State Controls of Aboriginal Families and Finances


For most of the twentieth century Aboriginal Queenslanders have been subjected to the most intensive state controls ever imposed on any sector of the Australian population.  Most of the communities on Cape York began in the nineteenth century as missions managed by church authorities, and a range of government-run settlements was established in the southern sector of the State.  All these institutions, since 1897, were subject to State government control. To understand present conditions it is necessary to understand how those controls operated.

The state’s bureaucracy dictated every aspect of personal and social life: right to marry, care of children, place of living, employment, supply of food, safety of water, provision of medical attention, schooling, housing, community amenities, policing and justice.  As wards of state, Aborigines taken under government control – numbering around half the state’s indigenous population – lost all rights to manage their own lives.

This brief historical background cannot do justice to the skill and determination required to maintain family life and transmit social, language and cultural traditions.  Nor can it adequately portray the will to prevail over personal and community adversity resulting from both well-meaning and prejudicial supervisory personnel and systems.

Today I’ll start with a brief overview of government controls, and then divide the information into two broad streams, firstly looking at life on the communities, and then conditions for people living in rural areas.  Please keep in mind that what you learn today about conditions in the 1970s and 1980s were the realities of life for many of the parents and grandparents of children you are teaching today.


Government controls

By 1897 around 2000 men and women were working on stations and towns around Queensland.  Most rural areas – including outback towns – would not have been developed without this labour force.  Payment was commonly in cast-off clothes, food scraps, or alcohol or opium dregs, dependency ensuring a captive, malleable workforce.  Support through the hunting skills of extended families was vital to survival.   Because of blatant abuses of existing laws Aboriginal individuals remained exposed to attack and exploitation.

Rather than enforcing or amending existing legislation, in 1897 the government enacted The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act which targeted only the Aboriginal half of the equation.  Now any person of Aboriginal descent, except mixed-race males over 16 years and living as Europeans, could be declared a ward of state and exiled to a reserve, losing rights and responsibilities regarding movement, marriage, children, education, employment and finances.  Without consultation or explanation, people found themselves ‘removed’ by local police to distant missions and reserves, or contracted out to employment.

The life of every Aboriginal Queenslander was now entirely dependent on official decree.  A network of police ‘protectors’ was appointed to monitor and record the actions and conduct of all families in their area 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.  It was officially conceded that in the dual police role of enforcement and protection, the second was frequently subordinated to the first.

By the time of the 1939 Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act the department’s empire extended over 3000 settlement inmates, 3500 on missions, 3500 in the Torres Strait and 7000 in ‘supervised camps’ on country reserves.  New legislation in 1965 supposedly liberated all Aborigines from these suffocating controls, except for those living on reserve communities who were deemed in need of continued State ‘assistance’ and were accorded permits to reside there.  By 1970 nearly all the northern communities were run by the government; and several had been peremptorily relocated, disregarding people’s determination to remain on their country.

The Aborigines Act of 1971 dropped the ‘assisted’ category but strengthened the permit system to cover visitors and residents, which the director still granted or cancelled.  The cash ‘training allowance’ – a standardised wage first introduced on reserves in 1968 – was now formalised, although deliberately excluded from any industrial award provisions.  Beer canteens could be established on reserves, and for the first time state police could be permanently stationed where necessary.  Only now, after almost 70 years, could these government-controlled workers have access and control over their property and savings accounts, unless, of course, a magistrate upheld an objection by the director as to their capacity to do so.

The 1984 Community Services Act empowered councils to make by-laws for ‘promoting, maintaining, regulating and controlling…the peace, order, discipline, moral safety, food supply, housing and welfare’ of their communities, although all by-laws required government approval and pre-existing by-laws (set by the department) were not revoked.  The Governor in Council – effectively the Cabinet – could overrule by-laws or dissolve the council, in which case an administrator was appointed and all his administration fees, allowances and expenses became a charge against the council.

