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Jackson’s Track Revisited: History, Remembrance and Reconciliation

Chapter 3

The Story of the Board

Carolyn Landon

This chapter explores the policy of assimilation through the story of the formation of the Aborigines Welfare Board in 1958. Why was policy change concerning Aboriginal people in Victoria considered necessary at that time? What sort of investigation was carried out to discover the kinds of change needed? Why was assimilation so wholeheartedly embraced as the basis for change? What made policy makers assume that nothing could be more civilised than to welcome Aborigines into White society as equal citizens? Most importantly, why, as Daryl Tonkin remembers, were the people who would be most affected, the Aborigines themselves, deeply angry and afraid? With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to criticise the contents of the McLean Report, the report that led to the Board’s formation.


Warragul Shire Hall, now home to the Warragul Historical Society

Photo by Larry Hills of original photograph held by the Warragul Historical Society

Without Pauline, I search articles in the Warragul and Drouin newspapers held at the Warragul Historical Society. However, in my mind she is watching over my shoulder to see what I find. Her spirit reads the reports and the letters with me, her presence forces me to give all the documents I find a personal reading. Through her, I put faces and personalities to the comments made by faceless men. Pauline is a presence behind me asking what proof of truth these archives give, telling me to be careful about what I believe to be true.

Although I am looking for signs of Hector Cowden and find one or two pieces on the activities of the local branch of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League, the first series of articles I come across show that the new Aborigines Welfare Board was becoming active in the Warragul/Drouin area by 1958, about the time Daryl remembers significant events occurring in his own life at Jackson’s Track. Although he was unaware that the old moribund Protection Board had become the Welfare Board, Daryl tells us in his memoir that ‘a new policy’ was rumoured to be affecting the ‘blackfellas’:

The talk continued around the camp fire night after night as stories came through about people actually being put into houses in white neighbourhoods.

‘What do they want to live there for? They don’t know anybody?’

... Once the policy was under way on the missions, they then started rounding up families who lived on crown land along the river banks. The Dimboola families were being shifted. Talk around the camp fire became angry but also fearful.1

Articles about the Aborigines Welfare Board send me back to the history books to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. I am aware that the Board was established in 1958 as a result of a one-man Board of Inquiry into the ‘Aboriginal problem’ in Victoria, and I am aware that the function of the Aborigines Welfare Board was to promote the moral, intellectual and physical welfare of Aborigines with a view to their assimilation into the general community. The writings of the late anthropologist Diane Barwick, and historians Bain Attwood and Heather Goodall fill me in on some of the rest. In her assessment of the success of the Board, Barwick said that its intentions were supposedly benign and that its membership included education, housing and health ministers, as well as five other members, two of whom were required to be Aborigines and one an expert in anthropology or sociology. This combination of members seems reasonable, but Barwick, who was writing about the Board in 1971, stressed that the Board’s assimilationist policies proved disastrous.2 What did she mean? What made them unworkable? Historian Heather Goodall called the Victorian Board policy an ‘aggressive’ attempt to disperse communities and hinted that the ‘Diaspora’ was genocidal in that assimilation was an attempt to make the Aborigine disappear.3

Of course, in the introduction to her book Invasion to embassy, Goodall is commenting on the era of assimilation from a 1990s perspective, from the era of reconciliation. Her book came out just as I had completed a big chunk of Daryl’s memoir and was realising that it had the makings of a classic Australian story. In 1996 we had a different point of view from those who were creating policy in 1957. We had a different language. For instance, the word ‘invasion’, with the particular meaning Goodall gives it, would not have entered the vocabulary of Paul Hasluck, Federal Minister for Territories in the 1950s, or Charles McLean, retired Chief Stipendiary Magistrate who headed a Board of Inquiry into Aboriginal Welfare in Victoria. Although it was a term some Aboriginal activists and certain anthropologists used back then, it had little acceptance; even if it was an acknowledged concept, it carried nowhere near the weight it does today. No, men like Hasluck, good people with honest intentions, but with little insight or direct knowledge of Australian Aboriginal people, believed that assimilation was the only means of ‘historical progress’4 for the ‘dark people’ (common vernacular back in the 1950s). A. P. Elkin, the most influential anthropologist of the day, who did have direct knowledge of Aboriginal people, also argued for a policy that would ‘assist the Aborigines to make their own way in the [White Australian] community as full citizens’.5 Perhaps if they had understood our modern concept of ‘invasion’ and all it implies about the Aboriginal point of view and who we settler Australians are in relation to Aboriginal Australians, they might have recognised the incompatibility between their assumptions and their good intentions.

