Excluded from benefits
The old age pension and unemployment benefits were not available to Aboriginal Australians in the 1950s. The Social Services Act was amended in 1959 to include them but many impediments remained.
Older people had no birth certificates so proof of age was difficult. Most people had not experienced Western education and were illiterate.
They often didn't know that benefits even existed. A further impediment was that, under the amended act, benefits could not be claimed by people who were nomadic.
Many Aboriginal people were, by necessity, itinerant workers and could be ruled ineligible for unemployment benefits when they were laid off after the muster.
The following pages provide a case study of the travails of one Kalgoorlie family. Such hardships were experienced by Aboriginal people all over Australia at this time.
About the photographs
The photographs featured in this section were taken in a Kalgoorlie photographic studio in 1960, arranged and paid for by Mary Bennett.
Bennett had taught at the Mount Margaret Mission, north-east of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia and, on leaving the mission, had continued to provide assistance to the Wongi people of Kalgoorlie where she lived.
In what would turn out to be the last year of her life, Mary Bennett ensured that activists were aware of the suffering faced by people who did not fit into the social security system.
She sent the photos to Shirley Andrews, secretary of the Council for Aboriginal Rights, who was campaigning for changes in both the law and in current practice with regard to the withholding of benefits.
In 2005 copies of the photos were returned to the families in Kalgoorlie. The elders in these families gave permission for their forebears' stories to be told in the interest of community education.
Walaru (Norman Bilson) was born into a world on the brink of chaotic change. Paddy Hannan registered his prospector's claim in 1893 on the land of the Wongi people, which would become the Eastern Goldfields. The rush for gold and the establishment of towns such as Kalgoorlie in Western Australia turned young Walaru's world upside down.
When he came to Mary Bennett for assistance in 1960 Norman Bilson was an old man, his eyesight affected by cataracts. He had worked as a stockman since the end of the First World War.
While he was unsure of his exact birth date, he dictated a letter to Mary Bennett to be sent to the District Officer for Native Welfare applying for the old age pension. The letter ended: 'I am not up to work now. My age is seventy. I believe I am seventy because I was a man when the First War started.'
The 1959 amendments to the Social Services Act made it possible for Aboriginal Australians to apply for the old age pension, but Norman had no proof of age. He had been born into his traditional, tribal world and thus his birth was not registered in the white man's records.
In response to this application the District Officer asserted dogmatically:
Norman Bilson is not seventy years of age as stated by Mrs Bennett and is not yet old enough for the Age Pension.
Over the next year, as Norman's sight continued to deteriorate and he was unable to work, Mary Bennett and Norman Bilson gathered evidence of his eligibility for a pension.
A white pastoralist supported his age claim and a medical doctor confirmed that Norman did indeed have trouble with his eyesight due to cataracts. Bennett wrote to the Native Welfare officer on his behalf.
Finally, after numerous letters and the gathering of medical testimony, Norman was granted an invalid pension. This would not have been possible without the support of Mary Bennett.
Bennett used her overseas connections to publicise the situation of people such as Norman who had lost their hunting and food gathering lands and were outsiders in the settler society that had been established. In 1959 she wrote to the London-based Anti-Slavery Society:
It is dreadful to see these old people, incapacitated people, and unemployed workers, suffering hunger and refused relief, and falling ill through exposure and lack of food. Aboriginal owners share with their family, relieving many who could otherwise die uncared for, but unemployment means starvation. I have visited their camps and found they had not a scrap of food. The first obstruction that the Commonwealth brings against giving an old age pension to an Aborigine is a demand for a birth certificate, documentary evidence of age. This is penalising the victim.
Bennett was well known to the Aboriginal people of the Eastern Goldfields following her work as a teacher at Mount Margaret Mission near Laverton where she had taught many of them as children.
By 1960 she was herself in her late 70s, but she continued to battle against the unjust, discriminatory interpretation of the laws which prevented assistance being granted to people who were out of work, old, or just hungry.
Kowituku (Mrs Lulu Bilson) was another of the many deserving people for whom Mary Bennett was trying to get relief.