During the late 1980s land on reserve communities was progressively transferred to control of community councils under Deeds of Grant in Trust (DOGITs), which are managed by them under the 1984 Community Services legislation.  It is this legislation – with a series of minor adjustments – that regulates the management of Aboriginal communities today.


Life on the reserve communities

The remedial intent of all government reserves – whether church-run missions or secular settlements – was compromised from the beginning by extreme under funding for the most basic necessities – food, shelter, medical care, clothing and amenities.  For their whole history hunger, drought, disease and destitution characterised these institutions which were, as chief protector John Bleakley conceded in 1919, ‘starved and crippled for want of adequate funds.’

In the mid-1920s a delegation from Mapoon mission complained to Bleakley that their children were starving because the superintendent would not allocate rations to seasonal workers during the off-season, even after their funds were exhausted.    The superintendent was forced to admit: ‘I have no means of buying tea, sugar, jam and medicines that are necessary for growing children.’1

Despite drastic shortages during WWII, the state government refused to allow Aboriginal citizens to be part of the national ration coupon system, thus intensifying wartime privation.  With the threat of invasion only a few people remained on the northern missions, others were dispersed to live ‘in the old ways’, and the superintendent reported that the children were fatter and healthier living ‘their own accustomed life.’  In 1946 conditions at Mapoon were described as ‘nauseating’; there were just 45 huts for 280 people.

By the early 1950s most of the church-run government institutions in the north had operated for between 50 and 70 years, yet a medical specialist reported that all mission diets (except for Doomadgee) were deficient, and housing universally deplorable, with families and animals commonly sleeping together on earthen floors.  Huts were so decrepit they were officially condemned, food shortages and contaminated water were the norm, especially at Aurukun where people were eating the cash crop of coconuts to survive.  Speaking of Aboriginal institutions generally, a visiting doctor said2 the habitual overcrowding was to be condemned.  Noting that often four or more people shared a bed he said it was miraculous that babies and toddlers survived infancy and childhood, especially given the noxious standard of nutrition.  In fact the two missions of Aurukun and Mapoon held in trust nearly $30,500 from levies from workers’ earnings, but the department refused to permit its use, except for development.

It is clear from documentary evidence that government controls have had a devastating impact on family life.  Since 1915 there had been an accelerated uptake of women and children into government control on missions and settlements, often because husbands and fathers were absent at (contracted) work; because of pregnancy, illness or hunger; or because, due to sex and age, they were considered at risk from assault.  Extended family networks or welfare support at the point of need, as for struggling white families, were not considered.  Separated from local families and country, children and women were separated again, and from each other, in the dormitories divided by age and sex.  Lockhart River did not operate these detention facilities, and for a period in the late 1950s, neither did Mapoon.

By the 1950s several generations of indigenous people had been ‘through’ the dormitory system.  For all of their history these were notoriously, sometimes fatally, deprived institutions – dilapidated, pathologically overcrowded, inmates underfed, poorly clothed, over-disciplined, barely resourced.   For decades the department accumulated evidence that children’s development was stunted by lack of stimulation and lack of purpose.  In the mid-1940s a State Health officer3 deplored the internment of girls without useful pursuits ‘to occupy their time and minds’, apart from cooking, sewing, cleaning and babysitting for other inmates or working in white staff houses.  Allowed only occasional visits to families, there was little or no experience of family bonding, family socialisation, family responsibilities; boys were simply evicted from the age of 14 ‘to live with anybody who will have them’.  ‘The system is wrong’, he reported, ‘and responsibility must be accepted [by the state] if these children become criminals.’

Tuberculosis specialist Dr F M Macken also abhorred the social perversity of the system:4

‘…the dormitory system is a thoroughly pernicious one, which must be broken down if these coloured women are to become properly adjusted to normal life.  It is completely futile and artificial and unnatural to enclose, or rather encage, women, and to expect any sort of normal psychological balance on their release.’

This institutionalisation was the only preparation available, from generation to generation, for girls who moved from the dormitories into mission communities through marriage.  Marriages had to be sanctioned by superintendents and these unions were often arranged by them.  On many communities the dormitory system still operated in the 1970s.