Once I have absorbed this information, I turn back to the old newsprint and come across an article in the Warragul Gazette dated 18 March 1958. It reports that at the second Aboriginal State Conference in Newmerella (run by, according to the Gazette, the Australian Aboriginal Council, but more likely by the Council for Aboriginal Rights), as many as one-hundred ‘natives’ from all parts of Victoria discussed the appointment of Harold Blair and Pastor Doug Nicholls to the newly formed Aborigines Welfare Board.6 Pauline has told me that her Pop, as she called her grandfather, Stewart Hood, and Eugene Mobourne, a good mate of her dad’s at the Track, were active in Aboriginal campaigns back then and so I imagine those two elders from the Track might have been at that meeting. I wonder what kind of debate took place over the appointment of these two Aboriginal men. Both men had high profiles amongst White Australians; Nicholls for his sporting achievements and mission work, and Blair for his fine tenor voice. In Victims or victors, a historical account of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League, Geraldine Briggs implies their appointment was a publicity stunt.7 I wonder if the people who read this article in their local weekly paper in 1958 had any idea these might not be universally approved appointments. Or if they even cared.

I come across an article in the Warragul Gazette from 22 July 1958 that interests me. It is a report of a talk given by the anthropologist Dr Donald Thomson who has ‘deeply stirred the Warragul audience’ with accounts of ‘how bitterly ashamed’ he is about ‘our treatment of aborigines’. The article also notes that the ‘Professor of Anthropology at Melbourne University’ was a ‘recent appointee’ to the new Aborigines Welfare Board.8 I have read some of Thomson’s work on Aborigines and realise his importance in Aboriginal policy-making throughout Australia. His influence was as great as the legendary A. P. Elkin, with whom he competed and sometimes squabbled.9 I am surprised to find him addressing a meeting in Warragul – until I see that his brother-in-law, Mr Wally McColl, is a local man.

Thomson was an interesting man: a man ahead of, yet also of, his time. He, more than any other anthropologist, according to Bain Attwood, knew Aboriginal cultures and had come to love, in particular, the Yolngu people in Arnhem Land with whom he lived for several years in the 1930s. His field work there informed his thinking for most of his life. Only Thomson seemed to understand the concept of Aboriginal sovereignty and he understood that their deep connection with the land gave Yolngu people the right to defend themselves against White man’s aggression. Only he seemed to realise that the concept of assimilation meant the death of ‘culture’, a disaster he believed had already occurred in Victoria. Thomson believed that Aboriginal Australians had the ‘right’ to a life ‘independent of white men’s law and culture’.10 Here was a man who, as he wrote in response to a request for help from Bill Onus (president of the Australian Aborigines League), ‘wished that I myself were an Aborigine so that I had the right to fight with you’.11 He also realised that ‘every white man approaches the subject of the administration of the aborigines with a superiority complex – the assumption that the native culture is inferior and must be changed or eliminated’.12

When I read these things about Donald Thomson, it seems to me that while he lived in the era of assimilation, he belonged in the era of reconciliation. As it turns out, he could not escape his context when it came to the question of Aboriginal people of mixed blood, or ‘half-castes’, as they were known. These Aboriginals made up most of the Aboriginal population in south-east Australia. Thomson, along with Elkin, argued that the detribalised, mixed-race people of Aboriginal descent found in Victoria had largely lost their culture; that ‘changed circumstances and altered environments’ meant they had lost their Aboriginal identity as well.13 ‘With the people of mixed blood,’ he wrote in 1945, ‘there can only be one policy – that of advance and education. They are not aborigines and cannot be treated as such. They must be treated as white men’.14

I shake my head when I think of Thomson on the Board. How, I wonder, could a man who believed there was no Aboriginal culture or identity in Victoria sit on a Board that was supposed to promote Aboriginal welfare? It was only later, after he had met and spent time with the people fighting for Lake Tyers,15 that Thomson realised how wrong he was about culture and Aboriginal identity in the south. In 1963, after his time at Lake Tyers, Thomson wrote a letter to The Age stating, ‘The policy of “assimilation” which is being implemented in this State and elsewhere in the Commonwealth appears to be directed at the breaking down of the communal and family life of the Aborigines, and in Victoria, of dispersing them over the State... I believe that our paramount concern must be for the welfare of these people and that their dispersal throughout the State is not consistent with this objective.’16 But that was too late for this story.

