Social Engineering: A disastrous experiment


After twelve years’ investigation of official records it is my contention that present conditions on Aboriginal communities in Queensland are the outcome of an unprecedented social engineering experiment which still blights the lives of individuals and communities.  Today’s talk will demonstrate how I have come to this conviction.  It is organised into three overlapping sections: historical background, every day life and governance.


Historical background

From 1897 the government legislated to control every aspect of personal and social life: marriages, upbringing of children, place of living, employment, supply of food and water, provision of medical attention, shelter, schooling, community amenities, policing and justice.  As wards of State, around half Queensland’s Indigenous population lost all rights to manage their own lives into the 1970s.

A network of police ‘protectors’ was appointed to monitor and record the actions and conduct of every family and these records formed the basis of official interventions and detentions.  There was no due process and no right of appeal; in fact no knowledge of what was being written or why actions were taken.  This evidence remained secret into the 1990s.

The government set up a contracted labour force, hiring men, women and children to the pastoral industry until the late 1960s, often at only one-third the award rate, flouting its policy of 66 per cent parity and disregarding surveys affirming Aboriginal labour as often more reliable and more skilled than their white counterparts.  Minimum workplace conditions set in 1919 were almost worthless when inspections were rare into the 1960s.  The norm was extreme hours, wretched food, grossly substandard shelter, foul water and sanitation.  Physical abuse and sexual assault of both boys and girls was not uncommon, but complaints to the protector risked retaliation for lying or ‘cheekiness’, or deportation to a reserve.

By 1934 the department controlled the lives of over 7000 people in ‘supervised camps’ on country reserves, 3500 people in the Torres Strait, 3000 on settlements and 3500 on missions.  In 1945 regulations increased the disciplinary powers of reserve superintendents so that ‘troublemakers’ could be evicted, 32 hours’ (unpaid) work became mandatory on communities (up from 24 hours), and Aboriginal police, courts and councils were formalised under tight departmental supervision.  A range of by-laws – written by the department – were introduced to supervise social behaviours.

Under the 1965 Aboriginal Affairs Act Aboriginal councils supposedly exercised ‘the functions of local government’.  All Indigenous people were now declared ‘free citizens’, however all reserve residents were deemed in need of ‘assistance’ and remained under government control.  Six years later, to deflect bitter criticism, the government passed what it defined as ‘non-discriminatory’ legislation, dropping the ‘assisted’ category but strengthening the permit system which continued government control over visitors and residents.  Only now did the government cease its arbitrary extradition of individuals between reserves as a disciplinary device.  Only now, after almost 70 years, did the government cede its control of private property and savings to the people, unless of course a magistrate upheld an objection by the director.  Beer canteens could be now established on reserves, and State police could be permanently stationed where necessary.  An Aboriginal Advisory Council was authorised to offer advice, but had no jurisdiction to achieve change.

An amendment Act in 1979 strengthened powers of community councils over tenancy on communities and allowed for appeals against decisions in the Aboriginal courts; an amendment to the Land Act in 1982 promised, but did not actually establish, deeds of grant in trust (DOGITs).  This cosmetic manoeuvre was a response to Federal strategies and political criticism on Aboriginal land rights, and assuaged embarrassing condemnation during the brief international glory of the commonwealth games.

Only after passage of the Community Services (Aborigines) Act of 1984 did councils gain qualified local government powers, although, as usual, the changes were imposed – sight unseen – on Indigenous communities.  The director boasted that after a three-year training period, decisions would be made ‘by the people themselves’, but in fact all accounts had to be vetted and audited by the department, and the director could launch inspections, receive reports from visiting justices, and control beer supplies for council-operated canteens.  The Governor in Council – effectively the Cabinet – could overrule by-laws or dissolve the council, in which case an administrator was appointed and all administration fees, allowances and expenses became a charge against the council.

Through this legislation – with a series of minor adjustments – the government continues its hegemony of Aboriginal communities today.


Everyday life

Throughout the twentieth century thousands of people were taken from their extended families and country and deported to reserves where children were commonly separated from parents and siblings and confined in dormitories.  These were characteristically dilapidated and pathologically overcrowded, with inadequate food and clothing, extreme discipline and substandard facilities.  Occasional visits to family and friends were insufficient to foster normal bonding, family socialisation, or family responsibilities.  Boys were commonly evicted from the age of 14 ‘to live with anybody who will have them’; in some institutions girls were trapped for life except for contracted external employment or marriage.  They were then expected to survive in social conditions bereft of basic experience of the domestic and familial normality which authorities insisted they attain.

