Government Policy in relation to Aboriginal People- nsw

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Government Policy in relation to Aboriginal People- NSW

Since the European invasion until very recently, government policy relating to Aboriginal people has been designed and implemented by non-Aboriginal people. The common justification for most policies for Aborigines was that they were "for their own good". There have been policies of protection, assimilation, self-determination and reconciliation. It is now clear that none of these policies have actually made the condition of Australia’s Indigenous people any better than it was prior to the invasion.

When the six Australian colonies became a Federation in 1901, white Australia believed that the Aborigines were a dying race and the Constitution made only two references to them. Section 127 excluded Aborigines from the census (although heads of cattle were counted) and Section 51 (Part 26) gave power over Aborigines to the States rather than to the Federal Government. This was the situation until the referendum of 1967 when an overwhelming majority of Australians voted to include Aborigines in the census of their own country.

This extract from the Australian Constitution 1900 shows Section 127 before it was repealed in 1967
(The Law Reports. Public General Statutes. Vol 38. London 1900)

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In 1902, women in NSW were granted the right to vote, but this did not apply to Aboriginal women. And when compulsory voting was introduced in NSW in 1929, Aboriginal people were still excluded from voting under the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. In 1962, the Federal Government gave Aborigines the optional right to vote. State laws, however, still classified "natives" as "wards of the state" and as such they were denied the right to vote in State elections.

In 1881, George Thornton MLC was appointed the first NSW Protector of Aborigines. Under the NSW Aborigines Protection Act 1909-1943, this position was abolished and replaced by the Aborigines Protection Board. This became the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board in 1943. The Board administered government policy, dictating where Aborigines could live and work, their freedom of movement, their personal finances and their child rearing practices.

The NSW Aborigines Welfare Board controlled Aboriginal lives until the 1960s, pursuing policies that are now acknowledged as having contributed to the destruction of Aboriginal families and society by separating children from their parents. These children became known as ‘the stolen generations’ and are still searching for their families. They now number between 15,000 and 20,000 in NSW alone. During the First World War, some four to five hundred Aboriginal people enlisted in the armed forces. During this time, the State government continued to remove Aboriginal children from their families, including youngsters whose fathers were serving overseas.

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An official commemoration and wreath-laying for Aboriginal servicemen held at the War Memorial, Hyde Park, with the Governor’s Rolls Royce in the background. Undated.
(Australian Photographic Agency - 31662, State Library of New South Wales.)

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The NSW Aborigines Protection Act subsumed a number of previous Acts, including the 1867 law prohibiting alcohol being sold to Aborigines. It also provided for Aborigines of "mixed blood" to be issued with Certificates of Exemption, releasing them from the provisions of the Act and its regulations. These certificates, commonly known as "dog tags", came at a price as individuals were forced to relinquish family connections. They were not allowed to visit their own families and were gaoled if caught doing so. Many of those who travelled to Sydney needed an exemption certificate to allow them to work. When they wanted to return home for family business like funerals, they had to get written permission from the Manager of the station or mission to do so. The Welfare Board saw the increase in the number of certificates issued as proof of the success of its assimilation policy.

The Board’s policy was based on a belief that "protection" of Aborigines would lead to their "advancement" to the point where they would eventually fit into the white community. Protection and segregation policies were enforced until the1940s, when they were replaced with policies of assimilation and integration. Features of the administration of the Board included the implementation of the assimilation policy, and, from 1950/51, the movement of Aboriginal people to stations where they could be prepared for absorption into the general community.

The policy of assimilation meant individual families were persuaded to share the life in the towns with whites. Earlier government policies had relocated Aborigines from their homelands to reserves. The assimilation policy aimed at breaking up these reserves and "encouraging" people to give up seasonal and casual work, replacing this with regular work for wages (which remained unequal). The stations were considered as "stepping-stones to civilisation".

The Aborigines Welfare Board of NSW consisted of 11 members, with two positions designated for Aborigines, one "full-blood" and one having "a mixture of Aboriginal blood". The amendment to the Aborigines Protection Act in 1911 established Kinchela Boys Home and Cootamundra Girls Home for Aboriginal children removed from their families. In these homes, Aboriginal children were taught farm labouring and domestic work, many of them ending up as servants in the houses of wealthy Sydney residents.

