Events in Australia did not culminate in the horrors of the mass extermination camps of Nazi Germany during the years of the Second World War. However, Aboriginal people in Australia’s refugee camps and gulags faced for a far longer period the daily reality of starvation, disease, chronic ill health and often early death.
— Anna Haebich, 2001
Academic historians today blame many of the problems in Aboriginal settlements on the parsimony of government funding which, in turn, purportedly derived from a desire to be rid of them. Some historians paint a depressing picture of the stations and reserves in order to persuade their readers to compare them to the concentration camps and refugee camps of Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. As the quotation above demonstrates, Anna Haebich equated government-funded Aboriginal settlements in Australia with the gulags of the USSR, the death camps where the victims of Stalin died from overwork, cold and starvation.
Most historians of New South Wales have not openly used descriptions as dismal as this, but their readers get much the same drift. These authors have focused particularly on the 1930s, the decade they claim was the most hostile to the Aboriginal presence. Heather Goodall, Andrew Markus and Bain Attwood have all alleged that the New South Wales government slashed Aboriginal expenditures heavily during the 1930s. Goodall blames the Aborigines Protection Board’s preoccupation with removing children from its settlements for its failure to properly care for its charges during the worst Depression years. She asserts:
Aboriginal people faced intolerably crowded and insanitary conditions on the reserves and stations, because between 1930 and 1936 the Board simply had no funds to build emergency accommodation or to improve the water supplies or other infrastructure; this had fallen into neglect over previous decades when it had expected that all the Aboriginal residents would be finally ‘dispersed’.
None of this is true, either before, during or after the Great Depression. One thing beyond question is the direction taken by the funding. Even in years when the New South Wales government’s general revenues plummeted, its spending on Aborigines went up. In the first four years of the Depression from 1930 to 1933, annual state grants to Aborigines rose from £37,746 to £57,271, a growth of 52 per cent. In the decade of the 1930s the only year government funding declined was 1934 when the budget was down by a mere 5.6 per cent to £54,082. By 1939, the total annual expenditure of £89,169 represented an increase of 136 per cent on the figure at the start of the decade. This was a real increase too, since inflation during the 1930s was virtually non-existent.
In 1932, the worst year of the Depression, the state government responded to unemployment among Aboriginal rural workers and apprentices, and their consequent influx onto the reserves, by increasing its total expenditure on Aborigines by no less than 40 per cent. That year, the board believed the ‘large majority’ of those previously in the workforce had lost their jobs, and it responded accordingly:
To meet the situation and to assist the able bodied men to maintain their self-respect, the Board has, in return for rations and other assistance, provided employment on its Reserves, and a good deal of such work as fencing, road making, formation of gardens, drainage, etc, has been carried out.
Goodall supported her allegation that between 1930 and 1936 the board lacked funds for accommodation, water supplies or other infrastructure with a footnote reference to nothing but her own unpublished writings. The reality was quite different. In these years, the board’s records reveal it drew on both its own budget and from funds of the Unemployment Relief Council to undertake a substantial program of building and infrastructure development on its stations and reserves. By 1934 it had:
· constructed 46 new buildings on ten stations and reserves;
· made repairs and additions to buildings on seven other reserves;
· constructed workshops, storerooms and milking sheds at several centres;
· built two recreation halls at Taree and Toomelah;
· moved a group of Aborigines camped near the town water supply at Yass to a new site where it contracted for the construction of sixteen new buildings and a school, the connection of a water supply, and fencing;
· moved the entire population of the Aboriginal station at Carowra Tank near Mossgiel, whose water supply was failing, to Menindee where it constructed housing for 200 people, a residence for the teacher-manager, a school, tool sheds, storerooms and a pumping plant.
The board also used unemployment relief money to improve its La Perouse reserve in Sydney, giving it new buildings specially designed by the Government Architect, trees and shrubs planted by the Botanic Gardens, a water supply to each dwelling, and sewerage for the whole area. Indeed, the Government Tourist Bureau thought so highly of refurbished La Perouse it listed it with Bondi Beach among Sydney’s recommended visiting spots for overseas tourists.
