Fighting to save an Aboriginal reserve
In 1957 the Victorian Government accepted the recommendations of a report it had commissioned into Aboriginal affairs.
Named after its principal author, retired Chief Stipendiary Magistrate Charles McLean, the McLean Report argued that Lake Tyers in south-eastern Victoria should be closed down, and that such an action would hasten the assimilation of Aboriginal Victorians into the mainstream community.
The government promised better quality houses as an inducement for people to leave Lake Tyers. The major drawback was that the houses were scattered around country towns and often a long way from home.
Colin Tatz, a member of the Victorian Aborigines Welfare Board, disparagingly referred to this strategy as 'pepper potting'. The cost was high for those who moved — social isolation from friends and relatives. And once they left Lake Tyers, they were not permitted to return.
Lake Tyers was the only remaining Victorian reserve for Aboriginal people which was staffed. The fight to save it was supported by churches, unions and activist organisations, and the protest grew until it could not be ignored.
This was a clash of ideas: assimilation of the Lake Tyers population into the mainstream community, or recognition that people had a right to stay on the Lake Tyers reserve — on land which was their home.
Lake Tyers settlement was started by Anglican missionary John Bulmer in 1863 when it was one of six such reserves for Aboriginal Victorians.
By 1917 it was the only government-run reserve remaining in Victoria and, through the 1920s, the Aborigines Protection Board began transferring people from Coranderrk, Ebenezer and Lake Condah reserves to Lake Tyers.
These former reserve lands were then carved up as soldier settler blocks for returned servicemen (with the exception of Aboriginal servicemen, whose applications for land were rejected).
Lake Tyers was in a very isolated part of Victoria in eastern Gippsland and, as a result of the transfers from other reserves, became home to Indigenous Victorians from all over the state. Apart from some stints as seasonal workers picking peas and beans, residents were effectively cut off from the rest of the Victorian community.
Aboriginal concern about the future of Lake Tyers was expressed much earlier than the 1961–1962 campaign.
In 1948 the Australian Aborigines' League told the government that 'land titles of Lake Tyers must be transferred with due precaution in the matter of safeguard to prevent any attempted dispossession of the Aborigines and mixed bloods by any person'.
A few years after this, Laurie Moffatt, a spokesman for Lake Tyers residents, was reported in The Argus newspaper:
We do not want to see Lake Tyers finally sold to the white man in the same way as Ramahyuck, Condah, Ebenezer Mission and Coranderrk Reserves have been sold. All these have been hostels for the aborigines in my lifetime and have been sold to the white man to cultivate.
Australian Aborigines' League, Terms of Reference for an Enquiry, 4 March 1948, Council for Aboriginal Rights (Vic.) Papers, MS 12913/8/1, State Library of Victoria.
The Argus, 28 January 1952.
The McLean Report
In 1953 Charles McLean, a recently retired Chief Stipendiary Magistrate, was appointed to enquire into the operation of the Aborigines Act 1928. His report, tabled in 1957, suggested a policy of 'active assimilation' as the basis for Victorian policy in Aboriginal affairs over the next decade.
One of the specific matters he was asked to report on was the question of whether the Lake Tyers Aboriginal station should be retained or discontinued.
McLean argued that Lake Tyers should be kept, but only for those who were old and infirm, and he recommended that the size of the reserve be reduced. His policy of active assimilation recommended that housing be offered in country towns but that no more than two or three families be allowed to settle in the same town.
Council for Aboriginal Rights report
In December 1961, at the suggestion of Laurie Moffatt from Lake Tyers, a Council for Aboriginal Rights delegation visited Lake Tyers Reserve to see conditions on the reserve for themselves.
The delegation reported that the homes of the 150 people living there were without running water and without a drainage system. The community bath house was hundreds of yards away from some homes. As a consequence of insanitary conditions, most of the children on the reserve suffered from intestinal worms, and pneumonia was frequent.
Residents, however, could only consult the doctor who visited the settlement once a month, if the manager's wife approved such a consultation. The people depended on rations, which they collected from the store twice a week.
The gate to the reserve was locked and if residents left the reserve without permission they were fined. If people entered the reserve without permission they were summonsed for trespass. It was against government regulations for residents to own a car, so if they wanted to go into town at Lakes Entrance they walked the 25 kilometres to get there.
