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Social Services Act removes references to Aboriginal people

Amendments to this Act in 1966 removed references to Aboriginal people altogether, meaning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in theory had equal access to government payments. However, discrimination continued.

Section 95 of the Principal Act is amended by omitting ... the words 'but one or both of whose parents are aboriginal natives of Australia'.

Social Services Act 1966
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About the artefact

During the early 1960s, the Australian Government was being criticised internationally for its treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. There was also significant social unrest and activism within Australia. Activists were fighting for civil rights changes, leading to a strong yes vote in the 1967 Referendum.

In response to these changing ideas about racial discrimination, the government quietly amended the Social Services Act in 1966. The previous change to the Act in 1959 had been described as removing discrimination, but the Act still contained exclusions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Removal of references to Aboriginal people

The 1966 changes removed all references to Aboriginal people from the Act. Minister for Social Services, Ian Sinclair, said that the government considered the old passages ‘in no sense discriminatory in their application’. However, he said, ‘it is proposed to delete them to remove any doubt’ (Chesterman 2005:53).

The changes didn’t stop government officials discriminating against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The government didn’t pass racial discrimination laws until 1975.

Indirect methods of payment continued

The Department of Social Services (DSS) kept paying many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people indirectly. This meant they sent government payments to local authorities or managers of stations, missions or reserves instead of to individuals. Often people only saw a small amount of their payment.

In 1967, Sinclair said the government would stop paying people indirectly by the end of the year. However, this was difficult logistically for DSS to do and the practice continued in many communities.

Unemployment Benefit still withheld

Another issue that these changes to the Act didn’t resolve was access to Unemployment Benefit. Because it was legal in many states for employers to pay Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people very low wages, DSS didn’t usually approve their Unemployment Benefit applications. They were worried Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would leave low-paying jobs because Unemployment Benefit would have been more money more than wages (Sanders 1985: 138).

The Social Services Act 1966 was an important part of broader social change happening at the time. However, there was still a lot of work to do for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have equal access to social services.

Source details

There were a small number of relevant changes made in the Social Services Act 1966.

  • Sections 95 and 97, regarding the eligibility of Aboriginal people for Child Endowment, were amended to remove references to Aboriginal people.
  • Section 137(a), which made ‘nomadic or primitive’ Aboriginal people ineligible for government payments under the Act, was repealed.

You can read the full Social Services Act 1966 on the Federal Register of Legislation website. 


Australian Government (1966) Social Services Act 1966, Federal Register of Legislation, accessed 24 May 2023.