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Government disagreements delay payments for Aboriginal leprosy patients

Even when the government agreed to pay Aboriginal leprosy patients Invalid Pension, the payments were delayed by discussions about how much of the payment should go to patients and how much should be managed on their behalf.

This Department feels that the extension of full scale social service benefits to the inmates of East Arm would create a number of problems ...

WD Refshauge, Department of Health, 13 July 1961
About the artefact

During the 1950s, people in the Northern Territory who had leprosy had to isolate at government-run facilities called leprosariums. People in isolation couldn’t work or earn money. They were usually entitled to government payments, specifically Invalid Pension.

However, it was much easier for non-Aboriginal patients to get a payment than it was for Aboriginal patients. Even when Aboriginal patients started getting payments, the government only paid them a small amount directly.

These letters capture discussions between government officials about how to pay Aboriginal patients.

Disagreement about payments 

Following changes to the Social Services Act in 1959, more Aboriginal people were eligible for government payments. That year, the Director of the Department of Social Services (DSS) visited East Arm Leprosarium in Darwin. He sent Invalid Pension application forms to the Department of Health on behalf of the patients.

DSS had approved over 100 of these applications by the following year, however, the outcome was delayed. Officials from DSS and the Department of Health couldn’t agree on how to pay Aboriginal patients who were considered wards of the Northern Territory authorities. Officials disagreed about whether payments should go to the Aboriginal patients directly or to the institution.

Because of how the government viewed Aboriginal people at the time, Health officials were concerned about giving Aboriginal patients too much money. They mentioned impacts this could have ‘socially’, for the leprosarium management, and on patient’s rehabilitation.

Some officials wanted payments to go to the leprosarium, with only a small amount going to people as ‘pocket money’. It was common at the time for Aboriginal people not to get their payments directly.

Payments made indirectly 

Finally, almost 2 years after discussions began, DSS started paying Invalid Pension to Aboriginal leprosy patients at the leprosarium.

The pension was £10 per fortnight. Out of this, DSS paid £1 directly to patients. They paid £2.14 into a trust account and £6.16 to the Department of Health to cover ‘maintenance’ costs.

This practice would continue until 1967. It led to unaccounted for money accumulating.

Difficulties in continuing payments 

The file also includes discussion of issues Aboriginal people faced once they left the leprosarium. DSS policy was that Invalid Pension recipients were no longer entitled to the payment after 3 months from leaving an institution. To keep getting the payment, former patients had to be assessed as permanently ‘85% impaired’. However, some former patients weren’t well enough to return to work, but weren’t considered infectious or sick enough to continue to get Invalid Pension.

In these letters, Health officials suggest DSS give patients who had left institutions Special Benefit or a new type of payment similar to Tuberculosis Allowance. DSS didn't agree to making this kind of discretionary payment.

Personal accounts from the time discuss receiving Invalid Pension and show how important getting the payment was for supporting leprosy treatment and recovery.

Source details

There was a lot of correspondence about this issue. These letters were between CG Atkinson and HJ Goodes from DSS, CR Lambert from the Department of Territories, and RC Webb, Ian Byrne, CR James and WD Refshauge from the Department of Health.  

This correspondence was kept in a file by the Department of Health. The file was later transferred to the National Archives of Australia, which holds it as part of the national archival collection.      

You can access the file through RecordSearch. Go to pages 225–226, 249–250, 257–260, 283–284 and 296–297.  


National Archives of Australia: Department of Health; A1658, Correspondence files, 1922–68; A756 Part 2, Entitlement of inmates of East Arm Leprosarium, Darwin, to pensions and allowances, 1959–65.