The indisposition of the aborigines to manual labour is well known; but as they can obtain work of various kinds in the country they should not only be induced to take it, but they should be discouraged from remaining in comparative idleness at mission stations, where they will certainly abide as long as they are provided with food and clothing, without some corresponding demand being made upon their labour.
— Phillip Gidley King and Edmund Fosbery, report on missions to Aborigines, 1882
The founding of the Aborigines Protection Board was one small part of a more general tendency of the era, the growth of state intervention in the economy and in the lives of citizens. In New South Wales, from the end of the convict era in 1838 until the economic depression of the 1890s, politicians who supported free trade either held office themselves or exerted most influence in the ruling ideas of the times. The crash of the 1890s was a severe blow to private confidence and so the advocates of state action came to the fore in a number of fields, in particular social welfare. At the time, private and church-funded philanthropy found it difficult to raise funds and governments stepped in to run existing institutions or create new ones of their own. In Aboriginal affairs, the privately funded Aborigines Protection Association ran out of money for its missions at Cumeroogunga, Warangesda and Brewarrina in the early 1890s. The government rescued all three institutions and handed them over to its Aborigines Protection Board. They provided the operational model for what eventually grew to twenty Aboriginal stations.
The shift from private to government philanthropy in Aboriginal affairs, as well as other areas of social welfare, was accompanied by an ideological debate about the rights and responsibilities of welfare recipients and about the social consequences of giving people welfare handouts. The debate lasted for more than a century and, indeed, is still with us today. After several decades of little government welfare, except an annual gift of blankets that went back to Governor Macquarie, the provision of rations to Aborigines in the 1880s raised a difficult question. The operating assumption at the time was that handouts should go only to those obviously in need — the old, the sick, the unemployed and deserted mothers. But many people began to question whether the provision of welfare itself actually increased the ranks of the needy. Did it not encourage the able-bodied to give up paid employment? Was there not a contradiction in the welfare system between giving handouts to the needy and making them self-reliant? These were questions asked of the welfare provided to both white and black recipients. What made it of greater concern in the case of Aborigines was that it was mostly asked not by armchair critics in the cities who were opposed to government handouts on principle, but by those out in the field and closest to the recipients themselves. From the 1880s onwards, the Aborigines Protection Board produced a steady stream of observations from managers, teachers and voluntarily committeemen who worked to keep the stations and larger reserves functioning and who all despaired in varying degrees about the lack of a work ethic among their able-bodied inhabitants.
From the outset, the missions had faced the problem of men refusing outside employment. They partly resolved it by requiring them to work for a living on the missions themselves, paying them in rations to clear land, plant crops, and do construction work and general maintenance. Hence the missions were the originators of a policy that persists to this day, although it now goes under the name of ‘work-for-the-dole’, or Community Development Employment Program, or some similar bureaucratic euphemism.
When the Aborigines Protection Board took over the mission stations it preserved the same policy regime. Before long, however, it ran out of patience with the number of men who remained disinclined to work. I recorded above the circular on this subject the board sent out in 1898 to all its officers. The problem nonetheless persisted. The board’s officers continued to deny rations to the able-bodied who would not leave. However, they interpreted the board’s circular charitably and allowed many to stay, offering them paid work on the station or providing them with rations in times of seasonal unemployment.
1899, Brewarrina: I may further add that I have cleared the place of about 6 able-bodied men, who seemed to prefer staying here for their rations rather than accept work elsewhere. I showed them from the circular issued that this was no place for them … The men were away a good portion of the year, but they suckered 2250 acres, repaired some of the houses that were a little out of order, and made and hung eight pairs round wood gates leading into the different paddocks, which are eight in number.
1904, Warangesda: In view of the instructions issued by the Central Board that able-bodied half-castes were not to be kept on the station, a number of men had their rations stopped and were told that they must seek work outside the station. As they were unable to obtain employment at the time they were allowed back on the station on promising to contribute towards the support of their families. During the shearing season most of the men were away from the station at work.
1908, Wallaga Lake: In their annual report, the Local Board state that though they are not by any means satisfied with the progress made, still they do not attribute any blame to the manager, the simple reason being that the aborigines, with one or two exceptions, cannot be made to work, able-bodied men loafing on those who are provided by the Government with rations. To remedy this they suggest that a room should be erected in which to serve the meals of those entitled to rations, thus compelling the others to work or leave the station.
The balance of evidence from reports like these did not mean that the local managers who wrote these reports, or the board officers who read them, thought that Aborigines as a race were inherently lazy. When employment was offering outside the stations most of the men invariably took up the offer. Rather, these reports illustrated the welfare dilemma: by providing handouts provided on stations and reserves, they attracted to them those Aborigines disinclined to work. Those who gravitated to the stations and reserves were those who were most attracted to a culture of indolence. By their presence, many managers complained, they passed on the same attitude to other inhabitants, especially the young. By 1909, many station managers felt they were losing the battle. Here are some of their complaints from that year alone:
Brungle: Work is plentiful in the district, and the men are more inclined to accept employment than formerly, though some young men on the station, who are almost white, will not work if they can possible avoid it. It is to be hoped, however, that these men will shortly be no longer residents of the station.
