What Really Happened in the Northern Territory

By MacLeod, Colin | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, May 1998 | Go to article overview

What Really Happened in the Northern Territory


MacLeod, Colin, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


In spite of much publicity given to Aboriginal matters, I find there is considerable ignorance abroad concerning the law, administration and culture of the postwar years. This lack of knowledge has, in my view, led to some unfair criticism, even denigration, of public servants in the Northern Territory in the 1950s. My book, Patrol in the Dreamtime, has, I hope, dispelled many of the inaccuracies that have crept into the contemporary debate. To help further flesh out knowledge of those times, I provide the following reprise of the policies and practices that I witnessed while working in the Territory from 1955 to 1958.

EARLY in 1955, I had just been discharged from my national service in the Navy. At 21, I was restless and unhappy about returning to clerical work in Williamstown, Victoria, and had the great good fortune to get a job as a cadet patrol officer in the Northern Territory. Within one month of my arrival in Darwin, I was viewing the tom back of an Aboriginal man who had been brutally flogged with hobble chains for being lazy. My life was forever changed.

It is hard for us today to understand that in the 1950s, and well before the 1967 referendum, things were very different for Aborigines. The States had exclusive power in Aboriginal affairs. It is now seemingly forgotten that the only areas over which the Commonwealth had jurisdiction concerning Aboriginals were the Northern Territory, Papua and New Guinea, the ACT and Norfolk Island. What the States did within their boundaries was not within the control of the Commonwealth.

Society in Northern Territory itself was very stratified, not unlike in the British colonies. At the top of the tree were the senior public service mandarins; at the bottom the full-blood tribal Aborigines with little or no contact with the European way of life. The `boy-boss' mentality was entrenched.

Aborigines were often employed for no wages in conditions that on some cattle stations were nothing much short of serfdom. Floggings were not unknown; shocking food, poor clothing, and an absence of medical and educational facilities quite obviously resulted in poor health, and a lack of morale of a subjected race. The names Aborigines were given-Maggie Dogface, Pegleg Bill, Dancer, Nosepeg-ensured the continuance of an attitude that these people were seen by many as something akin to sub-human.

Full-blood Aborigines could not vote and were not allowed to drink alcohol. Segregation in picture theatres, hospitals, schools and most public places was both marked and accepted as the norm. In an environment with few white women, 'lubras' were daily traded for 'grog' to all comers by Aboriginal males desperate for alcohol. Young Aboriginal women from puberty onwards were commonly used as stakes in card games, as sexual and as domestic unpaid servants, and almost as a currency by which favours from Europeans could be obtained.

Clearly, the Aborigines were victimized in many instances, and there was an increasingly urgent need for them to be in some way protected.

We must remember that the Northern Territory still had the feeling and character of a frontier. Most roads were unmade and ungraded. The pedal radio was just in the process of being superseded by those operated by car batteries. Outback telephones did not exist. Light aircraft were beginning to appear as a useful means of transport. Tribal Aboriginals leading their traditional lives could often be seen with spear and woomera, speaking their own languages, and perhaps even with their recently caught prey over their shoulders.

A `true Territorian' attitude to Southern interference was summed up in the words, `Do-gooders should mind their own business and let us look after our own bloody blacks'. The Cattlemen's lobby was still very real, and had influence in Canberra-so the Darwin Mandarins trod softly in fear of them.

Thus, with Paul Hasluck as Minister for Territories in the Menzies Government, the policy dictated by Canberra for the welfare of Aboriginal people was much influenced by this environment. …

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