These girls and boys who were institutionally excluded from normalising family environments in their formative years had, as teenagers and adults, to survive in social conditions which precluded the most basic requirements of the domestic and familial normality which authorities insisted they attain.  Huts were rotting, dilapidated, not weatherproof, lacking running water, sanitation, fridges, stoves, cupboards, beds, tables and chairs.  Rundown shacks with leaking roofs and without ceilings or bathrooms often averaged over eight occupants, and were serviced by open, overflowing drains.  In any other situation these were precisely the conditions which would have prompted state intervention to remove children ‘for their own good’.

So deplorable was the sanitation, and so inadequate and frequently unsafe for consumption was drinking water, that all Aboriginal reserves during most of the twentieth century were subject to appalling levels of parasitic infestation, gastroenteritis, skin infections and diseases of malnutrition.  Even after 50 years, community ‘hospital’ facilities were commonly so inadequate and overcrowded that cross-infection, even to maternity patients, was frequent.  Qualified medical staff was so uncommon and fatalities so entrenched, that families labelled these places as places of death, and maintained their own medicinal routines.  Yet from the late 1940s it was a punishable offence to fail to send children for medical attention, fail to report ‘any sickness in the home or camp’, fail to report any disease or injury.   And always, in these institutional environments of abject destitution and neglect, there was the fear of having your children taken from you and put in the dormitory.

Successive reports acknowledged that mothers had no income with which to purchase utensils and cleaning products, and their husbands’ wages were under control of superintendents, subjected to multiple deductions by both the state and the mission.  Since 1942 the commonwealth had paid child endowment for all except ‘nomadic’ mothers.  This was intended as a supplement to optimise conditions for mothers and children, but the Queensland government intercepted these pensions, as they had done with maternity allowances since 1912, passing only a fraction to mothers and using the remainder to cover basic needs which were government liabilities.   This pension, which for all other Australian parents was a supplement to other income, became a substitute for state funding: the government simply slashed its annual grant to missions by an equivalent amount, reducing state input on some missions to only one-tenth of child endowment revenue, insufficient to cover basic rations and clothing needs for mission dependents.5

Until the end of the 1960s, many community residents had no access to their savings nor cash for purchases.  They were commonly given vouchers to use at community stores – until they were told their savings were exhausted, and then it was onto rations.   Even before aged, widows and invalid pensions were made available to Aboriginal people in the early 1960s the government was anticipating how they could be ‘diverted to revenue’,6 again planning to simply reduce state operational funding by an equivalent amount.  The full pension of around $83 (today) was several times greater than the current ‘wage’, so it was planned to pass on only around 12%, although people from the Presbyterian missions of Mapoon and Weipa demanded, and eventually received, 33%.

In this context of intercepted benefits it is sobering to read that when federally-funded Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) personnel made a detailed survey in 19697 of infant mortality on Aboriginal communities, they recorded death rates six times greater than for the rest of the state. Malnutrition was identified as the key factor in the deaths of 85% of infants under 4 and 50% of all children between 6 months and 3 years; it underlay chronic ear and chest infections, diminished antibody response, and impaired school and employment performances.  Half the deaths of neonates, and 47% of all child deaths between 1 and 16 years, resulted from gastroenteritis and/or pneumonia.  It was found that many mothers had no knowledge and few means of properly feeding young children; indeed malnutrition suffered by mothers was identified as a prime factor which ‘had surely contributed towards the deaths of children before 3 months of age and the lower number of mothers able to breast feed their babies.’

Further surveys in the mid-1970s confirmed the link between increasing fatalities and defective social indices: gastroenteritis, pneumonia, malnutrition and diarrhoea are illnesses of deprivation and defective environments.  Aurukun at that time had only one water tap to each 10 dwellings, and only 6 showers and 1 laundry for 650 people who were housed in huts so small and derelict it was said they should be burned. It was clear, as medical inspectors reported,8 that the massive infection loads on the communities ‘resulted from substandard living conditions’; they specified a base requirement of no overcrowding, better water reticulation, and proper housing with separate bathroom, kitchen and toilet facilities.  These remain largely unattainable on communities today.

