So many other details of the 1937 Canberra conference have been subject in recent years to such an academic beat-up that earlier historians who reported it in some depth, such as Charles Rowley in The Destruction of Aboriginal Society (1970), would hardly recognize the same meeting. For instance, Robert Manne claims that A. O. Neville was ‘the intellectually dominant figure in the Canberra discussions’. Manne wants his readers to believe that Neville’s radical version of assimilation thus reflected the national policy of the day. The biographer Pat Jacobs thought the conference was ‘a personal triumph’ for Neville.
It is true that Neville moved the major resolution of the conference, ‘that the destiny of the natives of Aboriginal origin, but not of the full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth’, but this particular resolution passed unanimously not because everyone was suddenly converted to a new and daring approach but because it expressed the existing practice of most state governments.
There were two quite different kinds of policy regimes represented at the Canberra conference. One was in southern Australia, especially New South Wales and Victoria, where the frontier was long gone, where few full-blood and hardly any tribal Aborigines remained, and where by 1937 almost half were housed on government-provisioned missions, reserves and stations. They were already largely absorbed into white society, by both education and employment, and, as Chapter Three demonstrated, this had begun in the nineteenth century, even though the Great Depression of the 1930s had appreciably slowed the rate. The other regime prevailed across northern Australia, where there were still nomadic hunter-gatherers in the Northern Territory, Western Australia, some parts of Queensland and Central Australia, plus a variety of other officially termed ‘semi-civilized’ peoples living through casual work and the handouts of white settlement. The resolution’s qualifier, that it would not try to absorb full-blood Aborigines into white society, reflected existing practice about this second group.
The obviously dominant policy maker for the latter group of states was not Neville but John William Bleakley, Chief Protector of Queensland since 1913. The conference of 1937 deferred to his reputation in the field, allowing him to be the first of the protectors to address it. Since 1897 Queensland had provided the model for the system of reserves subsequently established across Australia. It was the model for the basic legislation of Western Australia in 1905, for South Australia in 1910–11, and for the Northern Territory Aboriginals Act of 1910 and Aboriginal Ordinances of 1911. Queensland dominated Aboriginal policy in Australia for the first half of the twentieth century.
In 1928 Prime Minister Stanley Bruce commissioned Bleakley to investigate and advise on conditions in northern and central Australia. Bleakley’s report to the Commonwealth the following year formed the basis of subsequent policy across almost the entire north of the continent. ‘Bleakley’s recommendations for the Territory,’ wrote Charles Rowley, ‘were mainly for the introduction of Queensland policy there.’ Bleakley wanted to preserve the full-bloods on reserves where they would continue to live a largely tribal existence for the time being, with the prospect of eventual assimilation on the distant horizon, several generations away. It was because of Bleakley’s recommendations that most of Arnhem Land became reserved for Aboriginal people and most of the large islands off the northern coast, in particular Bathurst, Melville and Wessel Islands, also became reserves. He wanted to oversee the ‘gradual adaptation of the nomads to the settled life’. But this did not involve any attempt to determine who they married. He specifically repudiated Cook’s ideas about controlling the marriage of half-caste people. He argued there should be no laws preventing half-castes marrying back into the full-blood community. Indeed, he thought they were happier doing so. In his report to the Prime Minister, Bleakley wrote:
Inquiries from all classes of persons with experience of dealing with aboriginal half-castes, such as station owners, missionaries, police &c., only confirm my own opinion that, without appreciable exception, the half-caste of 50 per cent or more aboriginal blood, no matter how carefully brought up and educated, will drift back to the aboriginal, where naturally he finds the atmosphere most congenial to him. Educated Aboriginals and half-castes, who have married back amongst the full bloods on missions and settlements, when questioned, were emphatic in the opinion that these people were happier amongst their own race.
Consequently, he recommended that the Commonwealth government continue to allow half-caste people the freedom to make their own marital choices:
Marriage of Half-castes and Full Bloods.¾Like everyone else, the half-caste prefers to marry where fancy dictates, and where there is freedom of choice it is frequently made from amongst the full bloods. Provided the latter have been lifted to an equally civilized plane, these unions are for the benefit of both sides.
In the Northern Territory, Cecil Cook was furious about the imposition of Bleakley’s ideas upon his domain: ‘the publication of this report is to be deplored.’ In 1929, Cook wrote two reports condemning the Queensland model and arguing that it did not fit the conditions found in most of far northern Australia, declaring the Queensland policy ‘utterly impracticable and wholly undesirable in the Territory’.
Whereas in Queensland and the greater part of Western Australia the Chief Protector is concerned in caring for the occasional Aboriginal in a country wholly under White Civilization, in the Territory and in the Kimberley district of Western Australia the process is one of regulating inter-racial relationships in a country where the native remains predominant and the White is an occasional settler.
