Service Australia Logo

Social Services Act excludes Aboriginal people

A new Act brought a range of social services together under federal government responsibility. It excluded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from payments unless they had an exemption.

An age pension or an invalid pension may be granted to an aboriginal native of Australia if (a) he is for the time being exempt from the provisions of the law of the State or Territory ...

Social Services Consolidation Act 1947, section 19(2)
About the artefact

The Social Services Consolidation Act 1947 (the Consolidation Act) brought together a range of Acts about government payments under one piece of legislation. This made it easier for many Australians to access government payments. However, the new Act also included passages that excluded Aboriginal people from government payments.

The passages said Aboriginal people could only get payments if their states considered them ‘exempt’ or if they could prove their ‘character … standard of intelligence and social development’ to the Department of Social Services.


Being ‘exempt’ meant not being under state Protection Acts. These Protection Acts gave states control over Aboriginal people’s lives, including: 

  • where they lived and worked

  • how they received their wages

  • which family and community members they could see

  • what payments they were entitled to.

To become exempt, an Aboriginal person had to agree not to identify as Aboriginal anymore. This meant they could not associate with non-exempt Aboriginal people, speak in language or engage in cultural practices. They had to cut ties with family and community.

Exempt Aboriginal people were under close scrutiny. In many states, they had to carry an ‘exemption certificate’ and show it to a government official if they asked. Their states had the power to withdraw their exemption at any point.

Access to government payments  

Even with an exemption, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples didn’t have the same access to payments as others under the Consolidation Act.

Exempt Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people could get Invalid Pension, Old-age Pension, Widows Pension and Maternity Allowance.

However, it was almost impossible for them to get Unemployment Benefit or Sickness Benefit. Because it was legal to pay Aboriginal people very low wages, these payments would usually be more than they would earn from work. The government thought that giving Aboriginal people access to these payments would mean they wouldn’t accept these low-paying jobs.

Also, while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people could get Child Endowment under the Consolidation Act, the government often didn’t pay them directly. If children lived on a mission or station, the managers would collect the payments instead.

The Consolidation Act was a major step in Australia’s social security history. Yet this legislation continued the government’s discrimination against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The government changed the Act in 1959 but retained some exclusionary clauses. These clauses were removed from the Act in 1966.

Source details

The payments the Consolidation Act brought together had been introduced by the federal government over the early 1900s and 1940s.

The Australian Government introduced Old-age Pension and Invalid Pension in 1909 and Maternity Allowance in 1912. These payments replaced earlier versions developed in New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria.

During the Second World War, the government brought in more payments to help people. They brought in Child Endowment in 1941, Widow Pension in 1942, and Unemployment and Sickness benefits in 1945.

In 1946, a referendum gave the government more power and allowed them to consolidate social security payments into one Act.

You can read the full Social Services Consolidation Act 1947 on the Federal Register of Legislation.


Australian Government (1947) Social Services Consolidation Act 1947, Federal Register of Legislation, accessed 24 May 2023.

You might also be interested in