This photograph of Aboriginal boys on a tractor at Kinchela Boys Home in 1959 shows that they were not expected to aim higher than the work of a farm hand.
(National Archives of Australia: A1200, L31986, 'Aboriginal boys on a tractor, Kinchela 1959')

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While espousing the benefits of assimilation to Aboriginal people, the policy still denied their basic rights, even in the 1960s. It stopped them from raising their own children, stopped freedom of movement, having access to education, receiving award wages, marrying without permission, eating in restaurants, entering a pub, swimming in a public pool or having the right to vote.

The Aborigines Act of 1969 abolished the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board and Aboriginal children then became wards of the State. The Welfare Board’s functions were transferred to the Department of Child Welfare and Social Welfare. This later became the Department of Youth and Community Services, which created the Directorate of Aboriginal Welfare. In 1975, the Commonwealth Government took over many of the functions and records of the Directorate of Aboriginal Welfare, which then became the Aboriginal Services Branch. The Department’s name was changed in 1988 to Family and Community Services and in 1995 to Community Services.

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Aborigines march from Redfern to Parliament House on 13 August 1980 to demonstrate support for the recommendations on land rights by the NSW Parliamentary Select Committee upon Aborigines.
(Goorialla: Official Organ of Operation Aborigine, Summer 1980/81. © Co-operative for Aborigines Ltd. If this image is reproduced in any other form, please acknowledge the Tranby Aboriginal College Archives, 13 Mansfield St, Glebe, NSW, 2037)

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The NSW Land Rights Act 1983 was another important milestone. The dispossession of Aboriginal people from their land is acknowledged in the Act’s preamble, which states:

  • Land in the State of New South Wales was traditionally owned and occupied by Aborigines:

  • Land is of spiritual, social, cultural and economic importance to Aborigines;

  • It is fitting to acknowledge the importance which land has for Aborigines and the need for Aborigines of land:

  • It is accepted that as a result of past government decisions the amount of land set aside for Aborigines has been progressively reduced without compensation.

A three-tiered system of Aboriginal Land Councils (State, regional and local) was established under this Act. The Metropolitan Land Council’s Offices are in the old "Day of Mourning" Site in Elizabeth Street and the NSW State Land Council is located at Parramatta. There are 120 Local Aboriginal Land Councils in NSW and 13 Regional Land Councils.

The NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) was formed on 4 April 1995 (replacing the former Office of Aboriginal Affairs) and is recognised as the leading advocate and representative voice of Aboriginal affairs at both State and community level. The rhetoric has shifted to one of encouraging partnerships with the Aboriginal community and NSW Government service providers. The functions of DAA are determined by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and conform to the directions and requirements of the NSW Government. In partnership with the Cabinet Office, DAA provides an executive service to the Cabinet Committee on Aboriginal affairs, which sets the direction of Government programs.

On a national level, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) is Australia’s national policy making and service delivery agency for Indigenous people. It is an independent Commonwealth authority established under the ATSIC Act. ATSIC has offices in all States and Territories and advises the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, while delivering programs to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

ATSIC is governed by elected Regional Councils and power over decisions about policy making and funding is held by a Board of Commissioners representing their local communities.

In relation to the past administration of Aboriginal affairs, it should be recognised that Aboriginal people have continuously resisted the imposition of much of this government legislation. The official records reflect this opposition and contain letters written by Aboriginal people seeking to recover their land, to receive the right to vote, to have their children returned, to receive citizenship rights and so on.

The march for Aboriginal land rights ends at the forecourt of the NSW Parliament House on 13 August 1980
(Goorialla: Official Organ of Operation Aborigine, Summer 1980/81. © Co-operative for Aborigines Ltd. 
If this image is reproduced in any other form, please acknowledge the Tranby Aboriginal College Archives, 13 Mansfield St, Glebe, NSW, 2037)

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Aboriginal Protection Act 1869 (Vic)


This document made Victoria the first Colony to enact a comprehensive scheme to regulate the lives of Aboriginal people. This Act gave powers to the Board for the Protection of Aborigines which subsequently developed into an extraordinary level of control of people's lives including regulation of residence, employment, marriage, social life and other aspects of daily life.


Victoria enacted this law to regulate the lives of Aboriginal people at the same time as democratic reforms were being achieved in Britain and the Australian colonies. These reforms included extending the right to vote to all men, not just the wealthy, and measures such as free public education. For Aboriginal people, however, there was no such progress. The powers this Act gave to the Board for the Protection of Aborigines developed into controls over where people could live, where they could work, what kinds of jobs they could do, who they could associate with and who they could marry.