The people worked under supervision. The only schooling on the reserve was a primary school. The approach was paternalistic and the people were demoralised.
Government decides to close the reserve
In 1962 the Victorian Chief Secretary announced that, following the recommendation of the McLean Report, Lake Tyers would be abolished. He claimed that the 'worst service to Aboriginal families would be to continue to improve Lake Tyers'.
Many people living at Lake Tyers had been there for generations. Some were Gunnai people, the original inhabitants of the region. Others had come from different parts of the state when other missions and reserves were progressively closed down. By 1962 Lake Tyers was the only government-supervised Aboriginal reserve in Victoria.
Opposing views on the closure
Two diametrically opposed views emerged: the Victorian Government held that residents could only gain equal rights and treatment if they lived and worked among white people. Thus, Lake Tyers residents were under heavy pressure to move to country towns which, in some cases, were hundreds of kilometres away from family and friends.
An opposing view saw this as coercive assimilation. Lake Tyers residents had not been prepared, practically or emotionally, for this radical change in their lives. And besides, it was argued, they should be able to continue living at Lake Tyers if they wished to do so.
Moreover, those opposing coercive assimilation argued that Aboriginal residents of Lake Tyers and Framlingham, the only other Victorian reserve (it was not staffed), should be entitled, legally and morally, to ownership of these remaining reserve lands.
Others, such as anthropologist Dr Diane Barwick, who made a personal submission to the Victorian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, referred to policy in other countries and argued for people's right to be consulted on social policy. She also criticised the Aborigines Welfare Board for refusing to allow seasonal workers who had left the reserve to return.
A failed exercise in social engineering
Some families were persuaded to move from Lake Tyers with offers of houses, but they had not been prepared for the move. They had no experience in handling their own money, in living in a house with power, water and sewerage connected, and in working or mixing socially with a white community.
Once residents left Lake Tyers they were not allowed to return. Many were unhappy and tried to return to Lake Tyers, but permission was refused. By 1966 less than half of the Aboriginal families rehoused by the Aboriginal Welfare Board were still in the houses provided.
McLean Report, Parliamentary Papers (Victoria), 1956–58, vol 2, paper no 14.
Melbourne Herald, 16 April 1962.
A coalition of activists forms
In May 1963 Melbourne-based bodies — the Australian Aborigines' League, the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League and the Council for Aboriginal Rights — launched a campaign to support residents who wished to save Lake Tyers.
Pastor Doug Nicholls, a member of the Aborigines Welfare Board, disassociated himself from the Board's rehousing policy, stating: 'Assimilation in a forced manner will destroy my People's social structure and kill them as a people.'
Pauline Pickford, Honorary Secretary of the Council for Aboriginal Rights, had earlier visited the Lake Tyers community and established friendly relationships with people living there. Residents responded to her genuine interest in assisting them by writing letters describing their treatment.
One woman complained that 'every time my husband comes here on to the mission to see us the manager always gets the police out here to chase him about just like an escaped convict'.
Pickford encouraged people to join the Council for Aboriginal Rights. Two leaders of the campaign for Lake Tyers — Gene Mobourne and Laurie Moffatt — did become members and, along with other Lake Tyers residents, attended annual conferences of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) in Canberra.
Pastor Doug Nicholls told Melbourne Age readers how much birthplace meant to Aboriginal people and that moving people far from their homes was doomed to fail. He also pointed out that people had not been prepared for the change.
As was the case with Aboriginal people in other isolated communities, many at Lake Tyers did not realise that there were others in similar circumstances fighting for their land. Pickford wrote to Gene Mobourne: 'I've enclosed a press cutting which will show you that your problem is part of a big problem, which is getting world wide publicity.'
In addition, Aboriginal activists from other parts of Australia — Dexter Daniels from Roper River in the Northern Territory, Joe McGinness and Gladys O'Shane from Cairns and Kath Walker from Brisbane — visited Melbourne and Lake Tyers to lend support.
The Council for Aboriginal Rights reported that the 1963 meeting of FCAATSI argued for a 'special form of land tenure granted to Aborigines so that ownership of reserves may not be superseded even by mineral rights'.
The Victorian State Executive of the Communist Party of Australia produced and circulated a leaflet which set out its ideas for the future of the reserve.