Despite his denunciations, Cook proved unable to change Commonwealth government thinking (as I discuss in more detail below). He was eventually forced to concede that the Bleakley Report and the Queensland model prevailed. At the 1937 conference, Cook grudgingly acknowledged that his objections had not altered the political reality. ‘There is no essential difference,’ he said, ‘between the policy of the Commonwealth and that detailed by Mr Bleakley.’
Bleakley was determined to advance a policy of ‘segregation from alien influences’, that is, separate development by means of shoring up and expanding the reserves and by preserving Aboriginal culture. His recommendations extended to the establishment of ‘tribal courts’, even for cases of murder of Aborigines by Aborigines.
It is plainly unjust that an aboriginal, for a tribal murder, for instance, should be tried by the white man’s laws and before a Court which cannot appreciate the peculiar tribal code influencing his actions.
The only assimilation of full-bloods he envisaged was the very gradual introduction of modern customs through their employment on the huge cattle stations in western Queensland, the Northern Territory and the Kimberley where Aborigines had been employed since the late nineteenth century. He had little interest in the faster variety of assimilation through school and vocational education favoured by Neville and Cook. For Bleakley, this was a matter of great principle. He told the 1937 conference:
It is essential, first of all, to realize that we have no right to attempt to destroy their national life. Like ourselves, they are entitled to retain their racial entity and racial pride.
Although Neville did persuade his government to give him greater powers, it was Bleakley’s model of separate development that informed the major assumptions of the 1935 Moseley Report in Western Australia, which in turn informed the state’s 1936 Native Administration Act that governed Neville’s administration. In particular, the 1936 Act disregarded Neville’s wishes and followed Bleakley’s recommendations that half-caste people should be permitted to marry those of full blood. Moreover, Bleakley’s model was still the one that prevailed in both Queensland and the Northern Territory after the 1937 conference.
In short, for most of the first half of the twentieth century, throughout northern Australia where the great majority of Aboriginal people remained of full descent, the dominant policy was not to make the Aboriginal race disappear by breeding out the colour. It was precisely the opposite. The three governments responsible for Queensland, the Northern Territory and the north of Western Australia passed laws and wrote regulations to segregate the great majority of Aborigines under their jurisdiction and protect them from that very fate.
Although the Canberra conference passed its resolution in favour of the ‘ultimate absorption’ of Aboriginal people, except for full-bloods, Neville’s and Cook’s assimilation program of the mid-1930s failed to change the direction of an otherwise long-entrenched policy regime that persisted across northern Australia from 1910 until World War II. That policy only came to an end in 1942 when the Australian Army abruptly arrived in the north to defend the country from the Japanese. The army changed everything. It recruited and trained large numbers of Aborigines, full-blood and half-caste, offering them wages and conditions until then undreamed of. In the major industrial centres, the war economy wanted all the labour it could get, including that of Aboriginal people. ‘The effects of the war, which drew Aborigines, irrespective of their degrees of descent, into industrial employment and into the cities,’ Rowley wrote, ‘probably made the kind of program which had been envisaged in absorption of the half-caste even more obviously irrelevant than ever to real situations.’
Hence, rather than the most ‘terrible moment’ in Australian history, the 1937 conference of Aboriginal administrators was a combination of both idealism about the prospects for assimilation of those Aboriginal people on the fringes of white society and a conservative reaffirmation of established policy about the segregation of tribal Aborigines ¾ in both territorial and sexual terms. Those who favoured assimilation had at their disposal neither the legislative authority nor the financial resources to implement any radical version of their plans. Indeed, the financial strictures of the time meant that none of the delegates had the resources to implement anything new at all. Their resolutions were more about hopes than actions.
This is not just my reading of the conference. In his 1972 book, Not Slaves, Not Citizens, the Western Australian historian Peter Biskup emphasized the gap between its ideals and what it actually achieved. Quoting, first, an unnamed observer and then a book by Paul Hasluck, Biskup wrote:
For those who expected quick and tangible results, the meeting was a disappointment. ‘One might reasonably infer’, said an observer in 1939, ‘that the Conference felt no particular urgencies were involved ... It is significant, too, that the Conference concerned itself almost entirely with highly general questions of policy, and postponed for a year such matters as control and prevention of disease, diet, working conditions, the fixation of a minimum aboriginal working wage, and several other matters of primary importance’. The postponed consultations never took place, so that ‘any action that may have followed the conference was so slight as to bear little relation to its decisions’.
In short, the conference was largely ineffectual. The claim that it was Australian history’s most terrible moment is histrionic melodrama.