In 1886 in a further Act, Victoria also initiated a policy of removing Aboriginal people of mixed descent from the Aboriginal stations or reserves to merge into white society. The Board refused assistance to those it expelled from the reserves. This effective separation of communities and family members caused distress and protest. People like Bessy and Donald Cameron, who lived on the reserve at Ramahyuck (Lake Tyers), fought to stay together after Victoria's 'half-caste' Act made this unlawful in 1886.

The policy of excluding so-called 'half-castes' assumed that numbers of Aboriginal people on the reserves would decline, so that reserves could be reduced and eventually closed down. The inadequacy and inhumanity of the policy and legislation led to the Aborigines Act 1910 (Vic) and the Aboriginal Lands Act 1970 (Vic).


detail showing the title page of the aboriginal protection act 1869 (vic).

Detail showing the title page of the Aboriginal Protection Act 1869 (Vic).

Long Title:

An Act for the Protection and Management of the Aboriginal Natives of Victoria.

No. of pages:



Waxy paper


35.7 x 41.3 cm


Parliament of Victoria


It is tied with a green silk ribbon and stamped with the red seal of the Parliament. This is the Clerk of Parliaments Assent copy of the Act.

Location & Copyright:

Parliament House Victoria


33 Vic. No. 349

aboriginal protection act 1869 (vic), p1

aboriginal protection act 1869 (vic), p2

aboriginal protection act 1869 (vic), p3

Paternalism and Protection

Although the 'frontier' period of Australian history can be viewed in the terms of war, there were also many white settlers who were appalled at the treatment of the Indigenous people and wanted to help them. Some of those who tried to help were government officials, others were Christian missionaries. These people truly believed that the Aboriginal people needed their help and without it they would die out. Their somewhat misguided attempts to help the Indigenous people are known as 'paternalism'. Paternalism means looking after someone and taking care of their interests because they cannot do it themselves. Instead of hunting down Aboriginal people and murdering them, government policy changed to treat them as if they were children who had to be protected.

Charles Darwin's theories on evolution and survival of the fittest were wholly accepted by the settlers. They believed that Aboriginal people were weaker and inferior because of the colour of their skin. They judged the Aboriginal peoples by their own European standards and decided that they were primitive and uncultured. They refused to recognise or understand that the Indigenous people had a highly-developed culture and a traditional way of life that was just different from theirs. They saw it as their duty, as the superior, white race, to protect what was left of the Aboriginal peoples before they died out. See image 1

They became convinced that the 'black races' had to die out, and so they thought they could make that process better for Aboriginal people by placing them on government reserves or in church missions where they could die in peace. This new approach to Aboriginal affairs was known as 'Protection' policy. Unfortunately like many other initiatives to help Indigenous people, the protection policy did not protect their freedoms or their way of life - it only helped to further destroy them. See image 2

From the time they first arrived in Australia the white settlers had attempted to 'civilise' the Indigenous people. Making them wear clothes and attend church was only the start of it. The Native Institute was set up in 1814 by Governor Macquarie to educate Aboriginal people in the European way. Like Governor Phillip had tried with Bennelong and Colebee over 30 years before, Macquarie believed that if you educated some of the Indigenous population then they would take back what they had learned to their community. The Native Institute was never very popular with Indigenous people and was closed down by the 1830s.

An early example of protection policies and how they were misguided is the fate of the Indigenous Tasmanians. By the 1820s the effect of the frontier war in Tasmania had been devastating on the Indigenous population of the island. The local officials came up with the plan of confining the surviving Aboriginal people to islands off the coast, both for their own protection and to make it easier for the white settlers. Aboriginal people were convinced to move onto the islands off the Tasmanian coast by a well-meaning young Methodist preacher called George Robinson. Robinson believed that the Aboriginal people would die out unless they moved and he convinced them of this. By 1847 the remnants of a number of Tasmanian Aboriginal groups were living on Flinders Island north of Tasmania. Their numbers totalled only just over 200. Robinson truly believed that he was doing the right thing by them, but far from living a free, traditional way of life, the Indigenous Tasmanian people were now living under guard, forced to wear clothes and learn Christianity. By 1847 all but 47 of them had died from disease and despair. The last of them, a woman named Truganini, died in 1869. Genocide (the killing of an entire race of people) had taken place in Tasmania at first because of the frontier war, but also as a result of the new protection policies. See animation

