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DSS handbook shows Aboriginal exclusion

When DSS published a handbook about payments and eligibility for the public, it highlighted Aboriginal peoples’ exclusion from government payments.

The community in general is strengthened because of social services and our whole national life is the richer for them.

Hugh S Roberton, Minister for Social Services, 1956
About the artefact

To help Australians access payments, the Department of Social Services (DSS) published handbooks about what payments people were eligible for. 

This edition from 1956 has specific information about Aboriginal peoples’ eligibility. It shows the government’s expectation that Aboriginal people would assimilate before being eligible for payments.

Exclusions based on 'exemption'

The booklet says that Aboriginal people could only get Maternity Allowance, Widow Pension and Invalid Pension if they were ‘exempt’ from state protection Acts.

At the time, the states had specific laws that controlled how Aboriginal people lived their lives. For the government to consider someone ‘exempt’ from these laws, people had to assimilate and adopt white Australian ways of life. They had to move away from their Aboriginal family and deny their Aboriginality (Aberdeen and Jones 2021).

State officials got to say whether they considered someone exempt. In Victoria, where there wasn’t an exemption system, people had to appeal to a state welfare officer.

DSS officials also had power to decide if someone was eligible for payments, judging them against their ‘character, standard of intelligence and social development’.

To get Child Endowment, Aboriginal parents had to prove they weren’t ‘nomadic’. They also had to show that the children were in their care. In cases where the government had taken children away, payments went to the reserve or mission where the child lived. The mission or reserve used the payment as they saw fit.

This handbook shows the unapologetic exclusion of Aboriginal people from government payments. The exclusions contained in the Social Services Act 1947 were plainly spelled out for a public audience.

Alternate information

Activist organisation, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, saw DSS’s communication efforts as poor. To better explain payments to Aboriginal peoples, they developed the Yinjilli leaflet in 1963.

Changes to the Act

Throughout the 1960s, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people gradually gained access to government payments. The government changed social services law to remove discriminatory clauses in 1966.

Source details

The full handbook is available in the State Library of Victoria catalogue. There is also an earlier version from 1953 with similar information available from the library.


Department of Social Services (1956) Commonwealth social services: a handbook of information [printed booklet], Australian Government, Canberra.

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