Deficits of the Past or Deceits of the Present: Defining

Aboriginal Disadvantagement


Other people, other times

How are we to understand the present scandalous circumstances endured by so many Aboriginal families today? The gap between them and us, then and now, remains frustratingly unresolved. It seems that despite gallons of goodwill and millions of dollars, Aboriginal people are still somehow failing to achieve the same social outcomes as “the rest of us”. Why does this “Aboriginal” problem remain so intractable?

If we turn to the events of history we run immediately into the ambiguities of interpretation. Here in Queensland the primary legislation was the 1897 Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act which contrived various social categories and defined Aborigines who fell within those parameters as “Aboriginal” and therefore wards of state. The 1897 Act entrenched as policy a range of areas around the state reserved for “the use and benefit” of Aboriginal people; it introduced procedures to relocate Aboriginal individuals and groups to such reserves; it delegated a network of “protectors” to act for, and in the interests of, Aboriginal individuals in their dealings with other races and initiated a web of regulations to encompass all activities.

In general, these measures are characterised either as misguided protectionism or perverse cultural repudiation. Take the establishment of reserves, for instance. At the time of the 1897 Act a few large reserves existed in Cape York and several smaller ones operated around Brisbane; others operating in the 1870s had already been sacrificed to white expansion. Commenting on the fate of elderly and destitute Aborigines evicted after closure of the Bribie Island reserve in 1879, colonial secretary Arthur Palmer responded, “Oh let them go and work like anyone else.”

With the passing of the Act Aboriginal reserves became restricted areas accessible only by permit. Arbitrary intrusions by miners, timber getters, marine traders, or predatory local males, became illegal. But a sanctuary becomes a prison when compulsion is exercised. Over a 70 year period the network of protectors invoked relocation provisions to end the independence of thousands of Aboriginal families around the state. A growing list of statuses triggered official attention – being born of Aboriginal parents; of mixed parentage and under the age of sixteen or associating with “full-blood” Aborigines; being a female of mixed parentage; refusing to work where directed; failing to “support” one’s family; being defined as a neglected child; being described as promiscuous; using alcohol or opium (a legal drug until 1905), to name a few. Any of these categories was grounds for removal from family and country and confinement on the reserves.

Removal powers were easily abused. When the fledgling Monamona mission near Cairns struggled to attract inmates in 1913, chief protector John Bleakley cited “destitution and starvation” to force 64 local Aborigines into the new institution. But internal documents show all were well-fed and in work, and 49 of the new arrivals were “strong”. During the 1960s, often on instructions from the Aboriginal department, basic amenities were withheld from many small rural reserves, allowing councils to invoke a “health menace” to disperse families and eradicate shanties. Newly “unoccupied” Aboriginal reserves were quickly degazetted. The shameful deportations of people from Mapoon and Port Stewart in the 1960s provide the starkest examples of blatant abuse of Aboriginal welfare under the umbrella of departmental “protection”.

Aboriginal interests were hostage to the integrity of protectors. Commonly workers who refused dispatch on 12-month work contracts or challenged treatment by either protectors or employers were exiled to reserves. At Wrotham Park in 1927, unpaid Aboriginal workers were physically intimidated, threatened with deportation to Palm Island, and finally locked in a poisons shed overnight to force their submission.

Aborigines were forbidden direct access to their savings. Fraud and cheating by police protectors who operated their accounts was so prevalent that in 1921 the department introduced thumbprints and endorsement by a third party. Twelve years later the bulk of the accumulated savings (nearly $10 million in present currency) was transferred to head office control, specifically “to minimise fraud by members of the Police Force who are protectors”. As late as 1966 the Auditor-General berated the department over its failure ever to ensure Aboriginal workers received their rightful wages.

It is little wonder that conflicting perceptions prevail regarding the outcomes in real terms of the “protective” policies which operated until recently. Even a charitable spin on policy intent cannot conceal that the premise of reserves as sanctuaries was confounded by the arbitrary tyranny of individual protectors and bureaucrats, and that the securities of protective regulations were too easily subverted by the same operatives.

But what of the dramatic changes of the last three decades? Certainly the 1965 Aboriginal Affairs Act presaged new directions. Aborigines were no longer defined as wards of state, the policy of enforced confinement on reserves was reversed, and it was asserted that every Queensland Aborigine would now be “born a free citizen”. As other statutory controls over Aboriginal lives were removed social monitoring was redefined from the police to the secular, under area managers. In the same year changes to electoral laws extended to Aborigines the right to vote in state elections.