Lulu was the wife of Norman's older brother Kulbundja (Alec), and had earlier worked on Whitecliffs Station, north of Kalgoorlie, where she was bitten on her right hand by a diamond-patterned snake.
Family oral tradition tells of her being bitten when she was putting her hand down rabbit holes. The station manager at Whitecliffs, Mr Brockman, treated the bite and tied a ligature around her arm, which he left on for 36 hours.
An Aboriginal couple realised that Lulu's arm was deteriorating. They managed to borrow a car, scrounge some petrol and get her in to town but the damage was done. Lulu's arm had to be amputated to save her life.
Not only was there no workers' compensation for Lulu, there wasn't even adequate medical attention.
Mary Bennett was haunted by the pain in Lulu's eyes at the loss of her arm, but Lulu was a strong woman. She was admired by the other women.
'She could carry her little girl with one arm. She can sew a dress; she can cook; she can wash; she can carry three cans of water — one in her hand, one on her arm and one on her head,' Mary Bennett wrote.
Lulu's husband, Alec, had worked as an experienced dogger and expert tracker at Mount Margaret Mission in the early 1920s.
He and Lulu had worked on cattle stations until 1959 when they were told that they were too old. In 1956, 1957 and 1959 Alec, who was closer to eighty than seventy, applied for an old age pension.
He finally succeeded in 1959, but while Alec had also applied for the pensioner's wife's allowance for Lulu in all these applications he had not been successful.
Mary Bennett continued to help the old couple by writing to the authorities. Meanwhile, as she explained, they managed by sharing Alec's small pension. Without the advocacy of someone such as Bennett the Bilsons would have had no hope of gaining the benefits to which they were entitled.
Bennett to Fox-Pitt, 19 May 1959, ASS, MSS Brit Emp s22, Bodleian Library, Oxford University.
M Bennett, Council for Aboriginal Rights (Vic.) Papers, MS 12913/12/6, State Library of Victoria.
While the old Wongi people, original landholders of the Eastern Goldfields region in Western Australia, struggled to find a way to live when they were too old for work, other problems faced the next generation, living as fringe dwellers in Kalgoorlie.
Lulu's daughter, Bowee, who was married to Gidum (Tommy), led a precarious life in the streets of Kalgoorlie. In 1954 Mary Bennett described it to Shirley Andrews, Secretary of the Victorian Council for Aboriginal Rights:
I met Beverley Joy's father and mother in Wilson Street, the street leading to the station, yesterday. I suppose they were begging though they didn't beg from me. Bowee was carrying their new baby. She had a rag round her arm so I suggested going to the hospital for a dressing. Tommy said Bowee was afraid [to go to the hospital], baby naked, she hadn't washed its clothes. But where could she wash them? Was there any place except Paddy Hannan's memorial water-bag effigy in Kalgoorlie, a public drinking place? Would she be allowed to wash the baby's clothes there? And where would she dry them? On her person? It was hot enough. She is such a midget of a woman I think she is about 21. She is the dearly loved daughter of Lulu who came from the desert 20 years ago. One must see the white people's viewpoint too. I must try to find out more about this case.
The baby that Mary Bennett described was Bowee's third child. She had already relinquished the older two to Kurrawang Mission as she was unable to provide food or shelter for them.
Once there, the missionaries could claim the child endowment, which was not available to the parents. Under clause 76 of the Social Services Consolidation Act, child endowment could be paid to the mission for support of these two children.
Bennett came to believe that Aboriginal parents were refused benefits to 'encourage' them to relinquish their children to missions.
Three years later Mary Bennett described life for people like Bowee and Gidum in a letter to the Western Australian Minister for Native Affairs:
The father carries the older child who is about three years old and the mother carries the year-old baby and any scrap of food that could serve for the children's next meal. She is quite young but she is always hungry and tired, there is no baby carriage for her baby, but a smile from the tired mother when she points to a photograph of her little daughter who, with the eldest brother, was placed in a mission to be fed and sent to school. The little daughter was chosen to present a bouquet to the Queen. While the two older children of this family of four are allowed to have Child Endowment because they live in a mission, the mother is refused Child Endowment because the faithful soul moves around with the father in his struggle for employment.
