The Native Administration Act 1936 effectively made all Aboriginal children in Western Australia 'orphans', or 'wards' of the state: even if they were resident with their married parents, other 'legitimate' relatives, or in a private, church-run Home, the Commissioner was their legal guardian, and could charge local officials with the power to remove them to place in Homes or 'service' (work).
Auber Octavius Neville, former Chief Protector of Aborigines from 1915-1936, was the first Commissioner for Native Affairs and a fierce proponent of assimilation policies. In 1937, Neville presented at the Initial Conference of Commonwealth and State Aborignal Authorities, outling what he believed should be the goal of all State governments in Australia: to elminate the Aboriginal 'race' by the removal of Aboriginal children, and placing them in suitable training institutions so that they might become suitable future partners for white Australians.
Neville retired in 1940, and by 1947 had published his book, Australia's coloured minority: its place in the community, outlining his belief that Australian governments should 'breed out' the Aboriginal 'race'.
Dorgelo (2007) writes that Neville has been 'simultaneously represented as cruel and benevolent, paternalistic and distantly bureaucratic' and that recollections of his character and activities serve as vehicles 'for constructions of (and anxieties about) postcolonial Australia'.
In her review of Pat Jacob's Mister Neville: a biography, Isobel White (1992) wrote that a picture emerged of Neville as:
'a model family man and as a dedicated and efficient public servant, whose acute sense of duty caused him to serve the state and the Aborigines to the best of his ability and according to his strong sense of what was right and proper. In his favour he attempted to learn all he could about the Aborigines, by travelling all over the state, even exploring areas in the north that were still almost unknown. Thus he became known throughout the whole of Australia as an authority on the administration of Aboriginal minorities. When he retired at the age of sixty-five both Aborigines and non-Aborigines paid tribute to his achievements.'
White also commented on the 'removal' of Aboriginal children that happened under Neville, who:
'regarded the Aborigines as fully human. And was aware that their pitiful conditions were due to the attitudes and actions of their conquerors. He fought throughout his working life to change these attitudes, thus bringing upon himself many attacks in the state parliament and the newspapers. Many of his attempts to help the Aborigines were thwarted by a series of penny-pinching governments. Neville was particularly worried by the plight of the increasing numbers throughout the state of the part-Aborigines, and was an advocate of taking them away from their families in order that they should have the benefit of a western- type education. He genuinely believed that this would be 'for their own good', unable to realise that this was as cruel to the children and their families as it would be to take his own beloved children from their parents! '
Haebich's entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography takes up this point:
'While some Aborigines appreciated his concern, others referred to 'Mister Neville' in tones suggesting awe and even fear. His unwilling but unavoidable reliance on police as local 'protectors' contributed to a tradition of Aboriginal hostility towards police and 'the welfare'. Educated Aborigines from the south-west, whose legal and social status plummeted as a result of his measures, saw Neville as their main adversary. William Harris described the protector as one of the Aborigines' 'worst enemies'. The irony of Neville's administration was that in aggregating the power to assimilate Aborigines of part descent through economic and social (genetic) absorption, he accelerated the pauperization and segregation evident since the 1900s. Closer settlement in the south-west, competition from white workers, and the racial prejudice of rural communities worried by increase in the Aboriginal population, all helped to produce the 'Aboriginal problem' that Neville wished to solve.'
Throughout his tenure, Neville travelled widely throughout the State to see Aboriginal people and the conditions in which they lived. His many photographs are held in the Battye Library.
Neville has been portrayed in the 1985 Jack Davis play No Sugar, and in 2002 film Rabbit Proof Fence, played by Kenneth Branagh.
Neville was succeeded in the post by Francis Illingworth Bray in 1940. Bray, who had been working in Aboriginal affairs in Western Australia since 1932, was Commissioner until 1948.
Stanley Middleton held the role of Commissioner from 1948, following the Survey of Native Affairs 1947 (also known as the Bateman Survey) into the 'native problem'. Middleton continued in the role of Commissioner of Native Welfare from 1954.
13 July 2016
Cite this: https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/wa/WE00553
First published by the Find & Connect Web Resource Project for the Commonwealth of Australia, 2011
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