The government’s own officials on the communities recognised that the extreme social deficiencies undercut political rhetoric towards ‘assimilation’ and made it ‘nearly impossible’ for children to develop to take their rightful place as citizens anywhere in Australia. Although parents made full use of medical options, extreme poverty underlay continual worm infestation despite regular treatment; homes were infested with vermin and cockroaches which crawled over food and into the ears of sleeping infants.  Children were sent to school but the illnesses of poverty ‘to a large extent wasted’ their education: continual ear infections caused deafness and lost school time; school time was lost when parents took kids to outpatients or hospital treatment for scabies, school sores and other infections, as well as for malnutrition; school time was lost during regular clinic treatments for worms and head lice.  The cost to child health and psychology was horrifying:9

you have a child that is continually being smothered with Benzyl Benzoate, Gentian Violet or numerous other ointments, stuffed with tablets of various kinds, injected with anti-biotics, continually nauseated with worm control syrup and inhaling the fumes of the hydro-carbon DDT which must remain in their hair for hours to control head lice…how can we expect them to learn their school work at the same rate as white children and grow into worthwhile citizens?’

Children were in fact paying the price of life in a poverty-stricken environment.  The 15 most deprived homes on one community housed 210 adults and children (half with over 14 people); none had a hot water system (without which, noted the hygiene officer ‘a reasonable hygiene standard cannot be obtained’ – his emphasis).  ‘Can one eat a meal either standing up or sitting on the floor, not for one meal a day but every day…and still develop satisfactorily?’, he asked.

While the rations system had entrenched poverty and deadened employment initiative on the communities, the introduction of starvation wages from 1968 dramatically altered community dynamics at the root – it forced the reconfiguration of the social fabric.  As individuals and families weighed their options to maximise financial access the carefully nurtured ideal of the nuclear family was exploded, as one 1979 report reveals.10  A working husband, wife and 5 children depended on the ‘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.  Either way, concluded the liaison officer, women with children were better off financially without an obvious male partner, and younger single mothers were better off financially not getting married at all.

The effects of these financial dynamics devastated family cohesion.  As the report observed, most community households had no male figurehead, and middle-aged men were evicted with no home to go to, moving from relative to relative, a large floating population of aimless and rootless individuals, easy prey to alcohol and violence.  The cost to the men?  ‘Loss of dignity, purpose in life, companionship, home life, a figure of ridicule whether working or unemployed, resulting in abuse of alcohol, loss of ambition and total lack of responsibility.’  While most women’s conditions had improved, especially for older women who had gained confidence, there was a loss of companionship and for some a loss of dignity in rejecting husbands in order to protect their pensions.  Many younger women, without a domestic base, had become promiscuous and irresponsible.

For the children, the break-up of the family unit was devastating: for many, father figures were no longer at home, young mothers were out drinking, older women were visiting for companionship.  Children who had previously enjoyed a multiplicity of ‘mothers’, ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ now lost this consistent network of carers.  Where previously they had roamed freely and safely on the communities, now their environments – both domestic and outdoors – were increasingly fraught with danger.  Bereft of safe havens many roamed the streets till late at night.  The result? ‘…absenteeism from school, aggravated by a future of unemployment, early pregnancies by young girls seeking a stable relationship, someone to love them, and abuse of alcohol at all levels as a substitute for things lacking in their lives.’

But one can argue it is not simply easy welfare money that was destructive to the Aboriginal communities.  With regard to income, the destruction occurred because the single-waged family unit was a less logical option than the fragmented welfare opportunities.  If we extrapolate to the general community the crux is the (deliberate and intentional) depreciation of the community wage compared to welfare benefits.  If the economic benefit had attached to the wage-earning parent or parents, then the nuclear household becomes the optimum financial unit.  (And I’ll be looking more closely at CDEP later in the paper.)

