By 1901 Aborigines had lost control over their land in all except the remote parts of the continent. They were not given the chance to determine their own future. their culture was not respected. Aboriginal languages were dying out with the people. Few whites took, the trouble to learn anything about Aboriginal life; many whites regarded Aborigines as oddities or nuisances. Along the frontier the view was still usually the same – ‘Bullocks and blacks won’t mix’. It was hoped that the establishment of the new federal government, in 1901, would lead to a better deal for Aborigines. There were even suggestions that the new government, and not the separate states, should have responsibility for Aboriginal affairs. But things changed little. It was decided, for example, that Aborigines should not be counted in the feral census. thus the original owners of the land were officially not counted or regarded as Australians. the federal government had no new views on Aboriginal affairs, which remained the responsibility of the individual states. State laws reflected the desire to restrict and segregate Aborigines. A Queensland Act in 1897 set the pattern. It gave the official protectors of Aborigines wide powers to control the lives of the Aboriginal and part-Aboriginal people. It provided for reserves on which Aborigines should live and supervised their movements and employment by whites. Western Australia and South Australia adopted similar legislation, so that Aborigines who no longer lived in their traditional societies often had to live on reserves under government administration. In effect they had to live as inmates of institutions.
The basis, then, of the protection policy was restriction of the Aboriginal people and their rights. As before, there was no attempt to consider what Aborigines themselves might want. Once again whites assumed that the best policy for Aborigines was to adopt white ways. If Aborigines did not follow that path, then it was said they were lacking in ability. there was always the feeling that the Aborigines, not the whites, were responsible for any failure.
Further Trouble in the North
Along the frontier of settlement in th early twentieth century, relations between whites and Aborigines continued to reveal conflict and inhumanity. In outlying areas of the Northern Territory and Western Australia some settlers and bushmen were accustomed to shoot Aborigines on sight or turn their dogs loose at sundown. Several of the worst incidents were described by Dr. W.E. Roth, who was asked to make a report to the Western Australian government in 1905. He revealed ‘a most brutal and outrageous state of affairs’ in the northern part of the state: there was police corruption in administering Aboriginal ration allowances; the chaining together (by the neck) of arrested Aborigines and Aboriginal witnesses and prisoners, forced labour for Aboriginal children, and heavy sentences for children and adults convicted of killing cattle; discrimination in court proceedings; and a shortage of food.
Whites in the north did not hide their fierce determination to seize and hold the land. this brought them into opposition with some city-dwellers, who questioned not the northerners’ right to the land but the means used to obtain it. “Arguments over the issue sometimes flared in the press. the northerners’ feelings were clear, as shown in a poem, written by one of their supporters:
The civic merchant, snugly housed and fed,
Who sleeps each night on soft and guarded bed,
Who never leaves the city’s beaten tracks.
May well believe in kindness to the blacks.
But he can never know, nor hardly guess,
The dangers of the pathless wilderness;
The rage and frenzy in the squatter’s brain
When the speared bullocks dot the spreading plain;
The lust for vengeance in the stockman’s heart
Who sees his horse lie slain by savage dart;
The nervous thrill the lonely traveller feels feels
When round his camp the prowling savage steals;
Nor that fierce hate with which the soul is filled
When man must daughter or himself be killed.
Ah! who shall judge? Not you, my city friend,
Whose life is free from all that can offend;
Who pass your days in comfort, ease, and peace.
Guarded by metropolitan police.
Ah! who shall judge the bushman’s hasty crime
Both justified by circumstance and clime.
Could you, my friend, ‘neath such assaults be still,
And never feel that wild desire to kill?
Steps in your own defence would you not take
When law is absent then your own laws make.
From 1911, when it took over the administration of the Northern Territory from South Australia, the Commonwealth became more involved in Aboriginal affairs. Its policy of protection resembled the policy found in several of the states. Every aspect of Aboriginal life was carefully regulated. The Aborigines freedom of movement was greatly restricted. For many Aborigines, life became centred on institutions established under government control, where the opportunity to make personal decisions and live in simple dignity was slight. Special conditions governed their employment, while their personal property remained under the control of the government’s chief protector of Aborigines. The protector, not the children’s parents, was the legal guardian of the children.
Yet the Commonwealth was no more able than the states to improve Aboriginal affairs. The Northern Territory remained prone to racial disturbances, which police solved as they saw fit. In places such as Arnhem Land it was possible for Aborigines to lead a better life, in more traditional manner. but around white settlements and stations Aborigines camped in poverty, valued only when their labour was essential in the pastoral industry. the commonwealth seemed to forget they existed, until their condition came to public notice late in the 1920s. At that time drought threatened natural food supplies, bringing concern in southern cities about the Aborigines’ plight. About another matter – the ‘Coniston Massacre’ – there were louder complaints. following the death in 1928 of a white prospector at Coniston Station in Central Australia, a police expedition set out to find the culprits. In a series of raids police took heavy toll of Aboriginal lives. The reaction from city people interested in Aboriginal welfare was hostile, and not softened by an official report justifying the raids and the police shooting of many Aborigines. Reports of killings elsewhere, such as in the Kimberleys, and of the miserable conditions which many Aborigines were forced to endure, aroused further concern.
Such troubles revived the arguments between whites in towns and those on the edge of settlement about policies towards Aborigines. Like others earlier, there were settlers who still thought and spoke of Aborigines as a kind of animal, describing them as ‘wild’ or ‘tame’. Many whites still took refuge in the belief that the Aboriginal race was dying out, despite evidence to the contrary. ‘even as late as 1938 Daisy Bates, the well-known worker for the Aborigines on the Nullarbor, published her book under the title of the Passing of the Aborigines.
Malnutrition and disease continued to play havoc with Aboriginal health as the twentieth century wore on. A white doctor, well informed about the Aboriginal situation, even claimed later that malnutrition was the greatest damage inflicted by the whites and the one least acknowledged with regret. Government and station rations were often inadequate. flour, sugar and tea were the basic rations, following the pattern laid down in the previous century, when governments saw feeding-stations as a means of preventing Aboriginal hunger and thus possibly of preventing the spearing of stock. The absence of protein foods affected Aboriginal health and contributed to high infant mortality. Damp clothing and poor housing brought further suffering. Disease, especially tuberculosis, remained widespread and often fatal.