In the 1830s, the British government said that more had to be done to protect the Aboriginal people from the white settlers. In 1838 four 'protectorates' were set up in Victoria to prevent any further mistreatment of Aboriginal people in the Port Philip area (near modern-day Melbourne). George Robinson and four other men were made 'protectors' and were given the very large sum of 20 000 pounds to spend on learning more about Aboriginal people. The protectorates set aside land for Indigenous people to stay on to be safe from white aggression, but they were not very successful in the long term. The scheme was eventually abandoned a few years later when the plans to educate and civilise the Aboriginal people had not worked. The scheme never received much support from the white settlers, either. They resented the money that was spent on the protectorates and they also resented that good farming land was given over to Aboriginal people.

As with many other of these paternal schemes to 'improve' the lives of Indigenous people, the instigators of the idea did not take into account the fact that Aboriginal people saw nothing wrong with their way of life. They had lived in complete harmony with the land for thousands of years. The only reason they were struggling now was because of the white settlers stealing their land.

After the failure of the protectorates, the next government initiative to 'protect' the Aboriginal people was the establishment of reserves. A reserve was an area of land set aside for Aboriginal people to live on. The first reserves were set up outside Sydney in 1816 as areas where Aboriginal people could farm land and grow their own food. But as the white farmers began to move into the area, Aboriginal people were moved off it and pushed onto land that was not as good. In the 1850s, the idea of reserves was adopted by the colony's governors as a way of easing the suffering of Aboriginal people. By this time disease and the frontier war had so decimated the Indigenous population of Australia that it was believed Aboriginal people were dying out. The reserves were seen as places for them to die in peace and comfort.

The reality was that the Indigenous population did not die out, it began to grow again. On the reserves they were now safe from attacks by white settlers, but this safety came at the price of independence. Although Aboriginal people did initially have some freedom of movement in the reserves, their traditional way of life was eroded as they became more and more dependant on white handouts just to survive. In the past they would have been able to move on to allow the food supplies in an area to regenerate. That was no longer possible. As the traditional way of life died out, Indigenous people were relying on white flour rations, rather than finding their own food.

In 1883 the Aboriginal Protection Board was set up to protect Aboriginal people and manage the reserves. Its main job was to hand out the food and clothing rations to the reserves, but the board eventually came to control the lives of all the Aboriginal people in New South Wales. Under the board's authority, thousands of people were moved from their homelands and put into reserves which were on land that had no spiritual connection for them. By 1894 there were over 114 reserves in New South Wales alone.

Like the reserves the church missions were established for the protection of Aboriginal people, but the missions also wanted to educate them on the 'Christian' way of life. The missions were run by many different churches, but they all had the same goal - to help turn Aboriginal people away from their 'pagan' way of life, towards Christianity. Like many of the people who wished to protect Aboriginal people, their attempts were well meaning, they truly believed that they were doing the right thing for the 'primitive natives'. What it meant for Aboriginal people was that they were denied the right to use their traditional names and languages on the Christian missions. In many cases their children were removed from them. The missionaries saw it as their duty to help Aboriginal people, but in trying to help they only hurt them more.

For many Aboriginal people who were starving and living in extreme hardship, they had no choice but to move on to a government reserve or into a church mission. By the end of the 19th century their way of life and their lands had been so destroyed by white settlement that they were now dependant on the government and the churches for their survival.

When soldiers began returning after the First World War, the government started giving away reserve land to the soldiers and their families to set up home. When the reserves closed, Aboriginal people could not go back to living off the land and they were forced into the towns and cities. As they were not wanted there by the white people, they became 'fringe dwellers', forced to live on the outskirts of the towns and cities.

Protection and segregation (1890s to the 1950s)

Indigenous survivors of frontier conflict were moved onto reserves or missions. From the end of the nineteenth century, various State and Territory laws were put in place to control relations between Aboriginal people and other Australians. Under these laws, protectors, protection boards and native affairs departments segregated and controlled a large part of the Aboriginal population. It has been estimated that the Aboriginal population during the 1920s had fallen to only about 60,000 from perhaps 300,000 or even one million people in 1788
Face the facts page 45

In June 1883 the Aborigines Protection Board was established. The Board, consisting of five men, controlled the lives of the 9000 or so 'full-blood' and 'part- Aboriginal' people who lived in New
South Wales. More reserves or stations were set up - by 1900 there were 133 of them. Maloga and Warangesda were taken over by the Board, and the people of Maloga subsequently moved to Cummera gunja. Missionaries were allowed to live on the reserves.

