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Aboriginal-led activism in New South Wales leads to change

In an excerpt in a book about the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, an Aboriginal veteran recalled the difficult fight for Aboriginal rights in New South Wales.

We didn’t get Social Service cheques until nineteen sixty-six ... if you did not have a licence you couldn’t draw the dole.

Clarence Combo, 1983
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About the artefact

In the original federal social services law introduced in 1947, Aboriginal people could not get government payments unless they had a state-based exemption certificate. To get a certificate, they had to deny their Aboriginality, move away from country and family and assimilate into white Australian society.

The Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship (AAF) was one of the key activism groups that fought to change the exemption system in New South Wales. Founded by prominent Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal activists in 1956, it campaigned for Aboriginal rights.

This excerpt is from a chapter of the book The time was ripe, a collection of stories of people who were involved in the AAF.

In the excerpt, Bundjalung man Clarrie Combo reflects on how the AAF helped change conditions for Aboriginal people in New South Wales. Combo was an Aboriginal veteran from Cabbage Tree Island. He had worked at Tranby Aboriginal Co-operative College in Sydney where the AAF sometimes met.

Combo recalls his aunt getting an exemption certificate from the NSW Government and being able to access the federal government payments that non-Aboriginal people could get. ‘It cost her ten shillings and she was pleased when the cheques came because if you did not have a licence you couldn’t draw the dole,’ he said.

Changes to federal social services law in 1959 meant that Aboriginal people no longer needed to be exempt to get most government payments. However, the states continued to control Aboriginal people’s finances, including their payments. According to Combo, they ‘didn’t get Social Service cheques until nineteen sixty-six’.

Combo credits the AAF with ending the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board in 1969, which was one of the state bodies that managed exemption certificates and controlled people’s payments.

Combo remembers meeting with the AAF at Tranby several times. He said ‘people were working hard at something that had to do with the laws’. He believed their work led to changes that ‘all made [Aboriginal people’s] life easier’, including getting rid of exemptions.

This extract shows an example of the Aboriginal-led activism that led to changes in Aboriginal people’s access to government payments. State-based activism was important for these changes to happen because the states managed Aboriginal affairs until after the 1967 Referendum.

Source details

The AAF was founded in 1956 by Pearl Gibbs and Faith Bandler. Gibbs was a prominent Aboriginal activist throughout her life. Gibbs had protested the exclusion of Aboriginal people from government payments, as shown in her 1942 letter.

Bandler, with fellow activist Len Fox, interviewed former members of the AAF about their experiences and published them in the book The time was ripe.

The AAF was affiliated with the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI).


Permission to include Clarence Combo’s account was granted by his nephew Troy Combo.

Permission to use the excerpt was also granted by Faith Bandler’s daughter Lilon Bandler.


Combo C (1983) ‘No beer and no water’, p 29, in Bandler F and Fox L (eds) The time was ripe: a history of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship (1956–69), Alternative Publishing Co-Operative, Chippendale.