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DSS questioned about payments to Aboriginal people

The Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs questioned a high-level DSS official in 1973 and 1975. They touched on a range of issues relevant to Aboriginal people receiving payments.

Now that those exclusions have gone we do not have this question on the claim form ...

Irwin Prowse, DSS, 1973, p 949
About the artefact

As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people gained access to federal government payments, questions about the impacts of payments were being raised in government discussions. Questions were often focused on Unemployment Benefit. This was a payment that the government had been hesitant to extend to Aboriginal people, especially in remote communities.

These excerpts are from the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs. They contain 2 examinations of Irwin Prowse about issues facing Aboriginal people receiving payments. Prowse was a high-level official, Assistant Director-General of Policy, at the Department of Social Security (DSS).

Issues raised by the committee

The committee raised a range of issues with Prowse, including:

  • the impact of payments on Aboriginal ways of life

  • a lack of statistics on the Aboriginality of welfare recipients

  • the limited work available for Aboriginal people at settlements

  • Aboriginal people failing the work test required to gain Unemployment Benefit

  • payments made indirectly or as ‘tabs’ to community stores

  • DSS’s ability to consult with Aboriginal people in remote areas.

Prowse’s explanation of DSS’s policies

Prowse’s responses imply that claiming payments was simpler for Aboriginal customers than other sources indicate. Where work was not available at settlements, he stated applicants would still be able to receive Unemployment Benefit. Where people were ‘unemployable’, he stated they could receive Special Benefit.

When asked about benefits paid as ‘tabs’ to community stores, he stated this practice had stopped as directed by the last minister. However, he confirmed indirect payments via institutions still occurred under sections 40, 43 and 123 of the Social Services Act 1966.

Concerns about discrimination

Prowse based his responses on the premise that all customers should meet the same conditions, regardless of their situations. It would take years for government to recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s circumstances required specialised policies.

Disconnect between Prowse’s response and first-hand evidence

The experience of people accessing payments was more complicated than Prowse presented. People living at missions and settlements continued to face issues receiving payments, as did people without employment and those unable to prove their age.

These excerpts provide insight into the department’s view on payments to Aboriginal people in the 1970s and show the disconnect between policy discussions and the lived experiences of people.

Source details

These digitised excerpts were provided by AIATSIS, which holds the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs transcripts of evidence in their collections.

You can access copies of major reports produced by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs between 1973 and 1992 on the Australian Parliament House website. The earliest report of this committee was a response to the Yirrkala bark petitions.


House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs (8 October 1973) 'Submission by Irwin Prowse, DSS: Social services benefits for Aborigines’, Transcript of Evidence, pp 944–970, Australian Government.

House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs (4 June 1975) ‘Submission by Irwin Prowse, DSS: Payment of social service pensions and benefits to persons other than the recipient’, pp 607–640, Transcript of Evidence, Australian Government.