• Legislation

Aborigines Act 1905, Western Australia


The Aborigines Act 1905 (Act no. 1905/014 (5 Edw. VII No.14) was reserved for Royal assent on 23 December 1905 and commenced in April 1906. It was ‘An Act to make provision for the better protection and care of the Aboriginal inhabitants of Western Australia.’ It governed the lives of all Aboriginal people in Western Australia for nearly 60 years. The Act created the position of Chief Protector of Aborigines who became the legal guardian of every Aboriginal child to the age of 16 years, and permitted authorities to ‘send and detain’ Aboriginal children in institutions and in ‘service’ (work). The Aborigines Act 1905 was repealed by the Native Welfare Act 1963 on 1 July 1964.

The Aborigines Act 1905 remained in force as the key piece of legislation governing matters relating to Aboriginal people for nearly 60 years in Western Australia. It was described by Tilbrook in Nyungar Tradition (p.5) as placing all people of Aboriginal descent in Western Australia in a ‘rejected section of Australian society’. The Act (s.65) validated most of the provisions contained in the Aborigines Act 1897, which authorities had found in 1904 to have been invalid, and extended the reach of the state into almost every aspect of the life of an Aboriginal person in Western Australia.

Its effects on children and families were particularly intrusive. As outlined by the To Remove and Protect website, the Aborigines Act 1905:

established the position of Chief Protector who was the legal guardian of ‘every aboriginal and half-caste child’ to the age of 16 years. Regional protectors to be appointed with power to grant permits for employment of Aboriginal males less than 14 years and Aboriginal females. No person to remove any ‘aboriginal’, any male ‘half-caste’ under 16, or any female ‘half-caste’ without the written authority of a protector. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs may remove ‘aboriginals’ from one reserve or district to another reserve or district. The marriage of an ‘aboriginal’ woman and a non-Aboriginal man requires the permission of the Chief Protector. Minister may exempt ‘aboriginals’ from the Act but an exemption could be cancelled at any time. Regulations may be made for ‘the care, custody and education of the children of aborigines and half-castes’ and ‘enabling any aboriginal or half-caste child to be sent to and detained in an aboriginal institution, industrial school or orphanage’.

In making the Chief Protector the guardian of Aboriginal children throughout the State, legislators had relied on findings by Dr WE Roth in the Royal Commission to Enquire into and Report Upon [inter alia] the Administration of the Aborigines Department and the Condition of the Natives (1904-1905). Roth’s investigations were confined to the northern regions of the State, where he found the local Aboriginal people, including children, were being exploited and mistreated by settlers. According to the ‘Bringing them home’ report (1997, p.90), children fathered by settlers (‘half-caste’ children) were not educated nor supported by their fathers. The Chief Protector, Henry Prinsep was concerned that this was also a growing issue in the southern part of the State. Authorities chose to respond by legislating to prevent ‘mixed marriages’ and sexual relations between settlers and Aboriginal people; and to actively pursue a policy of assimilation whereby ‘half-caste’ children were removed from their families and placed in institutions to assimilate them into a European style of life.

Tilbrook, in Nyungar Tradition (p.55) described how the Act impacted on the lives of Aboriginal children in WA: while the legislation was ‘designed initially to protect them’, in practice it ‘separated them from the group which accepted them and offered them love, while at the same time they were categorized as members of it’.

The Aborigines Act 1905 was eventually repealed by the Native Welfare Act 1963.

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