I wonder, peering at flaking pages of old newspapers in the dimly lit rooms of the Historical Society, what Pauline would think of Thomson and the Board. I wonder if she has ever heard of them, and if so, how much she knows. For instance, why was policy change concerning Aboriginal people in Victoria considered necessary in the mid-1950s? What indications were there to warrant change? What sort of investigation was carried out to discover the kinds of change needed? Who did the investigating? Why was assimilation so wholeheartedly embraced as the basis for change? What kinds of practical measures were recommended and adopted to effect change? Most importantly, why, as Daryl remembers, were the people who would be most affected, the Aborigines themselves, deeply angry and afraid? The articles in the local papers go some way to answering those questions, but they are only the beginning.

I turn to the National Archives in the Public Records Office of Victoria where, as I have discovered searching the Internet, there are documents relating to the establishment, in 1958, of the Aborigines’ Welfare Board. I find Charles McLean’s Report Upon the Operation of the Aborigines Act 1928 to the Victorian Parliament, tabled 18 January 1957. Each new document I find forces me to ask new questions. I turn once more to the history books to discover why the inquiry was conducted and then tabled at that time. It turns out that although the report was tabled not long after Henry Bolte took over the reins of power in Victoria, it came out of a Board of Inquiry that the embattled Labour Premier, John Cain, had been forced to appoint in 1953 as a concession to pressure from the vocal middle class who were freshly concerned about the ‘Aboriginal problem’ in the state.17 I need to go back even further into the past to discover the historical reasons for this new awareness of the Aboriginal presence in the state.

The historians tell us that just before the Second World War, in 1939, the Aboriginal people walked off Cumeragunja Station in New South Wales in protest over living conditions, human rights and natural justice. In spite of general indifference to the event among the White community, it was a major event that had a profound effect on the thinking of Aboriginal people involved.18 However, as a result of the walk-off, or ‘strike’ as it was called at the time, there was a movement of Aboriginal people into Victoria, where groups of people formed camps on the flats along the Murray River near Barmah and at the ‘Daisy Patch’ (a common name for a camp at Daish’s Paddock) on the Goulbourn River near Mooroopna. With the onset of the War, there was a general movement of Aboriginal people across the state as work patterns shifted to accommodate the war effort and Aboriginal men joined up. Control of Aboriginal movement from the missions such as Cumeragunia and Lake Tyers eased during the War, and as a result camps and fringe communities sprang up in many places. Jackson’s Track was one of these places. Also, a large congregation of women and children, and some men, gathered in Fitzroy in Melbourne to await the return of relatives who were soldiers. After the War, when people’s minds were back on local issues, the presence of Aboriginal people living in humpies on the rivers at the fringes of towns seemed to alarm and concern the general public.

There was also a new breed of Aboriginal man about – the returned soldier. Daryl tells in his memoir of a fellow named Jack Patten who came to work at the Track in the late 1940s.

Some like Bob Nelson and Jack Patten, had been soldiers in the Australian Army and had been restless and on the move ever since the end of the war... They had seen the world and had learned about the possibilities in life... but all doors were shut to them in the towns and so they resigned themselves to pick up an axe... There was a lingering resentment in their bearing... and it was hard to know if they would settle here.19

Patten is an interesting case for he was a well-known rights activist in New South Wales before the War, a campaigner and instigator of the Cumeragunja Strike. After the War, he and many others like him, men who had dedicated their lives to the social good of their people and who had served their country in time of war, now found themselves side-lined and looking for work. Daryl tells us a story about Patten that is told time and again all over Australia. Patten went into the pubs in Drouin thinking he would be able to drink with the other men there, but the police in town – in this case one particular policeman known as Up-the-Lane Jack to the families living on the Track – thought this behaviour too cocky and so he was beaten up regularly and sent on his way. Dispirited and frustrated he was a man ripe for angry agitation with nowhere to go. Men like him were alarming to the settled and civilised White public.

