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Social Services Act continues racial discrimination

The Social Services Act of 1947 was amended in 1959 and some of the discriminatory passages were removed. However, it continued to exclude some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from social services.

An aboriginal native of Australia who follows a mode of life that is ... nomadic or primitive is not entitled to a pension, allowance, endowment or benefit under this Act.

Social Services Act 1959, section 137(a)
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About the artefact

Throughout the 1950s, activists fought for civil rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including better access to government payments.  

The law in force at the time was the Social Services Consolidation Act 1947. Under this Act, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people could only get payments if they sought exemption form state-based Acts. This process included denying their Aboriginality. Even then, it was hard to get certain payments.

The government was aware of these exclusions in legislation and was resistant to change them.

With pressure about Aboriginal civil rights growing, the government eventually passed the Social Services Act 1959. The new Act removed the passages about exemptions.

When presenting the Bill to Parliament before it was passed, Minister for Social Services, HS Roberton said:

No provisions in this bill could give me greater personal satisfaction … the effect of the legislation I now bring to the House is to sweep away the provisions that place restrictions on aboriginal [sic] natives in qualifying for social service benefits.

While this was a landmark change, the Act still included discriminatory clauses about each payment. It said Aboriginal people who followed ‘a mode of life that is, in the opinion of the Director-General, nomadic or primitive’ couldn’t access payments. This meant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people still had to assimilate to a certain degree to get social services.

Many activists spoke out about these clauses. Activist Shirley Andrews argued that the terms ‘nomadic’ and ‘primitive’ were paternalistic. She also said the Act didn’t define them well enough. This meant authorities could apply the rules about eligibility differently based on their own beliefs and opinions.

Another issue was that payments were still very hard for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to qualify for. For example, older people applying for Old-age Pension had difficulties proving their age.

The Act also didn’t change whether the government paid people directly or not. If people lived on stations, reserves or missions, the government often paid the managers who passed on only a small part of the payments.

While this Act was an improvement on the 1947 Act, it continued discrimination based on people’s Aboriginality. The government didn’t remove the last exclusionary passages until 1966.

Source details

There were a number of changes made in the Social Services Act 1959:

  • sections 19(2), 62(2) and 86(3), excluding most Aboriginal people from Old-age and Invalid pensions, Widow Pension and Maternity Allowance, were omitted
  • section 97, regarding the eligibility of Aboriginal people for Child Endowment, was amended to remove a reference to ‘nomadic’ people
  • section 111, regarding the ineligibility of Aboriginal people for Unemployment and Sickness Benefits, was repealed
  • sections 47, 76, 91, which allowed for Aboriginal people’s pension and Maternity Allowance payments to be made to other authorities, were repealed and amended
  • section 137(a) was added, which made ‘nomadic or primitive’ Aboriginal people ineligible for government payments under the Act. The Department of Social Services Director-General could determine who was considered ‘nomadic or primitive’ under this section.

You can read the full Social Services Act 1959 on the Federal Register of Legislation website.


Australian Government (1959) Social Services Act 1959, Federal Register of Legislation, accessed 24 May 2023.