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Torres Strait Islander’s activism leads to change

In her autobiographies, Ellie Gaffney discussed her work advocating for direct payments for Torres Strait Islander people and for a DSS office to be established on Thursday Island.

... the family and I moved to Brisbane after securing an Abstudy grant ... The decision to move cost us ... big money ...

Ellie Gaffney, 1989, p 47
About the artefact

Ellie Gaffney was a prominent Torres Strait Islander activist who fought for better access to social security on the islands. Her autobiographies provide valuable first-hand accounts of how government payments affected life for Torres Strait Islander people and how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists were central to change movements.  

Born in 1932, Gaffney had family connections to Mabuiag Island and spent time in her youth in Cape York and Cherbourg. She wrote 2 autobiographies about her efforts advocating for Torres Strait Islander people.  

Nursing work and joining activism 

In this excerpt from her first book, Somebody now: the autobiography of Ellie Gaffney, a woman of Torres Strait, she tells her experiences of her early career in nursing.  

Gaffney was one of the first qualified Torres Strait Islander nurses and trained in Brisbane in the 1960s. She worked in Cairns and Darwin, raising her family there. Gaffney pursued higher education, receiving ABSTUDY to train further in Brisbane in 1979. Despite this, her ongoing experiences of racism when nursing at Thursday Island’s hospital led her to leave the profession.  

Gaffney set out on a new career path. She made connections with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who encouraged her to apply for a job at Aboriginal Hostels Limited. Through this role she worked with prominent activists, including Evelyn Scott, Joe McGinness and her brother Ted Loban.   

Advocating for direct payments and better access to government services 

In her follow-up book, Mura solwata kosker: We saltwater women (2007), Gaffney details her work alongside these activists. She writes about Scott and Loban raising concerns about indirect payments and asking the government to pay Torres Strait Islander people directly.  

At the time, the Department of Social Security (DSS) paid a lump sum ‘community cheque’ to the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Advancement Department instead of paying individuals.  

Scott and Loban believed the state government mismanaged the payments and asked the federal government to pay people directly and set up an office on the islands.  

While working as a manager through Hostels, Gaffney was appointed as an agent for DSS. In this role, Gaffney networked with council clerks across the islands and encouraged people to register with DSS to get payments. She collected people’s forms and gathered statistics for DSS.  

Through this work, Gaffney was able to show that a DSS presence in the Torres Strait was needed to support people to access government payments and services.  

DSS was included as part of a new federal government office block which opened on Thursday Island in 1984. The department expanded the Community Agent pilot that Gaffney was part of to more locations. 

Noting limits of payments 

Gaffney wrote of her concerns about the overall health of Torres Strait Islander people. Over her career, Gaffney noted changes in people’s health, livelihood and income on the islands. She wrote that there was less fishing at more distant sites as ‘... the social security benefits which are their main income are inadequate to live on, let alone to purchase a motorboat’ (1989:104). This was coupled with restrictions on hunting and water usage.  

While Gaffney’s accounts show the importance of community networking and activism in leading change for Torres Strait Islander people, they also reveal that discrimination continued in many ways. Gaffney and other activists fought through times when ‘life was made unbearable’ by racism to incite positive change. 

Source details

Gaffney wrote and published her first autobiography Somebody now in 1989 and later published Mura solwata kosker in 2007.

Aboriginal Studies Press with AIATSIS supplied this digitised excerpt from Somebody now.


Permission to include this excerpt was granted by Ellie Gaffney’s daughter MaryAnn Ansey.


Gaffney E (1989) Somebody now: The autobiography of Ellie Gaffney, a woman of the Torres Strait, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.