In the late 1940s and continuing on into the 1950s the plight of Aboriginal people in Australia came to the attention of the international community. This happened due to protests over a rocket range in central Australia, protests mounted by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal protesters alike to protect the tribal people who lived in the path of rockets. Calls for human rights and natural justice for Aboriginal people were countered by claims of Communist incitement, and soon the protest was defeated by the usual political and bureaucratic indifference. However, this issue came together with the unusually high visibility of Aboriginal people in the city (and on the fringes of towns and on the roads) to plant a seed of consciousness, or perhaps guilt, in the mind of the general public.

Politicians, social workers and clergy alike began to refer to the ‘Aboriginal problem’20 in Victoria. Groups such as Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Apex, and the Victorian Aboriginal Group (all of whose members were largely White, middle class and Christian) put pressure on the Victorian government. They called for the public to develop a conscience concerning the condition of Victorian Aborigines and they wanted to know why Victoria was lagging behind the rest of the country.21 The high visibility of a ‘largely itinerant population of Aborigines without strong family ties in Melbourne who came to the city looking for work and found themselves homeless, hopeless and without clearly defined avenues of assistance’22 fed right into assimilationist theories that were re-gaining momentum23 around the country. In 1955 Henry Bolte, the then Victorian Premier, finally gave in to pressure and re-appointed Charles McLean to form a one-man Board of Inquiry. Bolte made certain that the terms of reference ensured that McLean would ‘broaden Victoria’s definition of Aboriginality to include large numbers of mixed descent Aboriginal people, and that he [would] formulate methods by which Aboriginal people could be assimilated into the Anglo-Australian society’.24 In other words, as Heather Goodall would argue, he wanted McLean to find a way to make the problem disappear.


The Aborigines Act 1928 (on which McLean’s report was based)

(Hand-written notes are from the original document) National Archives of Australia: B408, 10


Did anyone have a real sense of the impact that the idea of assimilation would have on the lives of Aboriginal people in general and the Jackson’s Track people in particular? It seems to me, reading historical accounts and looking back on these old documents from my vantage point in the late twentieth century, that assimilation as it was being promoted by Paul Hasluck, Federal Minister for Territories in the 1950s,25 was doomed because of its failure to consult Aboriginal people themselves. As Hasluck confirmed in 1951, the official objective of assimilation ‘means, in practical terms, that, in the course of time, it is expected that all persons of Aboriginal blood or mixed blood in Australia will live like White Australians do’.26 His meaning here seems to be that Aboriginal people would have the same opportunities, education and civil rights as all other Australians. He was talking about the idea of ‘One People’.27 Hasluck said, ‘There can be no doubt that the only possible future for the very small minority of Aboriginal people in Australia today is to merge into and be received as full members of the great community of... European persons which surrounds them.’28 It must have seemed a generous policy offered to what was then considered a benighted people by an enlightened and civilised society. Hasluck went on to say this would ‘require many years of slow, patient endeavour’.29 Although he did not elaborate on his meaning in that respect, it is clear he assumed that all Aboriginal people would, if they were not already, be willing to forego their heritage and adopt the obviously superior living standards and cultural practices of Anglo-Australian society.30 It was assumed by bureaucrats and policy makers that all right thinking, humanitarian and Christian people in the non-Aboriginal world would unanimously endorse Hasluck’s view as the best way to solve the ‘Aboriginal problem’. What could be more civilised than to welcome Aborigines into White society as equal citizens? It was a gift to the ‘dark people’.

In fact, when McLean finally tabled his report, White campaigners criticised it. They pointed out that Aboriginal rights activists had been arguing for citizenship, civil and economic rights for most of the century but that they wanted integration not assimilation. Anna Vroland, a writer and radio commentator as well as honorary secretary of Women’s Internatinal League for Peace and Freedom, had had close contact with the women at Lake Tyers. She realised something other White campaigners had missed: that ‘social acceptance by their own people still meant more to most Aborigines than did assimilation into the general community’.31 Vroland had been campaigning against assimilation since the 1930s and was one of only a handful of White Australians to publicly oppose the policy. She insisted that Aboriginal people should have the ‘freedom to identify themselves as a people’ and she confronted anthropologists such as Elkin and Thomson, as well as politicians. Unfortunately, no one was listening. Criticism by Vroland was drowned out by the great acclaim that met the report when it was tabled. It seemed that officially there was no recognition that many of the south-eastern Aboriginal people would resist McLean’s version of assimilation, and no understanding that many would reject better material living conditions in favour of maintaining their culture. It seemed that only one campaigner in all of Victoria, Vroland, considered that they had any culture still intact. A mere 24 hours after the McLean report was presented, the Victorian Parliament announced that the recommendations in the report would become law.32

