Leader fights for fair access to benefits
Aboriginal activist and leader, Pearl Gibbs, fought for fair access to pensions and income support payments. She questioned proposed changes to social services legislation.
Pearl Gibbs was an Aboriginal leader and a key activist. She organised and spoke at the historic Day of Mourning protests and the Australian Aborigines Conference on 26 January 1938. Throughout her life, she advocated for Aboriginal peoples’ labour and citizenship rights.
Letter from Pearl Gibbs to Minister HP Lazzarini
In August 1942, Pearl Gibbs wrote this letter to Minister HP ‘Bert’ Lazzarini to express her concerns about Aboriginal peoples’ access to Invalid and Old-age pensions. She said she had read a news article about potential changes to make some Aboriginal people eligible for these benefits. Her main concerns were about Aboriginal people proving their age and institutions collecting payments on behalf of Aboriginal people.
In her letter, Pearl Gibbs clearly identified herself as an Aboriginal woman who was ‘interested in matters concerning my race’. To do so, she used language about Aboriginal ‘blood’ that was common at the time but is considered offensive.
Pearl Gibbs’s main concerns
Pearl Gibbs outlined the difficulties many older Aboriginal people would have in providing accepted proof of their age. One issue was that birth registrations for Aboriginal people had not been compulsory. This meant many people did not have proof of their birth date. Pearl Gibbs argued that it would be ‘most unjust’ if they were excluded from getting the pension for not having this proof.
Pearl Gibbs was also concerned about how the government would deliver the payments. At the time, missions and reserves often controlled Aboriginal people’s finances.
Pearl Gibbs asked whether Aboriginal people on reserves and missions would get payments in cash. She wrote, ‘I sincerely hope it will not go through the Aborigine Welfare Board.’ She underlined this sentence to emphasise her point because she saw the board as too controlling of Aboriginal people in New South Wales.
The minister’s reply
Lazzarini sent Pearl Gibbs’s letter on to the Minister for Social Services, EJ Holloway.
Holloway responded about changes to the Invalid and Old-age Pensions Act 1908. He explained that Aboriginal people would only be able to get these pensions if their state considered them ‘exempt’. This meant they would have to deny their Aboriginality, cutting off relationships with family and moving away from missions or reserves. The requirement to be exempt to get payments would be reinforced in the Social Services Consolidation Act 1947.
On the point of cash payments, Minister Holloway noted that a commissioner of the state could allow an ‘authority’ to receive an Aboriginal person's payment ‘for the benefit of the pensioner’.
He did not reply to the issue of birth registrations.
Pearl Gibbs’s letter is an example of her advocacy for Aboriginal peoples’ rights to government payments.
Many of the issues she identified continued for Aboriginal people. Those living on reserves and missions didn’t get direct payments until well into the 1960s, and in some places much later, and proof of age remains an issue today.
This letter by Pearl Gibbs was sent to MP Bert Lazzarini. It was forwarded and held in a file by the Department of Social Services. The file was then transferred to the National Archives of Australia, which holds it as part of the national archival collection.
Access Pearl Gibbs’s letters through the National Archives of Australia online catalogue. Go to pages 328, 329 and 311.
Permission to include these letters was granted by Pearl Gibbs’s granddaughter Anny Druett.
National Archives of Australia: Department of Social Services; A884, Correspondence files, 1951–74; A55 Part 1, Aborigines – Eligibility for Social Service Benefits, 1939–45.