In 1966 the department ceased nearly 50 years of multiple levies and deductions from Aboriginal earnings. For the first time, account holders gained access to their bank passbooks and control of their savings. On Aboriginal communities Aboriginal councils, courts and police were formalised to increase social participation. The abolition of compulsory work contracts and discounted wages endorsed the atmosphere of “liberalisation”, and the post-1967 referendum flow of federal funds for Aboriginal housing, health and education heralded dramatic improvements. Legislation in the mid-1980s institutionalised community self-management, and Deeds of Grant in Trust (DOGITs) gave Aboriginal councils controls over reserve areas.   So all appearances pointed to a liberalising and normalising of the paralysing administrative straitjacket which had immobilised Aboriginal choices and responsibilities, whether as individuals – freedom to marry, to nurture their children, to control their labour, to access earnings, to choose place of living, to be fully educated; or as communities – in negotiating social expectations and constraints, in the delegation of authority and in the custodianship of the land.

Yet the fact remains that on every major social indicator – health, education, income, employment – Aborigines in Queensland (and around Australia) enjoy nowhere near the same level of benefits as other Australians. It seems that the deficits of the past continue to haunt us. Are these inequities the legacy of decades of deprivation and denial? The legacy of several bad apples and a raft of inappropriate, albeit well-intentioned, policies? Do we don our black armbands and shoulder the guilt? Do we claim the anonymity of distance, proclaim a superfluity of recent special funding, and say that the answer to this “Aboriginal” problem must lie somewhere in the Aboriginal psyche? Or can we reframe our perspective to ask an entirely different set of questions?


Managing populations

How were such perverse outcomes produced by 100 years of the most intensive controls ever imposed by government on any sector of the population? Almost every aspect of the private and social lives Queensland Aborigines has been patterned, manipulated, monitored and supervised by politicians, bureaucrats and delegated officials: surely it is to this administrative domain that we should turn our attention. We must analyse on their own terms the policies and practices which have impacted so drastically on Aboriginal lives. Why introduce a program of reserves and protectors? What have governments provided for their wards of state? Do more recent changes in civil rights and funding priorities resonate on scales other than redress?

At the end of the nineteenth century the perceived imperative to structure inter-racial relations is apparent from correspondence in a variety of forums – police, justice, religious and newspapers, particularly in the settled south-east of the colony. Many issues were of common concern: trafficking in small children, violations of women and girls, ill-treatment and swindling of workers, disease and destitution, murders by pastoralists and native police, the ineffectiveness of present laws. Early missions had been frustrated by the propensity of families to “wander away” from these “secure” enclaves, the disdain of adults for training in more “appropriate” social habits and the difficulty of retaining the children for schooling purposes.

Two points can be made about this assortment of problems. First, many of these concerns were also problematised in the non-indigenous community; and second, a remedial system had been operating in the colonies since the 1860s, deploying the same fundamental regulatory strategies as the 1897 Aboriginals Act – namely, removal, containment, training, social supervision. This system had its genesis in reformatories legislation introduced in England in the 1850s which enabled the state to compulsorily institutionalise children said to be in need of “rescue” and reform because of actual or potential danger physically, morally, or through neglect. A range of newly defined problematic statuses – paupers, vagabonds, deserted children, women in danger – allowed for processing and despatch to reformatories. It was within this European perspective that nomadism was stigmatised as an anomalous position between pauper and criminal, with an idle and disorderly lifestyle offensive to the ethos of the period.

Reformatories and industrial schools provided only the barest skills for industrial usefulness in menial occupations. The bible, with its tenets of humility, obedience, and inner cleanliness was the key primer, generating appropriate attitudes and habits. A prominent British reformer gives the flavour: “the Bible and the Spade for the boy, the Bible, broom, and needle, for the girl.” Reformatory and orphanage children were sent out to work from the age of 10 years, their earnings controlled by the state until adulthood.

The 1897 Act therefore did not originate the procedures of removal and containment applicable to Aboriginal individuals. Rather these procedures, operating in the white community for over 30 years, were now extended to embrace this additional “problem” population. However, whereas in the white community the centralisation of reformatories was already breaking down in favour of delegating the duty of care to selected fostering families, for Aboriginal wards the state was to intensify its controls during a guardianship lasting nearly 80 years. We must then ask: how has the state executed this duty of care?

There is absolutely no question that Aboriginal communities controlled and financed by the state, including missions operated by religious bodies, have been wretchedly underfunded since inception. Throughout the twentieth century they have been characterised by destitution, overcrowding, preventable disease, inadequate education, and poverty entrenched through withholding of wages, pensions and savings. Records show that state bureaucrats and politicians have subverted Aboriginal welfare to a degree which they would never have perpetuated, let alone been able to conceal, in the general community.

