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Conference confirms exclusion of Torres Strait Islander seasonal workers

During a government conference, ministers discussed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's eligibility for government payments and debated the exclusion of Torres Strait Islander seasonal workers from Unemployment Benefit.

We were very pleased when pensions and the like were given to native people recently ... But there is an anomaly ... with respect to people who do not come under the Aboriginals Protection Act.

HW Noble, Minister for Health and Home Affairs, conference proceedings, p 100
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About the artefact

Because Torres Strait Islander people weren’t named specifically in 1959 social services legislation, it was unclear whether they were eligible for payments in the early 1960s. This led to a number of discussions between the Queensland Government who managed Torres Strait Islander affairs, and the federal government who managed social services. One of these discussions occurred at the Native Welfare Conference in 1961.

Exclusion of Torres Strait Islander people from payments

To begin discussions, Dr Winston Noble, the Queensland Minister for Health and Home Affairs, raised the issue that Torres Strait Islander people working in the pearling industry didn't receive Unemployment Benefit in the off season. Noble said this was unfair as he thought that people in similar seasonal jobs on mainland Queensland did get the payment.

Noble also spoke about how Torres Strait Islander veterans got less in government service pensions than their ‘white’ counterparts.

Noble argued that these were examples of ‘gross injustice’ and warned the issues could be seen internationally as racial discrimination.

While Noble fought for payments for Torres Strait Islander people, discussions focused on how they were ‘worthy’ of payments as they contributed to the economy, rather than because of their broader civil rights. Noble also made it clear that he was only suggesting the payment for Torres Strait Islander people and not Aboriginal people living on mainland Queensland.

Exclusion based on remoteness and not race

Hugh Roberton, Minister for Social Services, denied that ‘colour’ was a reason for Torres Strait Islander seasonal workers’ disqualification from Unemployment Benefit (Roberton 1961:118).

He argued that the reason it was difficult for them to get the payment was because they didn’t travel to government offices. To get Unemployment Benefit, people had to prove they were actively looking for work by visiting a government office and filling in a form on a regular basis. Many of the affected seasonal workers lived on the outer islands and would have had to travel to Thursday Island or mainland Queensland to visit a government office.

Roberton also denied that other seasonal workers got Unemployment Benefit and said this wasn’t the purpose of the payment (Roberton 1961:111).

Roberton emphasised that as a minister he had to work to the eligibility criteria in the Social Services Act.

Noble did not accept Roberton’s arguments.

Separating discussions about Torres Strait Islander people and Aboriginal people

Minister for Territories Paul Hasluck interrupted Noble and Roberton’s debate. He said that Torres Strait Islander people were distinct from Aboriginal people and were the Queensland Government’s responsibility.

Hasluck said that therefore the conference shouldn’t even be discussing Torres Strait Islander people and drew the debate to a close.

Discussions of social services in South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania

As well as the debate about Torres Strait Islander eligibility, officials also discussed government payments for Aboriginal people in South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania.


Direct or indirect payments 

Glen Pearson, Minister for Works in South Australia, raised concerns about the best way to pay people living on missions and pastoral properties. The government often sent payments to property managers who then paid residents, however, Pearson didn’t think that there was enough oversight about how managers spent this money. He said they needed to encourage managers to spend the money in ways that benefited the Aboriginal people the payments were for.

Charles C Perkins of Western Australia cautioned against paying Aboriginal people their government payments directly. He suggested paying people through Welfare Officers or other non-Aboriginal people who could act as warrantees.


Payments for remote Tasmanians

Tasmanian representative, GC Smith, discussed payments for Aboriginal people in Tasmania.

He spoke about groups of people living on islands in the Bass Strait who faced similar remoteness issues as Torres Strait Islander people did.

Unlike Noble, however, Smith saw this as a way to convince a family to move from an island in the Bass Strait to Tasmania (Smith 1961:100). This reflected an attitude held by some officials at the time that they could use government payments to manipulate the behaviour and movements of Aboriginal people.

Ongoing conferences

These conferences were significant. At them, state and territory governments shaped policies about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with the federal government and discussed how they were being implemented. In 1961, this included agreeing to a policy of assimilation.

The government had held Native Welfare Conferences in 1937 and 1951. From this one in 1961, a conference was held every 2 years until the Council for Aboriginal Affairs was introduced in 1967.

Source details

The photograph was taken of attendees at the Native Welfare Conference. Included the image among others are (from the far head of the table, clockwise) federal Ministers Hugh Roberton, Paul Hasluck; H Winston Noble from Queensland, Charles Collier Perkins and SG Middleton from WA; GC Smith from Tasmania; and Glen Pearson from South Australia.

This version of the Native Welfare Conference document was digitised by AIATSIS. It can be found under ‘Commonwealth government reports’ on the Reading list: the 1967 Referendum page of the AIATSIS website.

You can also directly download the proceedings of the Native Welfare Conference [PDF 721MB].


Hasluck P, Noble HW, Pearson GG, Perkins CC, Roberton H and Smith GC (26–27 January 1961) Native Welfare Conference, Parliament House [conference proceedings], Canberra.

National Archives of Australia: Australian News and Information Bureau; A1200, Black and white photographic negatives and prints, 1945–1971; L37460, 'Native Welfare Conference – 26 January 1961 – Minister Paul Hasluck', 1961.