Grafton: the manager reports that the old trouble of getting them to work is far from at an end. Many of them excuse themselves by saying they are not allowed the same rate of wages as Europeans. There is plenty of employment offering, and no able-bodied aborigines need be idle.
Roseby Park: Of the twenty-five able-bodied men on the station, some half-dozen have been in constant work, and most of the others have been able to obtain fairly frequent employment; but a few worked only when absolutely necessary. The women have also been able to obtain employment at washing about the district, but the girls will not stay at a place long, and the residents of the locality are in consequence chary of engaging them.
Runnymede: There is ample employment in the locality for the residents of the station, the population in the district having increased enormously. Some of the young men, however, value their work so highly that they want more wages than white men.
Wallaga Lake: A number of able-bodied men continue to remain on the station, simply loafing on those who receive rations, and gambling, but it is hoped the place will soon be ridded of these men.
Warangesda: The able-bodied are employed about the district shearing, fencing, harvesting, scrubbing etc, but there are still some men who will not work, and who linger on or about the station. When the Act and Regulations come into force, it will be possible to remedy this state of affairs.
The last comment referred to the Aborigines Protection Bill that passed through the parliament that year. Because its existing deterrents proved ineffective, the board eventually sought a response in legislation. It wanted the legal authority to forcibly remove from its sites those who would not comply with its regulations about working for a living. If there was no seasonal employment in the district then if the men wanted to stay they would have to earn their living working about the station itself. If they remained there and were idle, they set a bad example and created a precedent that had long-term cultural consequences. In the debate over the 1909 bill, board member Robert Donaldson assured the Legislative Assembly:
The camps were overrun by men almost white, who defied the board, and they were a bad example for the children. They went shearing, spent all their money on gambling, came back to the camp, and lived on the rations of the old people and children. They would be kept out in the most drastic manner.
Initially, the new legislation seemed to work. Station managers reported a marked improvement in their charges’ work ethic:
1910, Brungle: The new Act has been responsible for the abolition of idling and laziness on the part of the able-bodied, and many of the men during the year have obtained work at neighbouring stations.
1911, Edgerton (Yass): Previous to the installation of the Manager, the men on the station were in the habit of sending the women out to work, whilst they stopped at home, idle, which state of things has now been reversed, and proper discipline is now maintained.
However, the problem never really went away. It persisted throughout the life of the board. In the late 1930s, its reports still recorded persistent complaints of this kind.
At certain stations many aborigines experience little difficulty in this regard [employment], being well known in their own districts, where they enjoy a reputation for reliability. On the other hand, however, the Board experiences considerable difficulty with a certain type, not unknown in the white community, and which prefers to remain in idleness, so long as they are able to secure, from some source, sufficient food and other necessities of life.
At various times in its history, the board talked tough about taking action against the indolent but it usually did very little. Historians have often truncated its words to convey the most sinister motives but have avoided discussing what actions followed. For instance, in 1920–21, the board said:
The process of gradually eliminating quadroons and octoroons is being quietly carried on, care being taken that no hardship is inflicted, each case being treated on its merits.
It hardly needs to be said that ‘eliminating quadroons and octoroons’ did not actually mean eliminating them — although, on second thoughts, given the way academic historians have exploited such statements, perhaps that does need saying. In context, it meant reducing the numbers of non-full-blood, able-bodied men who remained on reserves and lived on handouts. It also meant ensuring that those who were genuinely unemployed were not treated callously, that is, ‘no hardship is inflicted’. The context for these remarks was the sharp economic downturn that year. A little further down the same page, the report said:
Owing to the general unemployment throughout the State very many additional names were added to the Board’s ration lists on the various Reserves and Stations; not only did the unemployed Aborigines themselves have to ask for assistance, but it also had to be extended to their wives and families. It is hoped, however, that such assistance will only be of a temporary nature, and that employment will again become normal in due course.
In other words, to anyone reading this report at the time, the board’s long-term aim was to reduce welfare dependency among able-bodied adults, but it was prepared to respond to adverse economic conditions by providing a welfare safety net for unemployed Aborigines, even if this meant taking a short-term backward step from its main objective. This was a properly flexible approach to policy making. In fact, when the state’s economy revived soon after, the board saw its long-term strategy again in process of being fulfilled. In 1922–23 it observed:
During recent years a considerable diminution of the numbers of Aborigines residing on Aboriginal Stations and Reserves has been noticeable, due, it appears, to the Aborigines desiring to be free of supervision and restrictions imposed upon them on Reserves where they have to comply with the rules and regulations. Many have learned to earn their own living and to be independent of Government assistance, which is a satisfactory result of the Board’s policy, which encourages the Aborigines to, as far as possible, maintain themselves.
If anything, the board said, this was happening at too fast a pace, for in leaving the stations and reserves their inhabitants ‘forfeited the benefits of good housing accommodation, regular supplies of food and clothing, and schooling for their children, to which they were properly entitled’. The board even contemplated the need for legislation to give it the discretion to prohibit some from leaving. It recognized, though, that such power would amount to ‘drastic action’.
In other words, the board was torn between much the same emotions as parents of children approaching adulthood. It wanted to see its charges make their own way in the world by leaving home and becoming independent people. Yet at the same time it was reluctant to give up its own role as provider of home and comforts. This was a quandary it never satisfactorily resolved.