Women commonly had no income with which to purchase utensils and cleaning products, their child endowment and pensions were raided by the government, their husbands’ wages intercepted by superintendents and subjected to multiple deductions.  Until the end of the 1960s, many residents never had access to their savings and never had cash for purchases, but were commonly given vouchers to use at the community store which were poorly stocked and operated on profit margins up to 40 per cent.  And always, in these institutional environments of abject destitution and systemic neglect, there was the fear of having your children taken from you and put in the dormitory.

Only in 1968 did the government substitute rations with a wage economy – at 20% below the dole.  Yet store prices were far higher than rural towns and food deliveries erratic; pensioners complained they could not survive on the fraction they received; lack of food or cash for lunches sent school absenteeism soaring; surveys revealed scandalous levels of malnutrition and disease.1

Community workers never received full wages despite legal advice to the government in 1979 confirming the imperatives of the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act.  Indeed the government refused to budget for inevitable increases, instead sacking over 1500 employees in the decade to 1986, driving unemployment to over 92 per cent.  The government was well aware of the pathological consequences of this policy, anticipating in 1979 that this high unemployment would bring ‘low morale and other adverse social manifestations including alcoholism’, and re-affirming in 1980 ‘the resultant and evident adverse social symptoms, including increased alcoholism, juvenile delinquency and crime.’2

These horrific outcomes blight communities today.  Gross overcrowding of increasingly dilapidated buildings intensifies domestic turmoil and a ‘floating populace’ of single males – separated, widowed, or unemployed – moving from home to home for varying lengths of time aggravates domestic relationships, depriving children of sleeping or eating facilities, and increasing the spread of infectious diseases.  These aimless and rootless men are prey to alcohol and violence – figures of ridicule without dignity, purpose or companionship.

Families pragmatically sacrifice stability and independence to available economic realities.  In 1979 a working husband, wife and 5 children lived on the community wage of $85 a week, while an unemployed husband, with wife and between 2 and 7 children on supporting parents benefit received between $104 and $141 a week.  A single unemployed male with a single unemployed partner each brought in benefits of $51.45, as did unmarried couples who did not live together openly.  Separated mothers received $98 a week plus a share of their partner’s income, either the dole or the wage.

Today’s figures will change that arithmetic, but not the impasse.  The dearth of fully-paid employment means that women with children are better off financially without an obvious male partner, and younger single mothers are better off financially not getting married at all.  Sole parent families now account for over one-third of Indigenous families, twice the rate in the non-Indigenous population.  Incomes are proportionately less than that of other Australian sole parent families, as are the gross incomes of households in which they live.3  Many sole parents are supporting a far wider group than the pension is intended for, raising the very real spectre of inter-generational poverty for children.  Recent research has confirmed that income support payments to Indigenous families are ineffectively delivered,4 in part because of the role of extended family in child care, high residential mobility among children and differing categorizations of ‘family’.

This destruction of families has occurred because the single-waged family unit is a less logical option than the fragmented welfare opportunities.  If the economic benefit attaches to the wage-earning parent or parents, then the nuclear household becomes the optimum financial unit.  Analysts maintain that the fundamental cause of the poverty of Indigenous families and their children is the employment status of the adults, of which low income is a symptom.5

Around 50 per cent of community workforces today are dependent on CDEP, or ‘work for the dole’.  CDEP continues the discriminatory wages policy which has operated on communities for around 100 years whereby Aboriginal workers are denied legal wage rates and have few sustainable jobs or career paths.  CDEP was introduced in Queensland in 1978 as a financial strategy to benefit the State and Federal governments, pursuant to the gazetting of Aurukun and Mornington Island as local government areas to pre-empt Federal self-management legislation.  Faced with payment of award wages to community workers, the premier threatened mass sackings and consequent blowouts in unemployment relief.  A deal was done to divert unemployment entitlements to the State through CDEP.  On these communities, local governments would be funded from private pensions which individuals could access only partially, according to how many hours they worked.

Work is often rationed at less than the equivalent to the unemployment benefit (the 1998 rate was $11.38 per hour6); only from 1987 could individuals choose to opt out of CDEP in favour of individual entitlements, although surveys revealed few did so,7 and only after ATSIC took over the CDEP scheme in 1990 could wives of low-income community workers also claim Family Allowance.  The funding pool is insufficient to cover a full workforce and women are routinely excluded, many relegated to pension dependence and boredom despite an eagerness to pursue paid labour.  The partial hours mean that men have too much slack time ‘to waste at the pub’, although the flexibility is an advantage to women with children.