Postscript: Bowee's life continued to be difficult and stressful. Her itinerant life with Tommy continued. The family was impoverished.
Their son Neil died in 1958, aged three, from septicaemia. Another son, Barry, died of gastroenteritis the following year just short of his second birthday.
In December 1967, Bowee was found dead in Hannan St, Kalgoorlie, where she had lain for three days before her death was reported. She was 39 years old.
Mary Bennett to S Andrews, 30 November 1954, Council for Aboriginal Rights (Vic.) Papers, MS 12913/4, State Library of Victoria.
Mary Bennett to JJ Brady, MLA, 3 November 1957, Council for Aboriginal Rights (Vic.) Papers, MS 12913/4, State Library of Victoria.
Will and Marjorie Sharpe, the missionaries at Kurrawang Mission, south-west of Kalgoorlie, recalled the day when Bowee asked if they could care for Beverley Joy and Ron. According to Marjorie Sharpe, Bowee, appearing relieved, told her 'if I have another little one that's alright now'. Bowee was actually pregnant at the time.
In 1954 Queen Elizabeth II visited Boulder, and five-year-old Beverley Joy was chosen to give flowers to her. This occasion was used to show the unqualified value of the policy of assimilation.
Missions such as Kurrawang were taking in destitute children and washing them, feeding and educating them. They were also giving them new names — Bowee and Tommy's children became Joy and Ron Noble — and a new language, English.
Estelle Sharp, the daughter of the Kurrawang missionaries, wrote enthusiastically of the value of mission life for young Ron and Beverley Joy.
To Mary Bennett, who had seen the value of family, especially in a chaotic world, the situation was not so clear:
It does make one wonder what these friendly responsive little mites could achieve if only they were allowed to maintain their kinship and humanity, the sense of touch, the sense of a vigorous community seeking good for all.
Council for Aboriginal Rights (Vic.) Papers, MS 12913/4/6, State Library of Victoria.
The evidence of high handedness when it came to pensions, which Mary Bennett provided to Shirley Andrews, led to campaigns both to change laws and to change practices.
One of Mary Bennett's last acts in her long life of assisting Aboriginal Australians to gain some justice, was a letter she wrote on behalf of an Aboriginal pensioner who was going to live with her son in Kalgoorlie. Although the pensioner was used to managing her own money, she was required to go to a warrantee who held her pension for her.
An ongoing cause of dissatisfaction was that even when Aboriginal people were found to be eligible for pensions, they had to apply to the local police officer or magistrate in order to gain access to any of their entitlements. Shirley Andrews never forgot the story of a young Cairns woman's experience:
I was very affronted to hear the story about this lass. She was a late teenager, she had gone and asked the policemen to buy, she wanted to buy another petticoat, and he said she had one; that was enough. And you know, I was really shocked at that and it was her own money, and what did he think she was going to do when it was in the wash?
Such situations were common at this time, and for people who had not received an education the assistance of individuals or organisations was necessary if applicants were to have any chance of actually receiving their pensions.
Campaigns in the 1950s by the Victorian Council for Aboriginal Rights, and later by the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement, led to amendments of the Social Services Act 1959, but racial limitations remained. While the new Act repealed the earlier restrictions, it added clause 137a which stated:
An aboriginal native of Australia who follows a mode of life that is, in the opinion of the Director-General, nomadic or primitive, is not entitled to a pension, allowance, endowment or benefit, under this Act.
The terms 'nomadic' and 'primitive' were not defined. But Shirley Andrews was quick to point out to the minister that a nomadic, or itinerant, lifestyle did not stop other Australians from being eligible for social service benefits. Andrews saw this clause with its undefined terms as a further example of paternalism, which was open to abuse.
In questioning the government's motives for such an exclusion, Shirley Andrews pointed out that people still living a traditional nomadic life would hardly be applying for benefits.
With the passage of the amended Act the campaigning focus took two directions. The first direction was provision of information to Aboriginal people about how to apply for an old age pension or any of the other benefits for which they were now eligible.
