Queensland officials argue on behalf of unemployed Torres Strait Islander men
In the late 1950s, many Queensland Government officials wrote to the federal government arguing for Torres Strait Islander men living on the outer islands to receive Unemployment Benefit.
I can only confirm the Department’s established policy of rejecting unemployment benefit claims from all Islanders who are unable to report with their weekly income statements … at Thursday Island.
Torres Strait Islander people were not mentioned in the Social Services Consolidation Act 1947. This led to ongoing discussions between the Queensland Government and federal government about whether Torres Strait Islander people were eligible for government payments.
In these letters from the late 1950s, Queensland officials raised eligibility issues with the federal government and petitioned for easier access to Unemployment Benefit for Torres Strait Islander men.
One reason Queensland officials fought so hard for these payments is because they had responsibility for Torres Strait Islander people under state-based acts. Government payments for these men would mean less was spent from the state’s budget.
Torres Strait Islander eligibility
From as early as 1949, it had been unclear whether Torres Strait Islander men could qualify for Unemployment Benefit. While some men had access, it was only on a case-by-case basis. It was more common for men living on mainland Queensland to qualify than those working in the Torres Strait.
Many of the impacted men mentioned in these letters worked in seasonal industries such as pearling. Queensland officials were seeking clarity about whether the men could get Unemployment Benefit to help them through the off season.
In one letter to the federal government, Senator Edmund Maher brought up that Island Councillors had questioned why men on the islands weren’t eligible even though they paid income tax while working.
Issues with the work test
One part of the law that exacerbated the issue for Torres Strait Islander people was that applicants could only get Unemployment Benefit if they could prove they had ‘taken reasonable steps to obtain work’. However, there were few jobs for men living on home islands in the Torres Strait and proving they had looked for work was a challenge. To show they could not work, the government said the men had to travel to the closest government representative, who was on Thursday Island.
Queensland Premier Frank Nicklin warned slum conditions would develop on Thursday Island if the men had to stay there to get the payment. Nicklin also said the federal government had a moral duty to support the men.
Internally, even the Prime Minister’s Department raised that suggesting men wait around Thursday Island for work or a payment was a ‘harsh rule’.
A Queensland official proposed letting the men report in by radio to do the required work test, but the government didn’t see this as a feasible option.
Tensions around financial responsibility
The letters reflect deeper tensions about the issue of access to federal government payments. The Department of Social Services (DSS) said the Queensland Government was trying to get more money. The state government already seized the wages, Child Endowment and pensions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Kidd 1997). DSS argued Unemployment Benefit could become another source of state income.
The letters show conflicting views in the late 1950s about whether Torres Strait Islander men should get Unemployment Benefit. The issue emerged again at the 1961 Native Welfare Conference, but officials didn't come to an agreement.
This correspondence 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. Go to pages 113–115.
National Archives of Australia: Department of Social Services; A884, ‘Correspondence files, 1951–74; A968 Part 1, Torres Strait Islanders – Eligibility for social security benefits, 1938–61.