I read the McLean report in the large reading room at the Public Records Office in North Melbourne. The report is dated 1957 and is written on thin, yellowing foolscap paper. It is 22 pages of single-spaced 10-point Times New Roman font and is accompanied by an annotated and underlined 1928 Aborigines Act. The report is addressed to ‘His Excellency General Sir Reginald Dallas Brooks, Knight Commander of the Most Honourable order of Bath...’ etc. The language of the report begins in a formal tone, but quickly becomes a personal narrative of MacLean’s visits to mission stations and country towns, his conversations with this fellow or that, people he thought seemed to know something about Aborigines. From these experiences he draws conclusions. With the benefit of hindsight and with the absent Pauline’s spirit looking over my shoulder and metaphorically digging me in the back to make me pay attention, I find it easy to criticise the contents of the report.

In the course of his investigation McLean spoke with many people connected with the ‘Aboriginal problem’ including the manager of Lake Tyers, Mr L. Rule, and his predecessor, Major Glen, as well as officers of the Housing Commission, Education Department, Commonwealth Employment Department and Health Department. In all this discussion, it seems he spoke with only two Aboriginal leaders, Pastor Doug Nicholls and Shadrach James, both from Cumeragunja in New South Wales. It seems he spoke to no Victorian Aborigines, and there is no reference in the entire report to any of the advice McLean may have received from Nicholls and James.

One of McLean’s terms of reference was to discover the number, distribution and living conditions of Aboriginal people living in Victoria. He asked help from police to locate and count – and sometimes name – the Aboriginal people in each district. He concluded:

To complete the specific information required under this heading, the returns furnished to me by the police show that of a total of 287 who are capable of working, 177 are classified as ‘regularly employed’. In addition, 45 residents of Lake Tyers are capable of working, and are given some employment at the station. The distribution of the largest groups, apart from those I have specifically mentioned [the camps at Mooroopna and Barmah] is as follows: -- Nathalia, 150; Orbost (including Newmerella and Waygara), 150; Robinvale, 75; Dimboola and Antwerp, 65; Heywood, 55; and Echuca, 53.33

This can’t be right, I think. He hasn’t mentioned the camp at Jackson’s Track, a large, functioning community of, according to Daryl, about 150 people. Why hadn’t he known about Jackson’s Track? How many other people had he missed? In a box brought to me by the Public Records Office archivist, I locate a folder labelled ‘McLean Inquiry: Police Reports and Population Details’. In this folder is a letter to Mr McLean from Mr Richards, Superintendent of Police in Warragul, dated 23 April 1956.34 In this letter, written in awkward longhand, Richards states ‘Inquiries throughout this district have failed to locate any aboriginal natives residing therein’.35 Later, on the 30 May 1956, the Superintendent sent an official report: ‘Most of the Aboriginals seen about these parts are connected with the settlement at Lake Tyres [sic] and only visit here on seasonal work.’36 Here is a gap, just as Carolyn Steedman said there would be,37 a silence that speaks loudly. I can feel Pauline’s wonder. Is she shocked and angry that her people were passed over? Or is she laughing at their luck? I try to work it out. Was the assertion that there were no Aboriginal people in the area a political statement or a ruse to cover the practices of the Drouin police in their dealings with the Jackson’s Track mob? Daryl tells us that they had established a curfew that applied only to the Aboriginal people; that they had the habit of beating offenders and sending them on their way; that Jackson’s Track was always the first port of call for the police if anything untoward was happening in the Drouin area. Perhaps the superintendent thought the police had the ‘blackfellas’ well in hand and wanted no interference from any Board. Thus, the silence about the existence of Aborigines in their midst. Perhaps, on the other hand, he was truly ignorant of their presence. Much later, when I ask locals about this omission their response is ‘Those Aboriginal people would have been well-known to the police, at least, some of them would have been’.38 But as became obvious when Daryl’s book came out, many people in the local area were actually as unaware of the Aboriginal presence at the Track as Richards seemed to be then. Out of sight out of mind, I think. Certainly McLean was kept in the dark.