In 1963 Shirley Andrews and Rodney Hall (who would later become well known as a novelist) published A Yinjilli Leaflet: Social Services for Aborigines. This leaflet did what the government failed to do; it told Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers what benefits they could apply for and how and where to do this. The leaflet told Aboriginal readers:
You have the same rights as other Australians to claim social service benefits.
The Federal Council distributed this leaflet to missions, reserves and cattle stations across the continent. The fact that many of the people it was addressed to were illiterate, however, meant that mission and reserve managers could control whether the information was passed on.
The second direction was to alert the Australian public as a whole to the fact that most Aboriginal pensioners did not receive the benefits to which they were entitled. Instead their benefits were paid to the missions or reserves where these pensioners lived.
Unlike the Yinjilli leaflet written for Aboriginal readers, 'Social Service benefits still denied to Aborigines' addressed non-Aboriginal Australians.
Shirley Andrews pointed out that changing the law was not enough. People who were eligible for a pension but were living on a mission or government reserve were not paid directly. Instead the money went to the institution. This system was open to abuse and mismanagement.
A further valuable contribution which Shirley Andrews made to public knowledge was a tabulation, The Australian Aborigines: A Summary of their Situation in all States in 1962.
This showed the plethora of state laws governing people, variously defined by state governments as 'Aborigines' and the limitations to their rights - to move, to marry, to rear their children, to handle their earnings or to own property.
This table was circulated to interested bodies and provided the clear evidence of legislation which robbed people of basic rights. For example, in Queensland at this time mission dwellers' letters could be legally opened before being passed to the recipient.
This document was most likely the first attempt to make publicly available much needed information at a time when the numbers of vocal critics of government failures in Aboriginal affairs was growing. It also strengthened the argument for encouraging the Commonwealth to take a more active role.
In July 1963 Kath Walker, Queensland state secretary of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA), asked the General Secretary, Stan Davey, to find out why Aboriginal tuberculosis (TB) patients in Queensland were not receiving Commonwealth support.
The Commonwealth had introduced a tuberculosis allowance so that people who contracted tuberculosis could recuperate without going back to work and spreading infection.
Davey passed the issue to Dr Barry Christophers, convenor of the newly formed FCAA committee, Equal Wages for Aborigines.
A medical practitioner, Christophers began investigating and found that there was a clause in the Tuberculosis Act which excluded 'aborigines and people of mixed blood who prior to their illness, did not support themselves and their dependents (if any) from their earnings'.
This clause contradicted another clause in the Tuberculosis Act which stated that the allowance should be paid to an eligible applicant, 'irrespective of nationality or racial origin'.
Joe McGinness worked with Christophers, collecting evidence of discrimination against Aboriginal and Islander TB patients in Queensland. He visited the tuberculosis wards up and down the Queensland coast and collected details on more than 20 Aboriginal patients who were sick with TB but were not receiving the allowance.
This led to a vigorous 18-month campaign. The New South Wales state secretary of FCAA, Faith Bandler, wrote to the Australian Medical Association, pointing out the discrimination on racial grounds.
Barry Christophers wrote to federal ministers for health and social services, state governors, the Australian Medical Association and leading health professionals, pressing for the racially discriminatory clause in the Tuberculosis Act to be removed.
He also wrote to the Medical Journal of Australia and to Smoke Signals, to inform doctors and the general public of the situation.
In February 1965 — after a campaign that targeted members of parliament, bureaucrats, doctors and even the Governor-General who was the patron of the Tuberculosis Association — the Director-General of Health announced that a decision had been taken.
The specific reference to 'aborigines and people of mixed blood' was to be deleted from the Act. This was the first victory for the Equal Wages for Aborigines Committee of FCAA.
Barry Christophers Papers, MS 7992, National Library of Australia.
Sue Taffe, Black and White Together: FCAATSI, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2005.
Sue Taffe, 'Health, the law and racism: The campaign to amend the discriminatory clauses in the Tuberculosis Act', Labour History, no. 76, May 1999, pp 41–58.