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Activists use payments for change

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people used government payments to gain further rights and freedoms. Activist Joyce Clague’s story reveals how payments became linked to land rights.

You couldn’t get social services and you – well our people didn’t even get the pension or child endowment. So, there was very little money ...

Joyce Clague in oral history, 1996
About the artefact

Aboriginal people’s access to government payments changed in the mid-20th century, particularly following ongoing pressure from activists.

Yaegl woman, Joyce Clague MBE, captured some of these changes in her oral history. These excerpts are from her interview with historian Sue Taffe.  


Civil rights involvement in Sydney

Excerpt 1 includes details of Clague’s involvement with the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI).  

Clague remembers being surprised that the mission she lived on let her go to a FCAATSI meeting in 1960. She says mission authorities often tried to stop Aboriginal people getting involved in social or political issues. 

After her first meeting, Clague stayed on in Sydney. She built networks and got further involved in activism for Aboriginal rights. 

Clague recalls that around this time there was ‘no funding for Aboriginal people at all … you couldn’t get social services … our people didn’t even get the pension or Child Endowment’.  

Buying Willowra Station in the Northern Territory

Excerpt 2 details Clague’s involvement in helping Warlpiri people buy Willowra Station in the Northern Territory.  

She talks about her relationship with Martin ‘Stumpy’ Tjampijinpa. He was a Warlpiri man who had worked as a stockman on Willowra Station all his life.  

When the station owner was ready to retire, the Warlpiri people wanted to buy back the land.  

Clague encouraged Tjampijinpa to get a loan from the government to buy the property and helped him apply. At the time, the Australian Government’s Council for Aboriginal Affairs had a Capital Fund for Aboriginal Enterprises.  

While waiting for the government to review the application, Clague advised Tjampijinpa and his people to save as much as they could. She said, ‘you fellas can hurry this on, you know … if you save two dollars at a time out of your pension, out of the Child Endowment, and if you work you give a little bit more …’  

A year later, people excitedly arrived at Clague’s house with a ‘little sugar bag’ full of money they had pooled. Clague had ‘never seen money like that before!’  

The application took a long time to process. The McMahon Liberal Government was hesitant to approve the loan to buy the land because it raised concerns about Aboriginal land rights (Coombs 1993:3–5). 

Later, the Whitlam Labor Government approved the loan to purchase Willowra Station as a pastoral lease around 1973. By 1980, the lease was converted to inalienable freehold title under the Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976

Clague’s encouragement to Tjampijinpa’s people to pool their payments and wages was part of a broader fight for Aboriginal land rights.

Source details

Joyce Clague (nee Mercy) moved to Sydney in the mid-1950s, originally undertaking nursing training. She was appointed as the inaugural Welfare Officer at the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs, providing welfare support to Aboriginal families across Sydney. Relocating to Alice Springs in 1967, Joyce and her husband Colin, a senior social worker, were both engaged in social welfare. In Alice Springs, Joyce Clague provided support for mothers and infants receiving medical treatment, and she helped establish the Institute for Aboriginal Community Development. 

Joyce Clague returned to her Yaegl birthplace in 1975, where she channelled her experience and energy into leading her own mob through the Nungera Co-operative Society Ltd. Through the co-operative, Clague tackled the severe social disadvantages in housing, health and education that Aboriginal people faced. Clague collaborated to form co-operatives in a number of communities along the NSW North Coast.

Between 1996 and 1997, Sue Taffe and other historians interviewed a number of previous FCAATSI members, including Joyce Clague. AIATSIS holds the original interview recordings and transcripts for the project.


Permissions to reproduce these interview excerpts and the photograph of Joyce Clague MBE were granted by the Clague family. Colin Clague supplied biographical information about Joyce Clague MBE’s lifelong engagement in social welfare work for Aboriginal people.

Permissions were also granted by interviewer Dr Sue Taffe.


Taffe S (8 November 1996) Joyce Clague interviewed by Sue Taffe, FCAATSI oral history project [interview audio file].

Photograph courtesy of Clague family, photographer unknown (1965) Welfare Officer Joyce Mercy at the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs, George Street Sydney [photograph].