The family at Jackson’s Track

Reproduced with permission also from Regina Rose

If it is so easy to see one such gaping hole in McLean’s report, then how many others will there be? I wonder how McLean could make decisions that would affect people’s lives when he didn’t know who the people were and had never spoken with them? One of the most important aspects of McLean’s report was that he had to determine who was actually an Aborigine – that is a person ‘of not less that one-fourth part aboriginal blood’ as defined by the state.39 In his report, he said it was difficult to assess the percentage of blood in many cases because ‘over the succeeding generations, dating from the very early days of settlement until now, there had been such a high degree of miscegenation and sexual promiscuity on the part of aboriginal women and white men’.40 I can hear Pauline ask ‘What’s this miscegenation? Sounds like a disease. What is it?’ And, in fact, that is exactly what she says when, weeks later, I show her the report and ask her what she thinks. Both she and I see the negativity in the word and the thoughts behind the word, but I wonder if she knows the history of McLean’s thinking?

The ‘half-caste problem’ had been plaguing the state since the 1860s when the reality of ‘interbreeding’ became obvious. Back then the concept of ‘racial miscegenation’ assumed that ‘hybrids’ showed increasing signs of degeneration and that ‘in Australia, the children of black women by white fathers are worse than the pure blacks in many particulars’. Thus, ‘the Aboriginal-European population... posed a national problem’ and throughout Australia ‘officialdom had the power to prevent sexual contacts between white and black, and commonly discouraged the rare European who wished to establish a legal relationship with an Aborigine’.41

This thinking, left over from the nineteenth century but obviously still current in 1957, relates directly to Pauline’s parents, to the act of mixing-blood as Daryl and Euphie did with their nine children. The word ‘miscegenation’, coupled with the term ‘sexual promiscuity’, is a terrible judgement on Pauline’s parents and on Pauline herself: it declares that her mother was ‘loose’, and that Pauline is tainted with a kind of disease. However, by the 1950s the emphasis on genetics was changing to that of culture. When McLean emphasised the white blood running in the veins of the half-caste he was attempting to find a way to bring the degenerate and clearly doomed Aborigine into the White Australian way of life. By emphasising the white blood in Pauline’s veins, the concept negates her Aboriginal identity, which is paramount to her.

The words ‘miscegenation’ and ‘sexual promiscuity’ may also be seen from a modern context as a judgement on women in Pauline’s family who had left untenable relationships and, in practical ways, sought security for themselves and their children with other men. It is useful to remember that in the 1950s in the non-Aboriginal world, domestic violence was never spoken about, divorce was rare, unwed mothers were shunned, and deviations from the norm of the ‘respectable’ nuclear family were covered up as far as possible. In the eyes of the middle class Christians who controlled social mores, Aboriginal women who openly defied the norm degraded those mores. Charles McLean, long time public servant, ‘conscientious, noble and merciful’ magistrate for thirty-four years,42 couldn’t help himself when he chose the words ‘miscegenation’ and ‘sexual promiscuity’ to put in his report. Women who left their husbands, who had children with other men, were degraded – especially when they were Aborigines, a people supposedly with no culture and no identity.

McLean, a retired magistrate, could not easily shake off his belief in genetics, even though his task was to effect social/cultural change and bring the Aboriginal people in from the cold, so to speak. For instance, in a discussion of ‘the capacity of people of aboriginal blood to live and maintain themselves and their families according to the general standards of the Victorian community’, 43 he focused on the mental capacity of Aboriginal people:

Most authorities now agree that there is no innate racial inferiority of intelligence in the aborigine. In any case, there is a preponderance of white blood among those in Victoria, though some degree of degeneration from the general average of the white race might perhaps be expected from the fact that much of the white parentage has had its origin in the association of ‘sub-standard’ whites.44

This makes me cringe for upon reading these remarks I am taken back to my own childhood when I marvelled at the stories my grandfather told me about the American Indians and took as truth his pronouncement that those Whites who mingled with Cherokee ‘squaws’ were degenerate. Now, fifty years later, I recoil at my young self, and at McLean whose opinions held the weight of authority. Although he had never met Daryl Tonkin, a man I hold in high esteem and know to be generous and honest, it feels to me as if McLean were talking specifically about him and calling him degenerate merely by fact of his association with Aborigines. At the same time as he declared the racial equality of Aboriginals, McLean belittled people of mixed racial parentage like Pauline, people whose intelligence he admitted was in evidence but who he nonetheless assumed to be faulty since their fathers were seen to be sub-standard. For the most part, this giving with one hand and taking with the other seems to have been an unconscious act. Yet how obvious it is to me now looking back. It seems to me that McLean could not see his condescension any more than my grandfather could. I know now, with the aid of hindsight, that the constructions McLean, as a settler Australian, used to understand Aboriginal people were at odds with how the people themselves constructed their identities, and at that point in our history McLean seemed to have no means of altering these preconceptions.