To manage a household of several generations numbering more than 20 persons in a small three-bedroomed house is to wage a losing battle against order and dirt.  There is no room for chairs and beds; mattresses on the floor are shared by several people and serve for bedding, seating and dining.  Even where space and income allows it, some communities have no retail access to bed bases and lounges.  Residents on communities seek ways to overcome this systemic deprivation.  A recent trial of family income management at Aurukun enabled several families to group together to finance larger items of furniture and white goods.

Undermanned, under-resourced and financially deprived communities are the legacy of 80 years of monopoly management.  This was the inheritance of councils as they took over local government functions in the late 1980s.  The overcrowding and multiple-family tenancy of today is a direct result of funding and policy decisions implemented over many decades which have entrenched poverty and an insufficiency of dwellings.  Social mobility and extended family living are not indices of a cultural preference for multi-generational domesticity; a study in 200111 revealed families would prefer separate ‘nuclear’ homes.   Overcrowding increases household conflict and the greater wear and tear on homes increases maintenance costs which in turn reduces funding available for house construction.  It impacts on children’s school attendance and impedes their ability for home study and scholarly progress; this in turn militates against access to the formal labour market.


Rural living

In 1901 the government assumed the power to manage the property of all Aborigines under its control, including possession, retention, sale or disposal of that property.  Under new regulations brought down in 1919 all wages of rural workers went directly to government control, while community workers remained unpaid.  Wages in the pastoral industry, the foremost employer of Aboriginal labour, were pegged at two-thirds the white rate, and remained so into the late 1960s.  The wages of every worker were now paid directly to the local protector or superintendent.  Minimum conditions were set for Aboriginal employees although for the next 50 years most pastoral stations were never inspected to ensure their enforcement.  The norm was to work extreme hours, surviving on poor-grade food, sleeping in open-sided lean-tos and lacking clean water and basic sanitation.  Physical abuse and sexual assault of both boys and girls was common.  To complain to the protector commonly brought allegations of lying, deviousness or the ‘cheekiness’ which routinely resulted in being ‘taught a lesson’.  And always there was the threat of being deported to a government reserve, separated forever from family and country.

Because of entrenched frauds by police protectors, the government centralised all savings in Brisbane in 1933.12  By this time Aboriginal wealth in government control amounted to over $15 million (today), yet no family would have dreamed of this wealth as they struggled in abject poverty, denied control of their own accounts or even knowledge of their bank balances.  Families had to go cap in hand to local protectors to request permission to make small withdrawals, and were frequently rejected.

People were well aware they were working for a pittance.  Although ‘pocket money’ was supposed to be paid during the work period, many people today remember they were never given cash, just tobacco, matches and perhaps some old clothes.  In the 1940s the Coen protector described the system as ‘farcical’, effectively a subsidy for employers.  Right through until the late 1960s the department was aware of widespread doctoring of pocket money books by employers, yet did nothing to change the system.  Not even the base pay rate – set in 1919 at 66% the white wage – was secure, the department failing to adjust for award increases in every year from 1931-1951: in 1949, for instance, contracted workers were paid only 31% of the white wage.  This massive failure to secure endorsed wage rates stripped millions of dollars from Aboriginal earnings, and directly impacted on the likelihood of receiving permission to make purchases from private savings.

Massive separate trust funds were built from deductions from private savings, deductions which workers neither knew nor consented to.  Successive internal inquiries reveal how readily these trust monies were misused to cover government costs, while legitimate disbursement – to the unemployment fund or to the deceased estates fund – was often grossly deficient.  On many occasions money was simply taken out of accounts of those who lived on rural reserves, to cover costs of fencing, shelter and amenities – all legitimate government expenses.

Government management of Aboriginal savings was endemically incompetent.  Decade after decade evidence of fraud and negligence mounted, from as early as 1904 when thumbprints were initiated to reduce theft by both employers and police protectors, to the mid-1960s when auditors re-iterated that no checks had ever been implemented to ensure Aboriginal wages were either accurately paid or securely banked.  Public service inspectors in 193213 described frauds as both common and entrenched, despite third-party ‘witnesses’.  And they were not the last to suggest that only Aboriginal access to private accounts would stem illegalities; non-disclosure, they said, left these accounts more vulnerable to fraud than any other government accounts.  Yet the government refused to give workers this basic right.

