Director of Welfare, 1954-70

The legislative framework

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.'