Activists campaign for equal access to Tuberculosis Allowance
After discovering that the departments of Health and Social Services were discriminatory in how they delivered Tuberculosis Allowance, activists successfully campaigned to change government instructions.
The non-payment of the tuberculosis allowance to many Aborigines in Queensland (41, in fact) has ... made it impossible for their families to visit them during their hospitalization
While visiting a friend with tuberculosis (TB), Aboriginal unionist Joe McGinness found out that there was a payment available for TB patients receiving treatment. Through conversations with other patients at the facility, McGinness realised the payment was only available to non-Aboriginal people.
McGinness presented this information to members of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA) and caught the attention of a non-Aboriginal activist and doctor, Barry E Christophers.
When Christophers looked into the matter, he found out that there were discriminatory passages in manuals by the departments of Health and Social Services. The manuals interpreted the Tuberculosis Act 1948 (TB Act) and barred Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from getting the payment.
With key information from McGinness’s connections with TB patients, Christophers began campaigning for change, leading to the government updating the discriminatory passages in the TB Act.
Report outlining discrimination
Christophers began the campaign for change in 1963 by writing a report for the Equal Wages for Aborigines Committee of the FCAA.
The report spelt out which sections of government department instructions excluded Aboriginal people from TB Allowance.
Christophers referenced a Department of Health booklet from 1961. It said Aboriginal people could only get TB Allowance if they had proven they could support themselves financially before getting sick. Christophers also talked about a Department of Social Services (DSS) manual for staff. It said Aboriginal people couldn’t get the payment if the department decided they were ‘unable to manage money or likely to waste it’. Staff could also deny people the payment if they thought they hadn’t ‘reached an appropriate degree of social development’.
Unlike for some other government payments, even having a certificate of exemption didn’t mean Aboriginal people were eligible for TB Allowance. There was also no process of appeals if someone didn’t agree with a staff member’s decision (Taffe 1999).
In the report, Christophers included case studies that McGinness had collected from patients in Queensland. A quote from the federal Minister of Health said there were ‘41 protected Aborigines in Queensland who although medically eligible were not receiving the Tuberculosis Allowance’.
Even in cases where DSS decided to pay people, they did so through the Queensland Department of Native Affairs. Through this system, people didn’t always get their full payment. In one case, a patient received only £1.0 out of a total TB Allowance rate of £13.7.
Christophers ended the report asking readers to send in similar stories. He also urged people to send letters of protest to the government demanding change.
Article in Smoke Signals calling for amendments to government guidelines
In January 1964, Christophers wrote an article for Smoke Signals, the official magazine of the Aborigines Advancement League of Victoria, reiterating his points from the FCAA report. The article was also sent out as a leaflet and reached a wide audience.
In the article, Christophers called for the government to change how they interpreted applications for TB Allowance. He wrote about the trauma this discrimination caused Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and about how it negatively affected people’s health.
He also argued that another reason the government wasn’t paying Aboriginal people the allowance was because it would highlight how low Aboriginal wages were compared to a basic social services payment.
Letter-writing campaign pressuring government
Throughout this time, Christophers led an 18-month letter-writing campaign. Campaigners sent thousands of letters and included the specific case studies from McGinness and others. They wrote to the departments of Social Services and Health, medical bodies, trade unions, the Governor-General, state governors, and the National Tuberculosis Advisory Council.
Changes to government instructions
The campaign led to Dr WD Refshauge, Director-General of the Department of Health, responding to Dr CJ Ross-Smith, General Secretary of the Australian Medical Association.
In his letter, Refshauge reluctantly admits parts of the Department of Health’s TB Allowance instructions were discriminatory. He writes ‘it would appear that clause 52(d) and 53(f) may be capable of misinterpretation’.
Refshauge agreed that the government would change the instructions but didn’t agree to change the intended meaning altogether. He said the sections would refer ‘simply to persons who at the time of their illness are under the care or control of a public authority responsible for welfare’.
Because Aboriginal people were often controlled by these authorities anyway, historian Sue Taffe called this a ‘face-saving clarification rather than deletion of a racially-biased discriminatory exclusion’ (1999:53).
Copies of the report on TB Allowance and issues of Smoke Signals are held in the National Library of Australia’s collection.
A copy of Refshauge’s letter is available through the Collaborating for Indigenous rights 1957–1973 website hosted by the National Museum of Australia. Find it under ‘Resources: Social Service benefits 1954–64’. The original is held by the Australian Medical Association in Canberra.
Permissions to include these excerpts were granted by the children of Dr Barry E Christophers.
Permission for inclusion of the Smoke Signals article was granted by the Aboriginal Advancement League of Victoria.
Christophers BE (1963) A report on Tuberculosis Allowance, Federal Council of Aboriginal Advancement, Adelaide.
Christophers BE (1964) ‘Discrimination in an unexpected quarter’, Smoke Signals, Victorian Aborigines Advancement League, 3(1):9–10.
Refshauge WD (December 1964) Letter from WD Refshauge, Director-General of Health to Dr CJ Ross-Smith, General Secretary of the Australian Medical Association [letter], Department of Health, Australian Government.