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After the 1937 Conference of Chief Protectors and Boards in Canberra, States began adopting policies designed to `assimilate' Aboriginal people of mixed descent.
Assimilation was a highly intensive process necessitating constant surveillance of people's lives, judged according to white man standards. Implicit in the assimilation policy was the idea that there was nothing of value in Aboriginal culture.
In 1939, John McEwen, the Minister responsible for the Northern Territory, proposed what he called a new deal for Aboriginal people based on economic and social assimilation. Under McEwen's new deal there would be greater government control over people of mixed descent, with the exception of those sufficiently versed in non-Aboriginal ways to apply for exemptions.
Mixed descent children were to be removed to government institutions or transferred to church missions, that would promote moral values, further aiding assimilation.
The aim of McEwen's policy was to raise the status of Aboriginal people so that they could qualify for the privileges and responsibilities of full citizenship. In addition, he wanted to meet their immediate physical needs and deal with health issues; to supply education and training for useful community services; and to promote civic and religious instruction. The church missions would play an integral role in the policy of assimilation.
Removal of Aboriginal children
In 1940, the NSW Board for the Protection of Aborigines was reconstituted under the Aborigines Protection (Amendment) Act and changed its name to the Aborigines Welfare Board.
The duties of the new Board ranged from apportion, distribute and apply moneys for the relief or benefit of Aboriginal people; assist in obtaining employment; maintain them whilst employed or otherwise to assist them to become assimilated into the general life of the community. The Board also had to provide for the custody and maintenance of Aboriginal children; manage and regulate the use of reserves; exercise a general supervision and care over all Aboriginal people and all other matters affecting their interests and welfare, to protect them against injustice, imposition and fraud.
It seemed, with little regard to the Aborigines Welfare Board’s duties, the NSW State Government was the first jurisdiction to reshape its Aboriginal child welfare system according to the assimilationist welfare model and after 1940, the removal of Aboriginal children was governed by the general child welfare law. Once removed, Aboriginal children were placed in State government institutions and church missions.
In 1941, Commonwealth child endowment was extended to ‘Aborigines who were not nomadic or dependent on government benefits’. The endowment was paid to the State government institutions and church missions rather than to the parents of the Aboriginal children.
The NSW Government, in response to the demands by the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA) for democratic rights, had two Aboriginal representatives elected to the Aborigines Welfare Board in 1943. The APA Secretary and candidate, William Ferguson easily won a place on the Board and started his appointment in 1944.
After WWII ended in 1945, a War Service Land Settlement Agreement between the Commonwealth and states, enabled returned service personnel access to land under soldier settlement schemes. Following the agreement, the states and the Commonwealth enacted solider settlement legislation or amended existing legislation.
As in the schemes introduced after the WWI, Aboriginal war personnel were not specifically excluded but the assessment procedures were prejudiced against them and many were rejected from the scheme.
In the same year, Australian jurist, lawyer and federal parliamentarian, Dr HV Evatt led an Australian delegation, which included Jessie Street, an Australian activist for women and Aboriginal people, to the United Nations on International Organization Conference in San Francisco, the United States of America. Street was the only female advisor on the delegation.
Conference delegates from 50 nations drew up the 111-article Charter of the United Nations, which was adopted unanimously on 25 June 1945 in the San Francisco Opera House.
In October of 1945, with the ratification of the Charter, the United Nations (UN) was created, committed to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights.
The following month, Australia who was a founding member of the UN and had a prominent role in the negotiation of the UN Charter, was admitted as a Member State of the United Nations.
Back in Australia, other state jurisdictions were following New South Wales in applying the general child welfare law to Aboriginal children. The welfare staff and the police who had previously removed children from their families simply because they were Aboriginal, now used neglect procedures to remove just as many Aboriginal children from their families. Aboriginal parents were left on the margins of Australian society while attempts were made to absorb their children into non-Aboriginal society.
On 1 May 1946, nearly 800 Aboriginal pastoral workers throughout the Pilbara defied the Aborigines Act 1905 (WA) and walked off in protest over lack of personal freedom, poor pay (often only rations) and sub-standard living conditions.
Pastoralists were granted permits to employ Aboriginal workers, who were then not legally able to leave the station, nor travel below the 20th parallel, without a permit. Vast fortunes were built on this virtually captive, largely unpaid workforce.
A six-week meeting of 200 Aboriginal Lawmen in 1942 had reached consensus about striking, but action was deferred until after WWII. Then the Pilbara Strike was meticulously organised by Nyamal man Clancy McKenna, Nyangumarta man Dooley Bin Bin, Nyamal man Peter Kangkushot Coppin and Don McLeod, who police reports called a ‘white stirrer’.
Stockmen, gardeners and house servants walked off pastoral stations throughout the Pilbara.
Believing Aboriginal people incapable of such independent action, officials accused McLeod of being the ringleader, but he wrote ‘I didn’t co-ordinate the strike. The Lawmen had a good tight grip on the whole business.’ McKenna and others were periodically jailed for ‘enticing natives from their lawful service.’
Despite constant harassment the strikers sustained themselves yandying (a method of surface mining) for tin, and trading skins and pearl shells. After three years their determination and tenacity were rewarded with improvements to pay and conditions for Aboriginal people. But many never returned to work for the ‘whitefella’.
The dream of economic independence was eventually realised. The successful cottage industries they established, especially the profitable mining concerns, built self-reliance and confidence. The Group, as they became known, registered the first Aboriginal-owned company in Western Australia in 1951, and went on to own several pastoral stations.
In 1948, Dr Evatt was elected as the third President of the United Nations and oversaw the drafting and adoption by the UN General Assembly of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Declaration was the result of the experience of WWII. With the end of that war, and the creation of the United Nations, the international community vowed never again to allow atrocities of WWII to ever happen. World leaders decided to complement the UN Charter with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - a road map to guarantee the rights of every individual in the world.
The Nationality and Citizenship Act came into effect at the beginning of 1949. The Act was drafted during the 1946 Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in response to higher rates of immigration after World War II. The Act allowed each country of the Commonwealth to define a specific citizenship while all of its citizens would remain British subjects. In addition to Australia, the Parliaments of Canada and New Zealand also legislated this decision.
Unlike the Australian Constitution, the Nationality and Citizenship Act did not discriminate against Aboriginal people. The Act included them implicitly, through the inclusion of the term ‘natural-born’.
In 1951, Paul Hasluck was appointed the Federal Minister for Territories. Hasluck had significant influence on Australian Government policy in the area of Aboriginal affairs.
At a Native Welfare Conference in Canberra, the Governments of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia joined the Australian Government to discuss common policy in Aboriginal affairs. In tabling the report of the conference, Hasluck stressed the importance of a policy of assimilation and conference members agreed that assimilation is the objective of native welfare measures.
Assimilation means, in practical terms, that, in the course of time, it is expected that all persons of aboriginal blood or mixed blood in Australia will live as do white Australians. The acceptance of this policy governs all other aspects of native affairs administration.
The conference established a native welfare council of the Ministers of the Commonwealth and of State governments, from which Hasluck hoped to ‘see emerge practical and effective proposals for nation-wide action’.
The Commonwealth allowed the Cattle Station Industry (Northern Territory) (Wages) Award 1951, to exempt Aborigines thus denying them equal wages.
Across Australia, government policy emphasis centred on assimilation, with devastating effect on Aboriginal peoples, including continued dispossession, social disruption, economic exploitation, discrimination, and cultural devastation.
This made a mockery of Australia's attempt to promote human rights internationally.
AIATSIS acknowledges the traditional owners of country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, culture and community.
We pay our respects to elders past and present.