Even among the thousands of Aboriginal families confined on government settlements and church missions, the prioritising of employment split children and parents from their families as individuals were dispersed across the state on compulsory twelve-month work contracts. Boys and girls from as young as 14 years of age were sent to work among complete strangers in often isolated locations, vulnerable to abuse and bereft of family or cultural context. As domestic or farm workers their labour, discounted by 30% between 1919 and 1968, was acknowledged as the key to the survival of the pastoral industry.

The state’s stranglehold on Aboriginal choice and responsibility is perhaps nowhere more disturbingly exposed than in the control of wages and savings. During the first world war, when Aboriginal labour was at a premium, the department formalised the expropriation of wages. All earnings went directly to official control: beyond a pittance labelled as pocket money workers had to justify any withdrawals and permission to access savings was routinely denied. In addition a series of levies was deducted from Aboriginal accounts from 1919, with extra charges introduced during the depression.

Aboriginal wage earners (their income already discounted by law) were thereby subjected to several taxes in addition to the income tax paid by white employees. By appropriating the major share of Aboriginal savings the government created for itself a massive cash pool which was invested to create revenue to offset government expenditure. This pool amounted to the equivalent of $6 million in 1919, $10 million in 1932 and $15 million in 1962, while the wage earners whose money it was struggled to survive in derelict overcrowded destitution in government-controlled communities or on town fringes. Further to this institutionalised deprivation, records clearly show widespread fraud on savings accounts by protectors and blatant misuse of Trust Funds by governments during many decades.

The “liberalisation” from the late 1960s proved more rhetorical than real. The amended Electoral Act, now allowing, but not compelling, Aborigines to vote in state elections reversed an arbitrary revocation of political rights for part-Aborigines in 1930, and was a ploy to deflect international opprobrium after Australia’s commitment to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. Conveniently, after hysterical lobbying from several remote rural councils, the state government disqualified Aborigines on reserves from voting in local government elections, and to preserve discipline and “stability” political campaigners were initially denied access to state-run communities. The intent to suppress dissidence is clear in correspondence around the 1965 Aborigines Act where the reversal of confinement on reserves in favour of “permits to reside” provided a welcome strategy to expel “troublemakers” and prevent unwanted individuals visiting the communities. During the siege at Mapoon in the early 1960s, for instance, several people who left the community for employment or medical purposes were denied access to return.

The formalisation of Aboriginal councils, courts and police in the 1970s was also illusory. Councillors were vetted by the department which initially appointed the majority; court officers were drawn from the councils and were limited to adjudication of by-laws set by the department; police received no formal training, were hired, fired and controlled by department managers, and were also limited to enforcement of imposed by-laws.

Federal funding pouring into the state during the 1970s and 1980s was perverted to intensify the state’s agenda of control, especially in the areas of health and housing. For several years Queensland refused funding available to set up a specialist Aboriginal Health Program, ignoring pathological environments and lack of qualified medicos to blame endemic poor health on communities on “parental incompetence”. Instead social surveillance was intensified by liaison officers instructed to inspect and gather knowledge on “all individual residents…how they care for their families, standard of housekeeping, work record, personal problems and difficulties, and any other material that may be of value.” Until the mid 1980s the government, seeking to quarantine its illegal underpayment of Aboriginal employees, refused to transfer control of community hospitals to the health department which was committed to the payment of award rates.

During the 1970s millions of dollars of federal housing funds were merged through the Aboriginal department standing account, contravening the directive that a separate Fund be established. Queensland ignored the injunction to allocate housing on the basis of need, intensifying its assimilationist policy by scattering Aboriginal homes among various towns and only where employment was secure. Families who refused to be dispersed or were unemployed were denied homes. Aboriginal clients were frequently consigned to substandard and incomplete houses – unlined, unpainted, and lacking basic kitchen and bathroom amenities. In 1979, with families forced to cram 16, 22, and sometimes more than 25 to a house, Queensland rejected $6.1 million targeted for Aboriginal housing through the housing commission, seeing this as a ploy to undermine Aboriginal department control.

And on the communities under government control the 1976/86 decade saw building and maintenance programs and essential services fall into dangerous decline as the government callously stripped 1000 workers from the payroll to meet miserly increases to illegally low wages; the freeze on funding directly subverting Aboriginal welfare to political intransigence.



The present scandalous circumstances of so many Aboriginal families are not derivative only of past policies and intent. The parameters of contexts, actions and potentials have been established and managed by governments into the present. The continuing damage is testament to the degree to which they have failed in their duty of care to so many thousands of unwilling wards of state. Special funding is a tithe towards the black hole of the material negligence of governments; it does not address deficits in Aboriginal experiences and potential. These deficits can be ameliorated through acknowledgement of recent history, accountability for recent actions, and compassion for continuing pain.

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