Australian Government

Spanning 50 years, this collection of over 100 artefacts shows significant changes that occurred as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people fought for equal access to government payments and services.

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Browse key stories below or select ‘see all’ to take a deep dive into a decade.
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1940s and earlier

The 1947 Social Services Consolidation Act shifted social services from being a state responsibility to being a federal responsibility. It also consolidated government payments under one Act.
However, the Act explicitly excluded most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from payments. Activists challenged this exclusion in the lead-up to the new Act.
See all from 1940s and earlier


Leader fights for fair access to benefits

Aboriginal activist and leader, Pearl Gibbs, fought for fair access to pensions and income support payments. She questioned proposed changes to social services legislation.

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As it was not compulsory for [Aboriginal people] to be registered at birth until about 45 years ago, they have much trouble in proving age ... through no fault of their own, which you will agree is most unjust ...
Pearl Gibbs, 26 August 1942 p 1


Social Services Act excludes Aboriginal people

A new Act brought a range of social services together under federal government responsibility. It excluded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from payments unless they had an exemption.

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(2.) An age pension or an invalid pension may be granted to an aboriginal native of Australia if— (a) he is for the time being exempt from the provisions of the law of the State or Territory ... relating to the control of aboriginal natives ...
Social Services Consolidation Act 1947, section 19(2)


Exclusion from government payments continued for most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people throughout the 1950s.
The law changed in 1959, however, accessing payments remained challenging, and the Social Services Act continued to discriminate based on race.
See all from 1950s


Memoir shows wide-ranging discrimination

Doreen Kartinyeri’s life story holds details of a number of issues that her family faced in accessing government payments, including issues with living on missions, exemptions and child removal.

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… sisters and brothers often received different benefits … same mother and father; same features, but different entitlements because one was lighter skinned than the other.
Doreen Kartinyeri, 2008, p 20


DSS handbook shows Aboriginal exclusion

When DSS published a handbook about payments and eligibility for the public, it highlighted Aboriginal peoples’ exclusion from government payments.

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But whatever the form of assistance, it is not only the individual who benefits. The community in general is strengthened because of social services and our whole national life is the richer for them.
Hugh S Roberton, Minister for Social Services, 1956


Following changes to social security law in 1959 and 1966, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people became eligible for government payments for the first time.
However, eligibility was confusing, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people still had their finances controlled, and they were often expected to accept low wages.
See all from 1960s


People face challenges proving age without a certificate 

For a long time, Aboriginal people weren’t given birth certificates. Walaru’s experience is an example of how difficult it was to prove age and show eligibility for Old-age Pension.

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My age is seventy. I believe I am seventy because I was a man when the First War started.
Norman Bilson or Walaru in Smoke Signals, 1960, pp 27–29


Advocates publish Yinjilli leaflet to help people understand entitlements 

With many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people missing out on payments, the Federal Council of Aboriginal Advancement wrote a leaflet to provide guidance about accessing payments.

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Many Aborigines have had trouble in getting the benefits due to them ... If you wish to apply for benefits, you are advised to write direct to the nearest office of the Department of Social Services. If your application is made direct ... you should not suffer any discrimination.
Andrews and Hall for the FCAA, 1963, p 2


The government began to introduce targeted programs to meet Aboriginal people’s needs, including ABSTUDY, Aboriginal Liaison Officers, and the Community Development Employment Program. However, access to Unemployment Benefit was contentious.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists fought for self-determination for their communities and continued to highlight discrimination in government policies and servicing.
See all from 1970s


Activists use payments for change

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people used government payments to gain further rights and freedoms. Activist Joyce Clague’s story reveals how payments became linked to land rights.

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You know, you fellas can hurry this on, you know ... if you save 2 dollars at a time out of your pension, out of the child endowment, and if you work you give a little bit more because – and you fellas’ll have this soon.
Joyce Clague in oral history, 1996


Autobiography details one man’s pension experience

Social services impacted people in different ways. This excerpt from Jimmie Barker’s autobiography details his experience of having to stop work and beginning to get the pension.

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It was only six weeks after I left the hospital that my first pension cheque arrived, and it has been coming regularly ever since. It is not very much, but it is much more money than I had in my early days. It is a great help to me.
Jimmie Barker, 1977, p 170


ABSTUDY ads use Aboriginal artwork

To better reach Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audiences, the government started using Aboriginal artwork on their advertisements.

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The Aboriginal Study Grants Scheme (ABSTUDY) helps Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders who have left school and want to study ...
Department of Education ABSTUDY brochure, July 1979


The government expanded outreach programs in the 1980s. They began communicating more actively and effectively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customers through videos and translations.
Researchers reviewed Australia’s social security system, while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural practices and family structures remained unaccounted for in policy.
See all from 1980s


The Miller report supports self-determination in employment policies

An influential report on government programs recommended changes to improve employment and education outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

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Since the difficulty of obtaining paid employment has increased and Aboriginal unemployment has risen, Aboriginal people have become increasingly dependent on government transfer payments as a source of income. This also implies that the delivery of social services and income support has been improved, whilst the economic earning power of Aboriginal people has not …
Miller report, 1985, p 39


Aboriginal Liaison Officers share experiences in training video

To train Aboriginal Liaison Officers, DSS created a video with stories from officers around the country.

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Always remember that you’re there ... working for your community ... I think you have to have a lot of commitment, dedication, to be able to have the drive to face the frustrations that you’ll face in social security, in working with a government bureaucracy.
Joe Flick, DSS, 1988


Research into targeted programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people showed promising results, but it also showed the need for the government to engage more with communities.
The government made many changes to social security programs and payments, including replacing Unemployment Benefit with Newstart, setting up the Support Network for Aboriginal Parents Program, and establishing Centrelink.
See all from 1990s


Torres Strait Islands video uses local footage and languages

DSS made a video to inform Torres Strait Islander people about the payments they could get and how to apply. It was recorded in 4 languages.

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I hope that you go play your role for gaining information, because it will benefit you, yourself, as an individual or as family or as community ...
Getano Lui Jnr, 1991


DSS uses comic to explain a new payment

To give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families information about a new payment, DSS worked with Aboriginal professionals to publish a comic.

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This FAS Top-up money Janie – Helps you with the kids? Helps a lot, Gertie! – with kids’ lunch money for school … with tucker … Your community is CDEP – You can get Top-up Money too!
Top-up money for kids comic, 1991, p 3

Beyond 1997

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continued to petition the government to consider community perspectives when making decisions about social services.
Today, Services Australia delivers social service programs and payments. We are working towards a better future for all Australians through our commitment to reconciliation.
Beyond 1997