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Government criticised for Unemployment Benefit rules

During discussions in the House of Representatives, Opposition Leader Gough Whitlam criticised the government of the day over proposed changes to procedures affecting Aboriginal people's access to Unemployment Benefit.

This is a cruel, legalistic and discriminatory decision … Aboriginals often have a traditional association with the land where such missions and settlements are established.

Gough Whitlam, Leader of the Opposition, 1977, p 1110
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About the artefact

During the recession in the 1970s, the Fraser Government tried to reduce government spending on social security payments by addressing unemployment. One group they focused on was Aboriginal people who were getting Unemployment Benefit.

An official in the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations (DEIR) proposed a change to procedure that they hoped would encourage people to move for work. However, this change was challenged as it failed to take into account Aboriginal peoples’ connection to land.

To get Unemployment Benefit at this time, people had to show that they had done everything they could to find work. In 1976, an Interdepartmental report proposed to bring back a ‘willingness to move’ requirement. This would mean people had to say they would accept work in another place if there were no jobs in communities, missions or settlements where they lived. DEIR would provide this information about applicants for Unemployment Benefit to the Department of Social Security (DSS), which would impact whether people were found to be eligible.

Gough Whitlam, Leader of the Opposition, spoke against this proposal in the House of Representatives. This Hansard excerpt includes his broader criticisms of the government of the day’s approach to Unemployment Benefit applicants.

Whitlam said this clause was discriminatory, which is why his government had changed it 1973. He said Aboriginal people ‘have a traditional association with the land’ and shouldn’t have to move to get payments. He argued that the government was treating Aboriginal people with ‘callous indifference’.

In response, Minister for Health, Ralph Hunt, said DEIR and DSS weren’t discriminating against Aboriginal people as the proposed instruction had not been sent. He said that because the word ‘Aboriginal’ wasn’t in the Social Services Act, therefore there was no discrimination.

Hunt also said DSS hadn’t changed the DSS manual for Unemployment Benefit. The DSS manual said ‘an Aboriginal is not required to leave the settlement or mission in order to qualify for unemployment benefit’.

Dissatisfied with this response, Whitlam brought up the issue of Aboriginal peoples’ access to Unemployment Benefit in Parliament again the next month.

Source details

The full Hansard record of this discussion is available through ParlInfo on the Parliament of Australia website.


Australian House of Representatives (21 April 1977) Debates, HR16:1108–1119.

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