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Mission residents question exemption rules

Community leaders from South Australian missions questioned legislation that said they had to move away from missions to get government payments.

We ... Humbly petition … that all Aborigines, irrespective of cast, or where we live, should be ellegible [sic] to enjoy all social benefits that is enjoyed by all Australians

RM Wanganeen and HJ Weetra, 1947, p 23
About the artefact

After social services law was consolidated into one Act, South Australian Aboriginal community leaders questioned the government about Aboriginal people’s eligibility.

The Social Services Consolidation Act 1947 excluded Aboriginal people from government payments unless they sought an ‘exemption’ from their state. To be considered exempt they had to prove they had assimilated with white Australian culture, which included moving away from their communities.

This file includes correspondence from community leaders asking the government to approve payments for people who hadn’t moved away from the missions where they had lived and worked all their lives.

Petition and letter

In 1947, community leaders Robert Mckenzie Wanganeen and Harold James Weetra sent a letter and petition on behalf of Aboriginal residents of Point Pearce Mission Station. The letter was addressed to their local member, Edgar HD Russell. The petition addressed to the Parliament of the Commonwealth included 75 signatures from the residents.

In the letter, Wanganeen spelt out why residents needed government payments. He said that residents found it hard to afford food and clothing for their families with the rations they got from the state government. He said residents would happily give up state rations if they could get federal government payments.

Wanganeen questioned why residents couldn’t get government payments given their participation in Australian society. He mentioned Aboriginal people’s contributions during the First and Second World Wars as soldiers and munition factory workers, as well as their vital work in the wool industry. He also pointed out that they paid taxes like other Australian people.

The petition appealed for Aboriginal people ‘irrespective of caste or where we live’. Wanganeen and Weetra concluded the petition writing:

We do not ask for any special legislation, but the right to enjoy the same privileges that is [sic] enjoyed today by all Australians.

Government response 

Russell sent Wanganeen’s letter and petition on to Nicholas E McKenna, Minister for Health and Social Services. It was then passed to the Department of Social Services.

McKenna’s reply to Russell said the government wouldn’t pay people living on missions because they wouldn’t be considered exempt unless they moved away from their community.

This file shows government recognising the exclusions in the Social Services Act 1947. There was no plan to change rules that forced Aboriginal people to seek exemption and to move from places they had lived all their lives to be eligible for government payments.

Changes over time

Many Aboriginal leaders petitioned the government for access to pensions and other government payments, like Pearl Gibbs. Activists would continue petitioning the government until exemption clauses were finally removed from the Act in 1959.

After this change, Aboriginal people living at missions still did not get their government payments directly. It took further pressure from South Australian members of parliament and other advocates for residents at Point Pearce and Point McLeay missions to start getting their payments directly.

Source details

Robert Mckenzie Wanganeen was a community leader and Australian Aborigines Union president who wrote several petitions in the 1940s and 1950s to improve wages and conditions at Point Pearce (Gara 2002).

Signatories to the petition written by Wanganeen and Weetra were members of well-known families from Point Pearce. The page of signatures attached to the petition has not been included here as it was not possible to gain permission from all descendants.

This letter, petition and the related correspondence were kept in files by DSS. The files were later transferred to the National Archives of Australia, which holds them as part of the national archival collection.

You can access the letter and petition sent by Robert Mckenzie Wanganeen and Harold James Weetra through RecordSearch. Go to pages 21 to 23 of the file.


Permissions to include the letter and petition were granted by Robert Mckenzie Wanganeen’s grandson, Klynton Wanganeen, and by Robert Wanganeen’s and Harold James Weetra’s grandson, Rex Angie.


National Archives of Australia: Department of Social Services; A884, Correspondence files, 1909–1974; A55 Part 2, Aborigines – Eligibility for social benefits, 1945–1947.