At the 1965 FCAATSI conference, people shared their painful stories of dispossession. Laurie Moffatt told of the effects of the assimilation policy being pursued by the Victorian Government. People were driven from homes occupied by generations of their forebears.
Charlie Carter, also from Lake Tyers, said that the Board had destroyed the better homes or caused them to be removed so that people were forced to live in squalid conditions.
Support from anthropologists
Anthropologists such as Dr Diane Barwick and Donald Thomson favoured the retention of Lake Tyers for the residents, expressing their vehement objections to the government's policy of 'coercive assimilation' in letters to the daily papers.
In the research for her PhD thesis, 'A Little More than Kin', Barwick had gained insights into how Victorian Aboriginal communities operated and supported their members. In 1964 she made a submission to the minister on the future of Lake Tyers.
She criticised the Board for failing to canvas Aboriginal opinions. She criticised Charles McLean for failing to speak with those Lake Tyers residents who had made submissions to his Board of Inquiry in 1956.
She drew attention to the fact that, in Canada and the United States of America, assimilation which ignored social and cultural identity had been abandoned as counterproductive more than a decade earlier.
The model that replaced this approach stressed the importance of consultation with Native American communities for the success of a program. Indeed, the Indian Act provided for self-governing communities on reserves.
Barwick pointed to the apparent ignorance of Victorian policy-makers about overseas programs and approaches to colonised indigenous minorities.
In 1963 Nicholls led a march in Melbourne of 40 Aboriginal people, mostly from Lake Tyers, protesting Board policy.
Edna Harrison to Pauline Pickford, 1 July 1961, Council for Aboriginal Rights (Vic.) Papers, MS 12913/7, State Library of Victoria.
Pauline Pickford, Lake Tyers, 1 April 1963, Council for Aboriginal Rights (Vic.) Papers, MS 12913/3/8, State Library of Victoria.
Pauline Pickford, Lake Tyers, Council for Aboriginal Rights (Vic.) Papers, 1 April 1963, MS 12913/3/8, State Library of Victoria.
The Lake Tyers campaign received public attention, especially after an article 'Human failure of Lake Tyers experiment' by Stuart Sayers was published in the Age newspaper. Sayers argued that Lake Tyers was a failure and should be closed.
Stan Davey was one of a number of readers who disagreed with him.
Some respondents to Sayers' article stressed the right of the people to a fair go: to educational opportunities and the right to manage their own lives. Others referred to a people's right to their own homeland.
Anthropologist Lorna Lippmann wrote:
These 4000 acres are regarded by the aboriginal people as their last remaining holding in a State which was once entirely theirs, and which was taken from them without any compensation whatever.
Overseas journalists hear of Australian human rights abuses
Others related the discussion about the future of Lake Tyers to wider concerns.
At a United Nations seminar in Canberra in May 1963 Shirley Andrews, representing the London-based Anti-Slavery Society, drew attention to the fact that the police in all Australian states had dictatorial power over Aboriginal people, whose homes could be entered and searched without a warrant.
The Age reported this seminar under the headline:
Aust. Condemned on Treatment of Natives.
Letters to the editor used Andrews' speech to draw attention to the infringement of human rights suffered by Aboriginal people in all states and the hypocrisy of Australian criticism of racist policy overseas.
A further march of Lake Tyers residents and supporters, another leaflet and petitions to the state government and to the United Nations seemed to offer some hope. In June 1964 Gladys O'Shane travelled from Cairns to offer her support to the Gippsland branch of the Union of Australian Women who were campaigning for Lake Tyers.
In 1970, under the Aboriginal Lands Act, the work of seven years paid off. The Victorian Government handed back 4000 acres at Lake Tyers and 583 acres at Framlingham to two Aboriginal trusts.
The system of inclusion, however, was poorly thought out as those residing at Lake Tyers between 1968 and 1970 qualified for shares, regardless of where they came from.
However, a number of Gunnai people who had been persuaded by the earlier government policy to leave Lake Tyers were now ineligible for shares in the Trust.
This was further evidence of the official disregard for the importance of place to Aboriginal people who had been moved from one reserve to another to suit the land needs of the colonising culture.
The Victorian hand back of land to Indigenous people was only the second in Australia, after the hand back to the Pitjantjatjara people by the South Australian Government in 1966.