It was only after the 1971 Aborigines Act that people could request termination of official management of their property.  Only then could they finally access their private savings and control their own property, barring objection from the director upheld by a magistrate as to their competency to do so.  No training was given in budgeting or financial management; indeed many people found little was left in their accounts despite decades of work.  For the first time also, people could not be arbitrarily transferred to and between reserves as a disciplinary measure.

Only after gazettal of the 1972 regulations did Aboriginal workers finally win equal wages and freedom of movement, still excepting of course those deemed in need of ‘assistance’, a category which automatically included all those who were based on reserves.  ‘For the first time’, reported the department’s Coen manager,14 ‘men did not have to go to a station if they did not want to…if they feel they have not been fairly treated, or have not been paid’.  Workers were no longer ‘owned’ by particular stations which frequently put them off in slack times in breach of long term contracts, ‘to leave their men simply sit in the reserve until they needed them’.  Elderly family members, and wives who had been compelled to work for free on the stations (supposedly limited to 12 hours per week) could now also refuse exploitation.  As the Coen manager reported: ‘Pensioners are coming in to sit down, this is hitting the stations, and most of the women will not now go out as they never got pay only food.’  Pastoralists were angry, he wrote: ‘there was a lot of local tension to put it very mildly’.

Indeed the early 1970s was a period of massive upheaval for Aboriginal pastoral workers.  Many were laid off when award wages became mandatory, others were displaced because of increasing mechanisation in the industry, and the severe downturn due to international competition.  For many Aboriginal people in the north, this is remembered as the most destructive in living memory.15 

In the late 1970s a deal was done between the State and Federal coalition governments to use bulk private welfare payments to fund local government administration on two northern communities.  It was anticipated that diverting unemployment entitlements to the state through CDEP (Community Development Employment Program) would mean most people ‘would be retained in employment and would make a valid and useful contribution by way of work for a cash return.’16  Initially the Queensland government opposed this option for all the Aboriginal communities, primarily because it was the community councils which received the bulk payment, decided the projects, and disbursed the wages.  When the remaining Aboriginal communities were accorded a degree of self-management under Deeds of Grant in Trust (DOGITs) during the late 1980s, councils were informed their local government liabilities would be funded through CDEP, that is, bulk unemployment entitlements dispensed through the federal department of Aboriginal Affairs.

Through CDEP employees could access only a portion of their unemployment entitlement, never the whole, according to how many days they worked.  CDEP thus continues the discriminatory wages policy which has characterised government controls for around 100 years.  Aboriginal workers are thereby denied legal wage rates, have no sustainable jobs and no career paths; consequently there is little incentive in full time work, attendance is often erratic and effort marginal.  Aboriginal families are trapped below the poverty line; work is often rationed at less than the equivalent to the unemployment benefit (the rate in 2001 was $11.38 per hour).  Only from 1987 could individuals choose to opt out of CDEP in favour of individual entitlements, although surveys revealed few did so,17 and only after ATSIC took over the CDEP scheme in 1990 could wives of low-income community workers also claim Family Allowance.

There is no doubt federal and state governments are profiting from this entrenched deprivation: CDEP is a far cheaper option for the federal government than full payment of social security, and even as the program was introduced on all Aboriginal communities in the late 1980s the federal government was expressing concern ‘that the CDEP is being used to prop up State Government functions’.18  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.19

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.

