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Aborigines Welfare Board (NSW)

The state government agency principally responsible for Aboriginal administration in NSW from 1940 until 1969. It succeeded the Aboriginals Protection Board (APB), set up in 1883. On the 85 board-managed reserves, board control meant heavy handed, arbitrary and parsimonious bureaucratic regulation of most aspects of Aboriginal lives, including place of residence and work, child rearing, social security entitlements, housing and even diet.

Few government agencies in Australian history have been as obdurate as the APB-AWB as it strove, with successive policies, to solve the Aboriginal 'problem'. Much trouble arose from its inflexible assumptions about Aboriginality which, throughout its existence, it laboured to define by percentages of 'blood'. The board never appreciated that Aboriginality relied on descent, cultural orientation and kinship. It zealously pursued a policy of expelling 'half-castes' from the stations under provisions of the Aborigines Protection Act 1909. Another policy was the removal of light-skinned children from their families for rearing in specially created reformatory- type institutions like Cootamundra and Kinchela, where children were trained to regard domestic service for whites as the pinnacle of achievement.

From 1918 the forced closure of Aboriginal reserves and destruction of station houses was intended to disperse the residents, and thus save maintenance expenses while appeasing local white communities who disliked Aborigines congregating nearby. As ex-residents were forced to live wherever they could, the result was a series of makeshift camps on town fringes throughout NSW. Objections by local municipal authorities subsequently forced the board to establish new stations with resident managers, but the authoritarian regime there discouraged people from moving in except as a last resort.

Even after the board had abandoned the policy of closure, it allowed facilities on its stations to run down in the hope that residents would quit voluntarily. In 1940 it began experimenting with a new housing policy, relocating station familles in towns. Assimilation was again the ultimate aim. Rehousing often meant relocating Aboriginal people among whites in distant cities far from kinfolk, to prevent the growth of urban Aboriginal communities. Yet another instrument for assimilation was the 'dog tag' the certificate of exception from some of the restrictions of the 1909 Act.

In 1967 the NSW parliament established a joint committee on Aborigines' welfare. The committee recommended the board's abolition and the repeal of the Act. The federal government assumed responsibility for Aboriginal administration in 1969. Dawn, the boards' patronising journal, continued to appear for the next six years. Renamed New Dawn and under welfare department sponsorship, it echoed 86 years of APB-AWB paternalism. The board's main legacy, however was NSW Aborigines' bitterness over their treatment by those entrusted with their welfare.

Text by Dr Ian Howie-Willis from the Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia.

 

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