At one point in the report it is clear that McLean was indeed not conscious of his assumptions. One of his tasks was to discover if there might be any impediment or obstacle that lay in the path of ‘economic absorption’, as he called one aspect of assimilation. He identified ‘faults’ in the Aboriginal character such as living for the present with ‘lack of thought for tomorrow’, strong family ties, the ‘habit’ of sharing ‘which is deeply rooted among them’, the ‘unhopeful’ atmosphere of their homes, ‘lack of initiative’, and sense of ‘inferiority due to environment’. These were all his words and the tone was one of pathos mixed with disgust and incomprehension, but the pity and condescension is a construction of the times. He almost redeemed himself by admitting that another obstacle to economic absorption might be the attitude of White people, which he said could be patronising and superior. But he went on to say that in the face of White superiority, ‘the shy reserve of the dark people develops into somewhat resentful and suspicious outlook towards any friendly approach by the whites’.45 From this it is clear who he thought was at fault, and even though he actually used the word ‘superiority’, he did not seem to have any idea of his own sense of superiority and was therefore unaware that this attitude of racial superiority would undermine the policy he was creating.

Everything McLean wrote in the report supported the idea of assimilation. He concluded that assimilation would solve all ills, yet he did not recommend the sale of Lake Tyers. It seems that his own prejudices about Aboriginal people allowed him to assume that the inherent faults he could not help naming in his report would render them intractable. He recommended the formation of a Welfare Board with membership including three Aboriginal people. The Parliament appointed only two, as we have seen: Pastor Doug Nicholls and Harold Blair.

Daryl Tonkin understood, sitting by the fire all those years ago talking to his Aboriginal family and friends, that they were angry and afraid, but he had no idea how public thought was changing and how it was about to affect his world. Even as he told his story almost 40 years after the events, he was still unaware how theories of anthropologists, rights advocates and public policy makers worked. For instance, Daryl has no idea even now that his dated and unconscious use of the word ‘full-blood’ in describing Stewart Hood has a historical context: historically, policy making around Aborigines has been dependent upon theoretical racial categories such as ‘full-blood’ and ‘half-caste’. Daryl has no idea that his family was eventually torn asunder because it was assumed that the Aboriginal people on his land were all half-castes and therefore their Aboriginality was erased. He doesn’t know that the word ‘Aborigine’ is itself a colonial word that in the Australian settler society has served to homogenise a diverse people into one racial group that can be easily defined as ‘Other’ and therefore served by simplistic and racially determined public policy. This definition of people by their ‘breed’ was used to break up Coranderrk in the 1880s, to justify assimilation in mid-twentieth century Victoria and is used now to undermine native title claims. But all Daryl knows about it is that he has somehow been betrayed by History, which somehow destroyed what he valued in life.


1     Landon and Tonkin (1999, p. 248).

2     Barwick (1971, p. 173).

3     Goodall (1996, p. 310).

4     Attwood (2003, p. xii).

5     Attwood (2003, p. 116).

6     Warragul Gazette, ‘Welfare of Aborigines’, 18 March 1958, p. 12.

7     Anonymous (1985, p. 49).

8     Warragul Gazette, ‘Ashamed of our treatment of aborigines’, 22 July 1958, p. 18.

9     Attwood (2003, pp. 102–112).

10    Attwood (2003, p. 116).

11    Attwood (2003, p. 103).

12    Attwood (2003, p. 118).

13    Kerin (1999, p. 3).

14    Kerin (1999, p. 124).

15    From the moment the Aborigines Welfare Board was formed in 1958 there began a thirteen-year struggle to retain Lake Tyers for its residents. In July 1971 the government passed the Aboriginal Lands Act, which ‘made the 4000 acres comprising theLake Tyers reserve the freehold property of an Aboriginal Trust made up of Lake Tyers residents’ (Anonymous 1985, p. 81).

16    Donald Thomson, letter to The Age, 23 May 1963.

17    Anonymous 1985, pp. 46–47.

18    Anonymous 1985, p. 39.

19    Landon and Tonkin (1999, p. 171).

20    McLean, Charles, Report upon the Operation of the Aborigines Act 1928 and the Regulations and Order made Thereunder, Melbourne 1957, B408, McLean Inquiry, Item 10, p. 8.

