which can, and have been, denied, granted, cancelled, and manipulated. Redefinitions of categories of eligibility, tied to quotas of ancestry or quantities of ‘blood’, deftly denied or endowed particular ‘rights’. When employment ‘rights’ were politically endorsed – for Aboriginal soldiers or for manpower workers – the department easily devalued the gain by refusing entitlements, particularly when it came to control over earnings. Electoral ‘rights’ were similarly fragmented – by closing off some fields of voting entitlement, and by gagging access to political information.

Attention to the social practicalities of reserve life with its intrusive mesh of punishable behavioural offences gives the lie to a liberalising ethos since the late 1960s. Federal influence and federal funds flowing from the 1967 referendum were too easily subverted to State policy, as is evidenced by the callous manipulation of housing availability and the intensification of social policing in the private domain. The post-referendum bestowal of ‘citizenship’ made little difference to those Aboriginal Queenslanders whose earnings continued to be exploited to produce revenue for the government through the 1970s, and whose savings accounts remained concealed from observation. The bestowal of ‘citizenship’ did not terminate operations on the surveillance databank of the ‘social history’ cards, which have only now become accessible to individual subjects. The bestowal of ‘citizenship’ did not terminate enforced deportations of those Aboriginal individuals whose presence threatened departmental controls.

But the pathologising of individual conduct and attitudes does more than make a mockery of ‘citizenship’. It effectively deflects attention from the systemic environmental menace which still festers today in gross overcrowding, overflowing sewage, contaminated drinking water, structured unemployment, and below-subsistence wages. For those who choose to live on Aboriginal communities – constructed and operated by government until only a decade ago – the ‘citizenship’ conferred in 1967 has obviously not translated into a social environment remotely comparable to that which is mandatory for all other Australian citizens.

Copyright Dr. Rosalind Kidd. Website development by: Ryan-Thomas Robinson