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Torres Strait Islander cane cutters test benefit rules

In 1949, the government rejected requests by 6 Torres Strait Islander cane cutters for Unemployment Benefit. The Queensland Premier asked the prime minister to review the decision.

When six of these men applied … for Unemployment Benefit, a decision was given that they were ineligible … [please investigate] with a view to their being accorded the same Social Service rights

Premier EM Hanlon, March 1949
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About the artefact

These letters relate to 6 Torres Strait Islander men who tried to get Unemployment Benefit in 1949. They had worked as cane cutters in Gordonvale, south of Cairns in Queensland.

The Australian Government introduced Unemployment Benefit in 1945 and this payment was included in the Social Services Consolidation Act 1947. Under this legislation, Aboriginal people could not get the payment unless the Director-General of the Department of Social Services (DSS) agreed. However, Torres Strait Islander people were not mentioned in the 1947 Act and therefore it was not clear what payments they were entitled to. At the time, the Queensland Government governed Torres Strait Islander peoples under state Acts.

When the Torres Strait Islander men who are mentioned in these letters first applied for Unemployment Benefit, DSS had rejected their claims. Queensland Premier Ned Hanlon wrote to Prime Minister Joseph Chifley in March 1949 asking him to review the decision. Hanlon said the men paid taxes, and that some were ex-servicemen, union members and married. He said therefore they should have ‘the same Social Service rights as are extended to whites’.

The Prime Minister’s Department asked DSS to look into the matter. In May, Director-General FH Rowe said DSS had already granted Unemployment Benefit to one man after he made an appeal. He said the department had rejected 2 cases where the men did not lodge income statements. ‘Rejection had nothing to do with the fact that they were Torres Strait Islanders,’ Rowe said.

Rowe agreed to review the other 3 cases, saying DSS had applied the ‘wrong principles’ in rejecting the claims. Prime Minister Chifley replied to Hanlon on 19 May to tell him about the decision to review the cases. Hanlon encouraged Queensland officials to tell DSS if there were any other rejected claims by Torres Strait Islander men.

The file does not record the final outcome of the men’s claims. However, while DSS shows uncertainty in these letters, later sources show that the department became less open to approving claims for Unemployment Benefit for Torres Strait Islander men, especially for those who lived on the islands.

Source details

The original file contained the names of 7 men. These names have been redacted from the excerpt reproduced here as it was not possible to gain permission from all descendants.

This correspondence between the Queensland Premier and the Prime Minister’s Department was copied and kept in a file by the Department of Social Services. The file was later transferred to the National Archives of Australia, which holds it as part of the national archival collection.

Access this correspondence in the file through RecordSearch, the online catalogue of the National Archives of Australia. 


National Archives of Australia: Department of Social Services; A884, 1951–74; A968 Part 1, Torres Strait Islanders – Eligibility for social security benefits, 1938–61.