21    Corinne Manning (2002, p. 173).

22    Anonymous (1985, p. 41).

23    Assimilation, as an idea, had been determining policy since the 1880’s when Victoria, in an attempt to save money, tried to create a climate of assimilation for ‘half-caste’ Aborigines who were banned from the mission stations. Racial prejudice seemed to defeat this social experiment and left many half-castes destitute so they were re-admitted onto the missions at the turn of the century although the determination of Aboriginality by ‘blood’ was not changed. It wasn’t until McLean made his report in 1956 that Victoria recognised the Aboriginality of ‘half-caste’ people. See Manning (2002, p. 159); Attwood (2003, p. 118). Yet still, in 1968, when I arrived in Victoria people were discounting the presence of Aboriginal people in Victoria by saying there were no full-bloods here.

24    Manning (2002, p. 159).

25    Assimilation was adopted as a policy by the Federal Government in the 1937 Native Welfare Conference. However its implementation was delayed by the outbreak of WWII and was not revived until Paul Hasluck was appointed the Federal Minister for Territories in May 1951. In September 1951, Hasluck urged government delegates at the Australian Native Welfare Conference to revitalise the 1937 decision and implement assimilation-style Aboriginal welfare policies. Victoria was the last state to do so Manning (2002, p. 160).

26    ‘Native Welfare in Australia’, page 3, An address given by the Minister For Territories The Honourable Paul Hasluck M.P., to the Baptist Home Mission Rally, Sydney, 14 February 1956.

27    Paul Hasluck ‘Native Welfare in Australia’, p. 3.

28    Paul Hasluck ‘Native Welfare in Australia’, p. 3.

29    Macintyre (1999, p. 220).

30    Manning (2002, p. 160).

31    Kerin (1999, p. 26).

32    The Age, ‘Report on Board of Inquiry,’ 1 February 1957.

33    B408, McLean Inquiry, Item 10, McLean Report, p. 21. McLean, Charles, Report upon the Operation of the Aborigines Act 1928 and the Regulations and Order made Thereunder, Melbourne 1957, p. 8.

34    B408/0 McLean Inquiry: Police Reports & Population Details, letter 23 April 1956.

35    B408/0 McLean Inquiry.

36    B408/0 McLean Inquiry, report 30 May, 1956.

37    Steedman (2001, pp. 149–151).

38    Interview with Mr Alwyn Jensen, Neerim South, 8 April 2004.

39    B408, McLean Inquiry, Item 10, McLean Report, p. 6.

40    B408, McLean Inquiry, Item 10, McLean Report, p. 6.

41    Beckett (1988, 197–199).

42    Manning (2002, p. 163).

43    B408, McLean Inquiry, Item 10, McLean Report, p. 8.

44    B408, McLean Inquiry, Item 10, McLean Report, p. 8.

45    B408, McLean Inquiry, Item 10, McLean Report, p 10.


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Attwood, Bain. 2003. Rights for Aborigines. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Barwick, Diane. 1971. ‘20 changes in the Aboriginal population of Victoria, 1863–1966’. In Aboriginal man and environment in Australia, edited by Mulvaney, J.; Goss, J. Canberra: Australian National University Press.

Beckett, Jeremy. 1988. The past in the present; The present in the past: Constructing a national Aboriginality. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Goodall, Heather. 1996. Invasion to embassy: Land in Aboriginal politics in New South Wales, 1770–1972. Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin.

Kerin, Sitarani. 1999. An attitude of respect: Anna Vroland and Aboriginal rights, 1947–1957. Melbourne: Monash Publications in History.

Landon, Carolyn; Tonkin, Daryl. 1999. Jackson’s Track: Memoir of a Dreamtime place. Melbourne: Penguin.

Macintyre, Stuart. 1999. A concise history of Australia. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Manning, Corinne 2002. ‘The McLean report: Legitimising Victoria’s new assimilationism’. Aboriginal history 26: 159–176.

Steedman, Carolyn. 2001. Dust. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Cite this chapter as: Landon, Carolyn. 2006. ‘The story of the Board’. In Jackson’s Track revisited: History, remembrance and reconciliation. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 3.1–3.18.

Jackson’s Track Revisited: History, Remembrance and Reconciliation

   by Carolyn Landon