Outside the government stations and reserves, however, life in these years was often grim for Aborigines. Many inhabited unauthorized camps that sprang up on stock routes and the fringes of the larger country towns, especially Armidale, Moree and Lismore. They had no sanitary facilities and their dwellings were nothing but shelters made of bagging, old petrol tins and bark. The board sought legislative authority to close these camps and move their inhabitants onto its reserves ‘where they, and particularly the women and children, will be housed, and encouraged to live, under better moral and physical conditions’. An amendment to the Act in 1936 allowed it to do this, but not under its own authority. It first had to apply for a court order and justify its actions to a magistrate. By this time, however, the worst of the economic and housing crises had passed.
As part of their determination to compare Australia to fascist Europe, academic historians today dramatize the 1936 Act as a tyranny that confined Aboriginal people against their will. Heather Goodall calls it ‘the Dog Act’ because Aborigines ‘now could be penned up and shifted around just like animals’. She claims, quite against the evidence, that the amendment was targeted not at unauthorized camps but at the populations on the Aborigines Protection Board’s own stations. In practice, the new law was largely redundant even before it came into force, because by 1936 rural employment was returning to pre-Depression levels and the unauthorized camp dwellers were abandoning their makeshift settlements of their own accord, either for jobs on pastoral stations or for accommodation on the board’s stations. By this time, many of the remainder of these camps had become sites of government unemployment relief projects and by law could not be touched. So, even armed with the 1936 amendment, the board found it lacked the ability to close them or to persuade their inhabitants to move.
These camps are not under the jurisdiction of the Board, and are often situated on private land or council reserves. The Board, from time to time, has attempted to remove the people to Stations or Reserves, but the aborigines, in most instances, steadfastly refuse to remove, preferring to remain where they are handy to the town for employment and where they may participate in the amenities of town life.
In 1940, a Public Service Board inquiry into the management of Aboriginal affairs found this and other regulations the board had acquired were either unnecessary or superfluous: ‘Many of the powers conferred on the Board have not been used to any extent, if at all.’
For most of its existence, the board strove to provide Aboriginal welfare equal to that given to white people. Managed stations had provided free housing since the 1880s. There were times when the board was unabashed about its achievements. The annual report for 1926–27 boasted:
For several years past the Board has adopted a policy of general improvement of the living conditions on its reserves, and can now point to such places as Cumeroogunga, Brungle, Walhallow, Wallaga Lake, Cabbage Tree Island, Cowra, Pilliga, Angledool, and many others where the residents are living under conditions equal to and in some cases superior to those existing in some white settlements.
By the mid-1920s, the majority of Aboriginal stations in rural New South Wales had reticulated water supplies, telephones, garbage collection and sanitation services, amenities that many country towns and even some Sydney suburbs did not get until the 1960s. At Cumeroogunga in 1937, the assistant manager observed:
all the houses had European furniture. Some of them had dining room suites. I can recall two houses that were as well furnished, or better furnished, than the houses of many white working men. Every second or third house had a wireless set, some of which had cost up to 29 guineas.
It is true that in the 1930s population growth and the sudden influx of outsiders meant that on some stations many houses became overcrowded and in need of repair. Some were so old they had become ramshackle and decrepit. On some reserves, newcomers seeking refuge from the Depression built shelters for themselves that were ‘nothing more than hovels made from old leaky flattened iron and rough bush timber’. Aboriginal housing was one area where government funding, although boosted from £1400 in 1930 to £16,100 in 1939, remained inadequate throughout that decade.
In other fields, however, welfare for Aborigines really was comparable to that provided for white people. On the stations in New South Wales, Aborigines were given a regular issue of winter and summer clothing, baby outfits, blankets, food rations, tobacco, free medical attention, and some limited dental treatment. Government welfare payments for Aborigines at the time included widows’ pensions, family endowment, maternity allowances, plus old age and invalid pensions for those who had a substantial history of employment. In the late 1930s, an inquiry by the Public Service Board found the food rations nutritionally deficient. But the government immediately accepted a Department of Public Health recommendation for additional funding to provide more meat, milk and cereals. ‘The result today,’ the inquiry concluded in 1940, ‘is that the ration scale is, for practical purposes, about equivalent to that provided for the general community under the jurisdiction of the Department of Social Services.’