The Moral Surveillance of Aboriginal Applicants for Public Housing in New South Wales

By Morgan, George | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

The Moral Surveillance of Aboriginal Applicants for Public Housing in New South Wales


Morgan, George, Australian Aboriginal Studies


The 1960s was a key decade in the history of colonial relations. In the period since the establishment of reserves in the mid-nineteenth century, the state had largely sought to separate Indigenous people and their culture from European society. Their living places were situated away from those of townsfolk, and their social welfare needs were dealt with in a quarantined field of public administration. By the mid-1960s the ideological justifications for policies of segregation had been undermined by social processes which were beyond the capacity of the state to regulate. In the postwar period the Aboriginal population increased rapidly. Existing reserve land and housing, and the resources available to the Aborigines Welfare Board (AWB), were insufficient to cope with the pressure. Much of the overflow was accommodated in squalid riverbank camps or in burgeoning inner-city communities. Around this time there was a waning in the moral conservatism which had characterised public opinion in postwar Australia. The popular sympathy for Indigenous people was reflected in the 1967 referendum vote which led to the extension of Aboriginal rights. Whereas in the past brazenly racist rhetoric was a routine feature of the public sphere, this gave way to an emergent liberalism. This by no means, however, spelled an end to official racism. As we shall see below, Aboriginal people continued to suffer scrutiny and regulation of their culture and way of life, not from the AWB but from a different quarter.

In 1969 the NSW parliament dissolved the AWB and transferred responsibility for most areas of Indigenous affairs to mainstream government departments. This article considers the role of the NSW Housing Commission (HC) in Aboriginal housing. It is based on research conducted in the tenancy files, specifically those relating to Aboriginal applicants and tenants from the 1970s. It will explore the forms of moral surveillance which they experienced, and the class and gender as well as colonial aspects of that surveillance. The public rhetoric of policymakers at this time was more pluralistic and tolerant than had been the case for much of the postwar period. The introduction of the Housing for Aborigines (HFA) scheme, whereby a proportion of the public housing stock was earmarked for Indigenous people, reflected a desire to hasten the process of moving the residents from government reserves and unofficial camps into the social mainstream.

Yet this process was far from satisfactory for Aboriginal people. In spite of the HFA scheme, state housing provision was thoroughly insufficient to overcome the shortage caused by earlier governmental neglect. In order to be among the few offered the opportunity to escape the poverty and squalor of government reserves or crowded inner-city slums, Indigenous applicants were required to demonstrate their suitability for life in the new environment. They were expected to embrace a lifestyle--based primarily around normative class and gender roles--which was at odds with their culture and traditional way of life, to live in dwellings designed for `respectable' nuclear families and to weaken ties to their extended kinship and community networks. Some conformed, but many of those who wanted improved housing were unwilling to make the sacrifices required of them.

The housing problem and the state response

In theory, Aboriginal people had been eligible to apply for public housing since the inception of the NSW Housing Commission in 1942, but in practice few were able to do so. Even those who were sufficiently literate to deal with the application process and could surmount the obstacles which the AWB placed in their path were generally unable to convince the commission that they had any right to town housing. An early filenote from the late 1940s exemplifies the difficulties which Indigenous people faced:

   These people are Aboriginals. There is another baby on the way since the
   application was filled in . … 

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The Moral Surveillance of Aboriginal Applicants for Public Housing in New South Wales
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