Dr Ros Kidd Historian - Consultant - Writer
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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?
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
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.