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Researcher highlights complex issues in remote servicing

In a briefing to public servants, Dr Young discussed difficulties faced by remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. She highlighted DSS servicing gaps that she believed worsened the situation.

... the reasons why so many men have neither work nor receive unemployment benefits are complex. Part of the problem lies with the Department of Social Security.

DAA and DSS, 1979, p 5
About the artefact

In 1979, human geographer, Dr Elspeth Young, briefed Department of Social Security (DSS) and Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) staff about her fieldwork in the Northern Territory.

In her briefing, Young told DSS and DAA officers about the difficulties Aboriginal people in remote communities had getting government payments. Notes on the talk are captured in this document.

While these notes about the briefing are quite neutral, Aboriginal-led Identity magazine ran an article about Young’s findings that highlighted her criticisms of DSS’s servicing.

Young’s research findings


Lack of income for men in remote communities

Young’s research found that half the men in Yuendumu, Willowra and Numbulwar had no income and couldn’t get government payments.

Many working-age men didn’t pass DSS’s work test and so couldn’t get an income support payment. For older men, this was because they had only ever been paid in rations and not in money. For some young men, this was because they were undergoing initiation ceremonies for stretches of time.


Ineffective DSS help and communication

Young also discussed how ineffective communication was between DSS and communities. She found that DSS didn’t have much information in Aboriginal languages and that the only place with a DSS officer who could help Aboriginal customers was Yuendumu.

Community members had also told Young they wanted payments made in bulk so they could decide how to best use the funding at the community level.

Critical view in Identity magazine

Identity magazine reported on the briefing, reflecting more detail from Young’s arguments.

Influential Ngui journalist, John Newfong, was the editor of Identity. The magazine published Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander views between 1971 and 1982 and had a national reach.

The article about Young’s research said that overall she was critical of DSS’s attitude towards ensuring Aboriginal people could get their payments and manage them independently. It reported that she expressed frustration at how poorly DSS managed changes and the lack of consultation with communities.

The article also noted the issue of communicating effectively with Aboriginal people using languages other than English. Young suggested that DSS should translate materials about payments to help people know what they could get. The article reported that DSS officers who were at the briefing were not in favour of this idea and said it was too difficult.

The article reported that Aboriginal woman and Wongi speaker, Gloria Brennan of the DAA, made some suggestions during the discussion about translation. Brennan recommended the use of tape recordings or radio to better communicate to people who couldn’t read. Young agreed this would support Aboriginal people who had a strong oral tradition.

Changes following Young’s research

Some changes to servicing followed in the decade after Young’s research. For example, in the 1980s, DSS trialled translating and publishing information in Aboriginal languages.

DSS also begun to further develop their own research capabilities in the 1980s. By the end of the decade, DSS had set up the Remote Area Task Force and the North Australia Development Unit in Darwin, which researched how to provide appropriate services to Aboriginal communities.

Source details

Dr Elspeth Young undertook research in communities in the Northern Territory under a project coordinated by EK Fisk and the Australian National University Development Studies Centre. The research was supported by a grant from DAA.

Young presented a progress report to officials in Canberra. This brief summary about Young’s talk was written by unidentified officials from the Aboriginal Unit of DSS and Research Section of DAA.

The copy of the report has been held in AIATSIS’s collection since 1980.

You can access past issues of Identity magazine in AIATSIS’s online collections.


Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Department of Social Security (1979), Research in Aboriginal economy: report of fieldwork in Yuendumu, Willowra, and Numbulwar by Dr Elspeth Young, Department of Social Security, Australian Government.