Academic journal article Oceania

Wards, Words and Citizens: A.P. Elkin and Paul Hasluck on Assimilation (1)

Academic journal article Oceania

Wards, Words and Citizens: A.P. Elkin and Paul Hasluck on Assimilation (1)

Article excerpt

By 1951 A.P. Elkin had urged the social assimilation of Aborigines into settler society for a decade and a half. As the second Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney--Australia's only professor of anthropology from 1934 until 1951--President of the Association for the Protection of Native Races, prominent spokesman for Aboriginal rights, advisor to the Commonwealth government on Aboriginal policy in the 1930s and Vice-Chairman of the Aborigines Welfare Board of New South Wales, Elkin was well placed to publicise the assimilationist agenda. In 1951 Paul Hasluck became Commonwealth Minister for Territories, and thereby responsible for the relatively large Aboriginal population of the Northern Territory. Under Hasluck, assimilationist policies and practices were refined, extended and systematised. Although Commonwealth authority was limited to the Northern Territory, assimilation became the guiding principle of Aboriginal administration in the various state jurisdictions also. Hasluck's term as Minister for Territories (1951-63) marked the high-water point of assimilationism in Australian Aboriginal policy. Yet throughout this period Elkin expressed not acclamation for Hasluck's policies, but criticism. While both men were ardent advocates of assimilation, each conceptualised assimilation in quite different terms. Their differences are nicely encapsulated in the following interchange.

In 1953 Hasluck drafted an ordinance which, to hasten the process of assimilation, provided for the declaration of all Northern Territory Aborigines as 'wards'. No longer were Aborigines to be 'Aborigines'; they were to be simply 'wards', in need of the state to manage their lives. The status of wardship could be revoked in the case of individuals whom the authorities deemed capable of managing their own affairs. Such individuals would then be entitled to the full range of rights and benefits enjoyed by other citizens of the Commonwealth. They would remain, in administrative terminology, non-Aborigines. (2)

Elkin quickly responded with a critique of the proposed ordinance. 'The Bill', he informed Hasluck,

   is not satisfactory, basically because it underestimates the
   importance of being Aboriginal.
   1. The Aborigines--A Distinct Group.
   The Aborigines are racially different from us, and recognizably
   so. In spite of the economic, religious, social and political
   assimilation at which we aim, they will be a distinct group,
   or series of groups, for generations to come. Indeed, they will
   develop pride in their own cultural background and distinctness
   while at the same time being loyal and useful citizens.

So Elkin continued, with eight pages of characteristically polite but nonetheless strong criticism of the shortcomings of the ordinance. Wardship, he declared, was 'an abuse of justice'; the term 'ward' itself was demeaning to Aborigines as it was a 'repetition of the old convenient fallacy' of the 'child race'. While endorsing assimilation as a 'laudable' and 'praiseworthy' objective, Elkin insisted that the proposed ordinance was founded on an inappropriate concept of assimilation: 'the type of assimilation envisaged by the Bill, is the complete change of the Aborigines in all but skin colour'. This, he continued, is 'impossible'. (3)

This interchange provides an appropriate starting point for the issue I want to explore in this paper: the contested meanings of 'assimilation' in the era of assimilation. Hasluck's proposed ordinance, like Commonwealth assimilation policy as a whole, was rooted in the assumptions of liberal individualism. The individual Aborigine was expected to extricate himself or herself from Aboriginal society and become part of the (white) Australian way of life, itself conceived in individualist terms. Aboriginal identity and community cohesiveness had no role in the transition toward citizenship in a civilised state. Against this was Elkin's assertion that the maintenance of Aboriginal identity and community was not incompatible with their assimilation, and might indeed promote that process. …

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