The government's view of reserves: protection during a transitional period
Commitment to 'assimilation' raised a policy dilemma of great significance for the story of Indigenous land rights. If governments were trying to absorb Aborigines into the 'Australian way of life' what should become of 'the reserves' - those places created to keep the colonists and the colonised apart? Two competing answers to that question became available.The Commonwealth Government saw reserves as transitional, temporary homes for Aborigines. However, some critics, such as the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (founded 1958) wanted reserves to be forever the property of the Aborigines who lived on them.
Paul Hasluck, the Commonwealth's Minister for Territories from 1951 to 1963, gave many speeches elaborating the idea of 'assimilation'. In his view reserves were to be treated by governments and missionaries as places of transition; the need for them would eventually fade. On 18 October 1951, Hasluck warned of the risk associated with settlements and missions on reserves. Such places were necessary, but they carried the risk of encouraging 'a series of minority groups living in little bits of territory on their own.' Reserves, if not treated as transitional, might 'result in the very situation in Australia we have sought to avoid, namely, the existence of a separate racial group living on its own. In pursuit of a policy of assimilation, the settlement and the mission station can be used for the advancement of native peoples and as a refuge for those of them who need protection during a transitional period. Some of those who cannot complete the transition may live and die on settlements, but those who have the strength and capacity to develop their abilities more fully should have freedom to enter into a larger life in the general community.'
On 29 September 1952, Hasluck reviewed policies in the Northern Territory, where roughly half of all Australia's reserves for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were situated:
'Large reserves will still be needed for many years to come and it is our policy to maintain reserves so long as they will be of benefit to the natives. At the same time the Government believes that reserved land which is not in fact being used by the natives should not be closed forever to exploration and development. For many years past the revocation of reserves has been possible. The Government has now decided to vary these provisions with particular application to mineral resources on reserves. If any part of a native reserve has ceased to be necessary for the use and benefit of the natives it may be severed from the reserve and, if mining takes place on the severed portion, royalties will be paid into a special fund to be applied to the welfare of the natives...The policy of the present government is not the throwing open of reserves. If a situation arises in which it becomes necessary in the national interest to allow prospecting and mining on a reserve, we will have the legal means to do so and to enable the natives to benefit directly from such mining, but in every case the effect of revocation on native welfare will have to be examined...'
Keywords: assimilation, FCAATSI, Hasluck, Paul, missions, Northern Territory, racism, reserves, Torres Strait Islanders, 1951-1963
Hasluck, PMC 1953, 'Native Welfare in Australia', Paterson Brokenshaw Pty Ltd, pp 18, 28-9.
Author: Rowse, Tim and Graham, Trevor