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DSS reviews policy on Aboriginal marriage practices

DSS’s policy on supporting multiple wives from traditional marriages was unclear in the late 1980s. Research into the issue suggested solutions.

The treatment of aspects of Aboriginal culture – such as polygamy – will be an indication of ... how far the commitment to equity and social justice has come.

Bill Pennington, 1990
About the artefact

In the 1960s, the government decided that only the first wives would be eligible for payments in cases of Aboriginal polygamous marriages. 

While the Department of Social Security (DSS) theoretically upheld this position, it was not stated in law. As government payments and procedures changed through the 1970s and 1980s, uncertainty increased for DSS officials. 

This excerpt contains a report and discussion paper about DSS’s policy on polygamous Aboriginal cultural marriage. The papers were put together by Bill Pennington who worked for DSS’s North Australia Development Unit. 

The need for a clear policy 

The government originally developed social security policy to meet the needs of a monogamous and heterosexual nuclear family. This created a gap for people who fell outside this model, including multiple wives in Aboriginal marriages.  

While DSS policy stated that only first wives were eligible for payments, researchers found most DSS staff made efforts to ensure all wives got support. This left DSS with an inconsistent service for Aboriginal families. 

In 1986, the Australian Law Reform Commission suggested DSS should do better at factoring in polygamous marriages into their policies. 

Suggested solutions 

Pennington collated responses from staff in DSS offices across the Northern Territory, Western Australia and information from the Social Security Appeals Tribunal in his research. He also drew on other research being done in the North Australia Development Unit, including the Where to now? report.

In his report, Pennington emphasises the need for specific policies for Aboriginal families.  

His research shows there were many ways financial responsibilities were shared in polygamous marriages, and suggested paying only the ‘first’ wife in every case did not meet the needs of families.

Pennington suggested that DSS should assess each wife independently and provide: 

  • Widows Payment to all wives if the husband passed away 

  • payments to all women who had children in their care. 

Unclear response from DSS  

It’s unclear how DSS responded to the research. However, looking into the issue demonstrates a willingness to proactively consider how government could appropriately respond to Aboriginal cultural practices in the late 1980s.  

Source details

This source is made up of excerpts from 2 papers published by Bill Pennington through the North Australia Development Unit. Pennington undertook a literature review as well as surveying DSS staff who worked across regional and remote areas. 

These copies of the reports are held by the Department of Social Services library.  


Pennington B (1989) Response to the central office discussion paper on polygamous marriages, North Australia Development Unit, Department of Social Security, Australian Government, Darwin. 

Pennington B (1990) Polygamy in transition: the nature of polygamy in remote areas of Australia and its treatment by the Department of Social Security, North Australia Development Unit, Department of Social Security, Australian Government, Darwin.