Director of Welfare, 1954-70

Australians as one community

'The policy of the Commonwealth Government with respect to Aborigines in the Northern Territory is to promote and channel social change amongst them in a way that, whilst retaining connections with, and pride in their Aboriginal ancestry, they will participate equally with all other Australians in community affairs and have equal opportunity to enter the same occupations, adopt a similar manner of life and enjoy the same standards of living. 

For the success of this programme of assimilation, it is important that other Australian citizens should be ready and willing to accept Aborigines as equals in all respects in society; and it is equally important that Aborigines should be encouraged to move away from their present position of group separateness and solidarity, and in groups or as individuals enter according to their interests, the many and varied groups that go to make up the Australian society..'

from Annual Report, Welfare Branch, Northern Territory Administration, 1962-63

What the legislation said

In Federal Parliament in October 1951, Minister for Territories Paul Hasluck defined for other Australians what the new policies for Indigenous Australians meant. He said: ‘Assimilation means not the suppression of the Aboriginal culture but rather, that for generation after generation, cultural adjustment will take place. The native people will grow into a society in which by force of history they are bound to live.’1

Those who inherited and administered the assimilation policy saw it as providing long-term opportunities for Aboriginal people to move into the mainstream of Australian life. Indigenous people would accept responsibilities as citizens, ‘becoming part of the social and the political and the economic fabric of [the wider] society, if they wish.’2

1 C of A, PD, H of R, 18 October 1951, pages 875-76. See also Paul Hasluck, Shades of Darkness, Melbourne University Press, 1988

2 Harry Giese, Interview, NTRS 226, TS 755, Tape 10, Side B, Northern Territory Archives: ‘And that little “if they wish” is very significant…In other words, there was never any sense of compulsion in the sense that you would have draconian laws relating to school attendance and so on. But the provision of the necessary facilities would be there and if they wish this included [movement into] government settlements.’

‘In October 1954, when I came to the Territory, I was given several pieces of legislation, included amongst which were those setting out a framework for future Aboriginal programs which I would have to administer…the responsibility for drafting these bills rested with the officers of the Department of Territories and the Honourable Paul Hasluck, not with the Administrator and me.  It was my job to take them and develop a series of programs which would meet the objectives in welfare, education, training, employment and so on, set out in the legislation. As an Official Member of the NT Legislative Council, it was also one of my tasks to justify this legislation, and the programs which flowed from it, to the Legislative Council.’

Harry Giese, Planning a program for Aborigines in the 1950s, Northern Territory Library Service Occasional Paper 16, 1990, page 5

Becoming Australian citizens

In 1961, Paul Hasluck had helped to establish an all-party Committee on Aboriginal Voting Rights in Canberra, in which bipartisan support for extended assimilation and integration was spearheaded by Peter Howson for the Coalition parties and Kim Beazley Snr for the ALP. Indigenous people in the Territory had gained the right to vote in December 1961, and in 1964 the right to drink liquor. Through the early 1960s, restrictions on their rights as citizens were progressively removed. The steady progress of work in the Territory raised the status and profile of Aborigines, so that when the May 1967 Referendum asked voters country-wide whether the Commonwealth should take over Aboriginal affairs, every electorate in every state answered ‘yes’. The Referendum made it possible for Aboriginal people to be counted in the national Census, as part of the Australian population, and gave the Commonwealth power to make laws about them.

When Hasluck moved on to his new Ministry in 1963, The Northern Territory News of 9 February noted that the indigenous population was increasing, ‘and many are well educated and decently housed…the gigantic strides undoubtedly taken, particularly in the field of education of the young, cannot be disputed.’

As Hasluck noted in his 1988 book, Shades of Darkness, those who entered Aboriginal affairs during the 1970s found a far less difficult situation than their predecessors, one in which ‘services, utilities, works potential, communications and staff had been developed to a stage far beyond conditions in the 1950s’. Major strides had been made in fostering nutrition and overcoming disease, in education, housing and occupational training.

Harry Giese, Planning a program for Aborigines in the 1950s, Northern Territory Library Service Occasional Paper 16, 1990, page 10

Welfare Branch Annual Reports 1957-71 are held at the Northern Territory Library (enter 'welfare annual report' in the catalogue, call number 351.9429035349915) and also at 15 locations, including the National Library, the State Library of New South Wales, the State Library of Victoria and the University of Adelaide.


The human legacy of those times

Paul Hasluck notes that in the late 1970s, 'a very large proportion' of those of Indigenous or part-Aboriginal ancestry' who were 'appointed to public office, or to membership of boards, committees and conferences...were the product of the educational and social advancement under a policy of assimilation in the 1950s and 1960s. They shone in the new setting because of what they had gained in the old setting.'   

'A quite radical change'

From a paper by J.P.M. Long, The Administration and the Part-Aboriginals of the Northern Territory, read to the ANZAAS Conference, Hobart, in August 1965 when he was Research Officer with the Welfare Branch, Northern Territory Administration, Darwin, and Research Fellow with the Social Science Research Council’s Aborigines Project. A revised version was later published in Oceania , March 1967, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3:

‘…The legislative and administrative changes made in 1953 entailed, in effect, a quite radical change in the values and assumptions underlying welfare administration: part-Aboriginals came to be seen as people whose needs could be met by the normal services of the community and by normal social work practice, rather than as people standing outside the ordinary community who needed special services and had to be subject to special controls. At the time it may have seemed to many of those concerned that nothing more was entailed than the extension of the system of “exemption”, but in retrospect the changes seem more fundamental. “Citizenship” was no longer to be a prize awarded to part-Aboriginals for progress in “assimilation”, for conformity to ill-defined and probably undefinable, standards of behaviour. It was assumed that part-Aboriginals were in fact like other Australians and it was certainly clear that they wanted to be treated like others. 1

‘If the labels “protection” and “assimilation” given to policies for the administration of Aboriginals in contact with whites in Australia, and so often contrasted, mean anything it must be as they describe methods rather than aims. The aim of policies towards those Aboriginals and part-Aboriginals in the area of settlement has from the beginning generally been that these people should be useful citizens of the Australian community. 2

'The characteristic methods of “protection” have been control, separation and provision of special services. A policy of “assimilation”, as the reverse of “protection”, would therefore be characterised, one might suppose, by the absence of special controls, of separation and of special services. The changes in the law affecting part-Aboriginals in the Northern Territory in 1953 should perhaps be regarded as marking the real beginning of the practice of “assimilation” as a method of administration in Aboriginal affairs and not merely a policy aim. These changes entailed none of the official pressures that are usually complained of when the “policy of assimilation” is criticized. Elsewhere in Australia the legal and administrative apparatus of “protection” in the shape of special controls and services for part-Aboriginals (as for Aboriginals) has persisted and the process of termination of these controls and services has proceeded more gradually and cautiously.'

1 Since all Australians are not exactly alike, the assumption could not be that part-Aboriginals are exactly like all Australians, but rather that they behave in much the same way as others in the same income and occupational groups and are enough like most Australians to be subject to the same laws.

2 Cf. D. Barwick, 1963, A little more than kin: regional affiliation and group identity among Aboriginal migrants in Melbourne , thesis, Australian National University, pp. 58-59, 190-91: ‘Supposedly new policies encouraging the assimilation of Aborigines with white Australian society have in reality a long history in Victoria and New South Wales…although eligibility for absorption was determined by degree of Aboriginal ancestry and fitness for employment.’

See also Jeremy Long's The Go-Betweens: the Origins of the Patrol Officer Service in the Northern Territory, State Library of the Northern Territory Occasional Paper 31, 1992

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