The CDEP allotment is calculated on labour force numbers rather than occupational advancement, so there is little incentive in full time work and attendance is often erratic and effort marginal.  Elders warn this is deskilling the workforce and producing undisciplined and disinterested youth; parents despair that the meaningless work discourages pride or responsibility in the young.  CDEP tends to quarantine workers in mindless community maintenance, and people say they are tired of ‘playing with whipper-snippers’ instead of getting on-the-job training or the tuition in the literacy, numeracy or driving skills which could open pathways to meaningful employment.  Nevertheless this relatively valueless employment presents an attractive career option for many schoolchildren who quit early to enjoy the easy freedom and cash, a choice reinforced by the entrapment in CDEP of others who have completed training or even tertiary courses.8

There is no doubt Federal and State governments are profiting from this entrenched deprivation.  Even as CDEP was introduced on remaining Aboriginal communities in the late 1980s the Federal government expressed concern ‘that the CDEP is being used to prop up State Government functions’;9 indeed over 90% of CDEP employment is in public administration and community services which are, in all non-Indigenous communities, the responsibilities of State and local governments.  In some Indigenous communities up to 80% of CDEP funds, that is private pension entitlements, are supporting mainstream municipal services such as town and infrastructure maintenance.  Analysts argue this not only places unreal expectations on local CDEP performance, but it distorts eligibility of the communities for ‘appropriate compensatory subsidy’ through the Grants Commission.10  Analysts argue that the dynamic of CDEP as substitution funding (for what are elsewhere separately funded functions) allows other levels of government ‘to renege on their legitimate funding responsibilities.’  CDEP is also a far cheaper option for the Federal government than full payment of social security.11

Courtesy of this unconscionable contrivance the majority of Aboriginal community workers are paid less than their legal wage entitlement and the majority of Aboriginal community families are forced to struggle on less than the dole available to all non-Indigenous families.  Aboriginal communities are deprived of the local government funding which supports all remote non-Indigenous communities, none of which fund their municipal services through private pensions.  Only on Aboriginal communities is CDEP a substitution, rather than a supplement, for local government requirements.  Since at least 1979 State and Federal governments have known that Aboriginal community workers were entitled to award wages for their labour yet, for their own profit, they inflict this inequitable system on people whose poverty has been fatally entrenched through a century of social engineering.  And publicly question why Aboriginal families can’t better manage their lives.


Local government

Until DOGIT status, council independence was mainly cosmetic.  The department held power over dismissals, and managers influence over nominations; they sat in on all meetings, recorded the minutes, and forwarded annotated copies to head office, often with disparaging remarks.  For years all phone calls had to be made from the manager’s office, and regulations allowed for the reading of all incoming mail.

Similarly emasculated, an Aboriginal Advisory Council (AAC) set up after 1965 could only address issues raised by the director or the minister and had no power to initiate action.  In 1974 the AAC organised a briefing on forthcoming Federal anti-discrimination legislation prior to their State meeting.  The department brought the State meeting forward, secured a motion confirming State policy, and marshalled 23 identical telegrams from the Thursday Island office purportedly from individual chairmen expressing ‘concern for their future well-being’ if the Federal legislation overrode the Queensland Acts.12  The AAC lapsed soon after.  It was revived as the Aboriginal and Islander Commission (AIC) in 1976 ostensibly for community consultation, but the government vetoed any statutory status specifically to avoid accountability for AIC recommendations.13  The AIC was starved of funds and denied access to information or personnel other than departmental officers.

Under the 1984 legislation, the Aboriginal Co-Ordinating Council (ACC) and the Island Co-Ordinating Council (ICC) were set up to receive grants, enter into contracts, and establish and operate businesses for the ‘promotion, progress, development and well being’ of Aborigines or Islanders.  Politically, as always, they are confined to an advisory role.  In 1987, after the government had settled several under award wages cases out of court, the ACC passed a resolution that full wages for all communities should be backdated to June 1st 1986.  The government simply ignored the resolution.

As DOGITs were conferred from 1986, hospital, police and administrative buildings remained the province of the various departments, as did nearly all revenue-producing enterprises whose profits were absorbed into the Welfare Fund until 1993 and expended for many departmental costs.  The councils were thus predominantly dependent on rentals, alcohol profits, federal pensions and CDEP funding to cover municipal functions.  In 1988 minister Bob Katter Jnr argued that funds and self-management should be denied to councils who negotiated directly with federal agencies.’14

Community councils today continue to pay the price for decades of State government manipulation and fragmentary devolution of management.    Budgets calculated for DOGITs are based on what the department would have otherwise outlaid to run the local government functions,15 despite the obvious gross deficiencies over decades of both funding and local government amenities.  Indeed the massive infrastructure backlog on Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities has been assessed nationally at $2.5 billion.16

As a result of ineffective transitional support, described by the Public Accounts Committee in 1991 as ‘woefully inadequate’,17 there is a desperate need to import skills and expertise to compensate for depressed educational and practical experience.  Administration, law, finances, accounting, engineering and town planning are all specialist fields, but professional advice is not always available or affordable and importation is also highly costly financially, socially and culturally.  Yet Indigenous councils currently exercise functional responsibility for 59 local government operations, compared with only 34 for mainstream councils.