In 1909 the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Act was passed. This was to be the main legislation
governing the lives of Aboriginal people for the next 60 or so years, although it was amended many times according to changing government policies. The Act provided for all reserves and stations and
all buildings to be vested in the Board. The Board had the power to move Aboriginal people out of towns; to set up managers, local committees and local guardians (police) for the reserves; to control reserves; to prevent liquor being sold to Aboriginals; and to stop whites from associating with Aboriginals or entering the reserves.

Amendments to the Act in 1915 and 1918 allowed the Board to remove children from their parents for training, and to force 'half-castes' to leave the reserves. Young girls were sent to Cootamundra Girls
Home to train as domestic servants, and the boys to Singleton to train for service on farms. Kinchela Boys Home at Kempsey was established in 1924. The children in these institutions received almost no education and their labour was exploited. The effects on Aboriginal family life were devastating.

From the 1920s the policy became one of enforced assimilation for 'part- Aboriginals' as the Board tried to reduce the number of people on the reserves. In the 1930s people were shifted from one reserve to another, so that some reserves could be closed and the land leased to neighbouring white farmers, as happened at Tibooburra, Angledool and Carowa Tank.

The Aboriginal Welfare Board replaced the Aborigines Protection Board in 1940, but continued, under a 'new policy of assimilation', to close reserves and encourage people to move to town. In 1967
a Joint Committee of the two houses of State Parliament strongly endorsed these policies. The Committee also recommended that in due course all Aboriginal reserves should disappear. Such decisions totally demoralised the people still living on the reserves, who had come to regard them as
homelands. (The subsequent official neglect of these properties largely accounts for the poor conditions suffered by many Aboriginal people now living on former reserves.)

During the 1920s Aboriginal people began to lobby for the abolition of the Aborigines Protection Board in favour of a body with an all-Aboriginal membership. Several organisations were formed and were active
throughout the 1920s, '30s and '40s: the Australian Aborigines Progress Association, the Australian Aborigines League and the Aborigines Progressive Association. These organisations also fought for national citizenship for Aboriginals and full equality with other citizens, Some people also wanted a representative in the Commonwealth Parliament, Those involved in these activities in the 1930s came from all parts of New South Wales and Victoria. Among them were William Cooper (Cummeragunja), Bill Ferguson (Dubbo), Margaret Tucker and Douglas Nicholls (Melbourne), Jack and Selina Patten and Tom Foster (La Perouse), Pearl Gibbs (Brewarrina), Jack Kinchela (Coonabarabran) and Helen Grosvenor

In 1937, with the l50th anniversary of British settlement looming, Bill Ferguson, inspired by William Cooper, called the founding meeting of the Aborigines Progressive Association and set about

organising a conference in Sydney for 26 January 1938, It was called' A Day of Mourning and Protest',About 1000 Aboriginal men and women attended, Before the meeting a pamphlet' Aborigines claim citizen rights!' was written by Patten and Ferguson. This meeting was the culmination of ten years' action by New South Wales Aboriginals against the policies of the Aborigines Protection Board.

australia hall sydney 26 jan 1938

The following week, on 31 January 1938, a deputation of about 20 people presented the Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, with a proposed national policy for Aboriginals. They wanted Commonwealth control of all Aboriginal matters, with a separate Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs; an administration advised by a Board of six, at least three of whom were to be Aboriginals nominated by the Aborigines Progressive Association; and full citizen status for all Aboriginals and civil equality with white Australians, including equality in education, labour laws, workers compensation, pensions, land ownership and wages. Lyons replied that, under the Constitution, Commonwealth control was not possible.

These protests prompted the State Government to set up the New South Wales Parliamentary Select Committee of 1937 and the Public Service Board investigation of 1938 to look at mis-management and conditions on the reserves. Unfortunately, very little resulted from these investigations.

Aboriginal action continued. In February 1939 people at Cummeragunja went on strike; they left the reserve and camped on the other side of the Murray River in Victoria. Protest meetings were held in the Domain in Sydney. The movement for citizen rights continued into the 1960s. During the 'Freedom Rides' of 1965 students and Aboriginals protested against discrimination in certain New South Wales towns.

Source: Aboriginal Australia Aboriginal People of NSW

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