Community elders are concerned that the CDEP predication on labour force numbers rather than occupational advancement is deskilling the workforce and producing undisciplined and disinterested youth.  CDEP tends to quarantine people in mindless community maintenance, and parents despair that such work does not encourage pride or responsibility in the young.  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.20

Indeed recent studies21 show household dependency on welfare payments is a recipe for precarious domestic economies.  The boom-to-bust cycle of the pension period precludes the establishment of workable household budgets.  For most Aboriginal households budgetary choices are a matter of prioritising between the material needs of children and the daily demand for food. Surveys show that Aboriginal families spend proportionally more of their incomes on staples such as meats, bread, cereal and sugar than does the non-indigenous population, and less on dairy products, fruit and vegetables.  But income is so meagre that, after food purchases, few can afford service provision.  A major factor also is access and availability; many remote communities are poorly serviced in terms of fresh produce, there is no option to shop at cheaper stores or take advantage of discount prices, transport is not widely available to women, and the poorest households lack storage and refrigeration.

Sole parent families now account for over one-third of indigenous families, twice the rate in the non-indigenous population.22  Incomes are proportionately less than that of other Australian sole parent families, as are the gross incomes of households in which they live. Like other income recipients, sole parents, predominately young women, struggle to quarantine this cash from the general demands of extended family, and the ‘humbugging’ of those who claim a cut of the payment.  Recent analysis suggests 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 by the federal department of Family and Community Services23 has confirmed that income support payments to indigenous families are ineffectively delivered, in part because of the role of extended family in child care, high residential mobility among children and differing categorizations of ‘family’.  Many older women care for grandchildren without formal financial assistance; others will take and provide long-term care for children from the community who seek food, a safe sleeping place, protection and comfort.  It is not unusual for younger women in receipt of parenting allowances to continue receipt of the pension although their children are cared for by others; for cultural or personal reasons, however, many carers are disinclined to notify Centrelink of their entitlement to the pension, instead carrying the extra financial burden.

Analysts maintain that the most important factor in the poverty of indigenous families and their children is the employment status of the adults; poverty rates for families where there are no employed adults are very high for both indigenous and non-indigenous families.  They conclude that low income is ‘a symptom of poverty rather than a fundamental cause.  The fundamental cause continues to be the lack of meaningful employment.’ 24

It is apparent that far too many indigenous families struggle in welfare-based households and are further penalised by poor housing, high rates of unemployment and consequent domestic poverty.  These factors have significant immediate and long term impacts on the capacity of families to secure the well being of their children.


1        Presbyterian Archives, Correspondence Heathen Missions, 14.12.25.

2       Queensland State Archives (QSA) TR254 4D/20  14.3.47.

3       QSA TR254 3D/8  13.7.45.

4       QSA TR254  3D/23  30.3.50.

5       Presbyterian Archives, Mission Correspondence, 27.1.42.

6       QSA TR254 1A/467  April 1959, memo.

7       QIMR Annual Report, 1970, ‘Report on Health of Aboriginal Children on Queensland Settlements and Missions, 1967-1969’.

8       DAIA  1A/819  3.9.68.

9       QSA TR254 15D/12  10.1.74.

10       DAIA  01-084-029  5.7.79, ‘A Study of the Effect of Social Change on an Aboriginal Community’, written by C Farren.

11       Henry, R, and Daly, A., ‘Indigenous families and the welfare system: The Kuranda community case study, Stage Two’, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) Discussion Paper, No 216/2001.

12       QSA A/58856  15.3.33.

13       QSA A/58856  9.11.32, Report on the Inspector of the Office of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals.

14       QSA TR254 9L/57  1.5.74.

15       Sutton, P, ‘The Politics of  Suffering: Indigenous Policy in Australia since the Seventies’, proposed paper for Anthropological Forum, 11:2, November 2001.

16       DAIA  01-007-006  22.3.79.

17       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.

18       DAIA 00007-006  6.8.1986.

19       Altman, J C and Sanders W, ‘The CDEP scheme: administrative and policy issues’, CAEPR Discussion Paper, No 5/1991:9.

20       Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, No Reverse Gear: A National Review of the Community Development Employment Projects Scheme, Report to ATSIC, May 1993:52.

21       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.

22       Daly, A. E. & Smith, D. E., ‘Indigenous sole-parent families: invisible and disadvantaged’, CAEPR Discussion Paper, No 134/1997.

23       Finlayson & Auld, op cit.

24       quoted in ibid.


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