For every local government area – excepting Aboriginal communities and shires – local government grants are calculated by subtracting assessed revenue raising capacity from total expenditure need.  Since 1991/92, however, grants to these communities are reduced by almost two-thirds18 mainly because unemployment benefits (redirected through ATSIC as CDEP) are factored into revenue.  Effectively, council progress is restricted by pre-existing policies and hamstrung by funding which is arguably insufficient even to meet the provision of essential services.  No other small towns run their councils on unemployment benefits.  It is this parlous funding position which forces councils to rely so heavily on canteen revenue.  It is inconceivable that this grotesque travesty of human rights persists in the twenty-first century.

It is more than a decade since the Legislative Review Committee argued that all obstacles to equal participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander councils in local government should be removed from State legislation.  Yet directives still emanate largely from Brisbane, coordinated by ‘fly-in, fly-out’ visits and short-term local agents of consequent limited experience.  This operational and financial strangulation effectively degrades councils’ administrative capacities.  The Review Committee stressed the need for equity of service levels between Indigenous communities and on a par with non-Indigenous local government areas: effective self-management could not occur while council powers and their exercise are subject to government, ministerial or departmental veto.  Administrative, policy-making and program development costs should be factored into service provision funding, which should be organised in three to five year terms to enhance development planning.

It is almost two years since the ACC, in a detailed review, urged that all ‘protectionist’ residues be eradicated, and administration of local council legislation transferred from the ‘specialised’ observation of DATSIP to the standard parameters of the department of Local Government and Planning, alongside mainstream councils.  Councils have stated a preference for the ACC to be resourced as the primary provider of support services and to exercise a coordinating role with regard to services, training or advice provided by other agencies including solicitors, development consultants, enterprise feasibility studies, tourism, child welfare services and women’s issues.

This devolution of advice and agency is vital for Indigenous control of management at local level; fragmenting access to expertise diminishes individual participation in community processes.   At Aurukun, for instance, in the late 1980s the council and community facilities such as the post office, store and other agencies were predominately staffed by residents.  Yet such is the unsustainable complexity of requirements (currently there are at least 15 different health programs, 200 education programs and numerous economic development schemes19) that councils are increasingly forced to rely on non-Indigenous personnel.  Yet advisors and staff on many communities – due in large part to funding constraints – are not necessarily the best qualified, nor the most attitudinally-appropriate, candidates.

Governments continue to insist that imposition of non-Indigenous systems will somehow deliver greater independence for communities over their own affairs.  There is no historical basis for such a belief nor confidence in its logic: communities have no effective representation or advocacy within non-Indigenous systems which are characterised by different values, different cultural expectations, different legitimacies of authority, different aspirations.

After one hundred years, surely it is time to face the facts: governments have monumentally failed in their attempts at social engineering.  Big brother is an embarrassing – and dangerous – anachronism.  He must be evicted before he does any further damage.



1           Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Annual Report, 1970.

2           QSA TR254 1C/190 policy statement (circa November 1979); ibid, 10.1.80.

3           Daly, A. E. & Smith, D. E., ‘Indigenous sole-parent families: invisible and disadvantaged’, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) Discussion Paper, No 134/1997.

4           Finlayson, J.D. & Auld A.J., ‘Shoe or stew? Balancing wants and needs in indigenous households: a study of appropriate income support payments and policies for families.’  CAEPR Discussion Paper, No   182/1999.

5           quoted in ibid.

6           DATSIPD A0000881  COR/203:2.

7           Sanders, W, ‘The rise and rise of the CDEP scheme: an Aboriginal ‘workfare’ program in times of persistent unemployment’, CAEPR Discussion Paper, No 54/1993:7.

8           Henry, R, and Daly, A., ‘Indigenous families and the welfare system: The Kuranda community case study, Stage Two’, CAEPR Discussion Paper, No 216/2001.

9           DAIA 00007-006  6.8.1986.

10          Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, No Reverse Gear: A National Review of the Community Development Employment Projects Scheme, Report to ATSIC, May 1993:82.

11          Altman, G C and Daly A E, ‘The CDEP scheme: a census-based analysis of the labour market status of participants in 1986’, CAEPR Discussion Paper, No 36/1992:10, 15.

12          DAIA  RK:19, 4.12.74.

13          QSA TR254 1A/1252  1.9.76.

14          DAIA  01-038-012  June 1988.

15          Towards Self-Government, A discussion paper, August 1991:32.

16          ibid:34.

17          ibid:47.

18          ibid:33.

19          Martin, D, ‘Is welfare dependency “welfare poison”? An assessment of Noel Pearson’s proposals for Aboriginal welfare reform’, CAEPR Discussion paper No 213/2001.



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