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The South Australian Aborigines Act Amendment Act (1939) established a board ‘charged with the duty of controlling and promoting the welfare’ of Aboriginal people. Under that act every person ‘descended from the original inhabitants of Australia’ was deemed to be an Aboriginal. The Advisory Council of Aborigines (1918-1939) which the board replaced, had been required only to advise the government on ‘any matter…affecting the interests of’ Aboriginal people, whereas the Protection Board was directed to ‘exercise the powers and duties given or imposed’ under the act. Board members were the protectors and legal guardians of Aboriginal children, even if these had parents or other relatives. The minister for the Aborigines Department, Malcolm McIntosh, was chairman of the board for almost its entire duration. The remaining six members had expertise in anthropology, mission and public organisation, health, agriculture, education and women’s affairs. To ensure the protection of Aboriginal women and children the board included two female members. While not legally excluded from membership, Aboriginal people were perceived to be unsuitable as they did not have expertise acquired through ‘education, training and professional qualifications’ (SRSA: GRG52/12). Prominent members included J B Cleland, Constance Cooke, and Charles Duguid.

Board Policies

The policies of the board were administered under two defining categories, tribal Aborigines and non-tribal Aborigines. Although it was the board’s policy to protect tribal people living on the north-west reserves from white exploitation, it did not oppose the Playford government’s support, from the late 1940s, for defence trials at Maralinga that affected these people. For Aboriginals living on the fringes of towns, on missions and at government stations the board supported assimilation into the dominant population. The assimilation policy assessed people of Aboriginal descent as being fit for membership of society by ‘reason’ of their ‘ character and standard of intelligence and development’ (Aborigines Act Amendment Act). Those who passed the assessment were declared not Aborigines for the purposes of the act and issued with exemption certificates. Aboriginal people resented the exemption legislation because it divided families and groups.

Later Developments

In promoting assimilation the board was adhering to ideologies of progress and individualism, but by the mid 1950s ideas about human rights had challenged these beliefs. In 1963 the Aboriginal Affairs Advisory Board was created. It focused on the capability of Aboriginal people ‘accepting the full responsibilities of citizenship’ rather than on assimilation. Jeff Barnes, Nancy Brumbie and Gladys Elphick were Aboriginal members of the new board. In 1970 the board’s functions were assumed by the new Department of Social Welfare and Aboriginal Affairs.

By Robert Foster

This entry was first published in The Wakefield companion to South Australian history edited by Wilfrid Prest, Kerrie Round and Carol Fort (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2001). Edited lightly. Uploaded 30 June 2015.

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