Function VF 175
Aboriginal affairs
About this Function Related Agencies Related Groups
Is this the right Function?Is this the right Function?
  • Use this Function for
    Administration of Aboriginal affairs generally up to 1975 including :-
    Chief Protector of Aborigines (1839-49);
    Guardian of Aborigines (1849-60);
    Central Board for the Protection of
    Aborigines (1860-1869);
    Board for the Protection of Aborigines
    Aborigines Welfare Board (1957-1968);
    Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs (1968-1975).
    and thereafter (following the transfer of the function to the Commonwealth in 1975) for :
    State policy co-ordination of Aboriginal
    Administering grants programs for
    Aboriginal cultural heritage and capital projects that will help Aboriginal communities by promoting economic, social and cultural development.
    Protecting aboriginal cultural heritage in
    conjunction with aboriginal archaeology programs.

  • Do not use this Function for
    Administration of the following functions having specific application to Aborigines :-
    Health, public;
    Housing, public;
    Police (including native police);
    Welfare services.
    Aboriginal archaeology

Description of this FunctionDescription of this Function

Police Magistrate and Protectorate to 1849

The first Police Magistrate for the Port Phillip District, William Lonsdale, was responsible to the Governor of New South Wales for the general administration of government in the District. He also undertook the normal duties of a New South Wales District Police Magistrate relating to supervision of the local constabulary, the administration of justice and liquor licensing. His civil instruction of 14 September 1836 from the New South Wales Colonial Secretary (Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 1, pp.49-54) set out his duties, including a census of the population and "protection of Aborigines":

It will be one of your most important duties to protect the Aboriginal natives of the District from any manner of wrong, and to endeavour to conciliate them by kind treatment and presents... ..and to improve by all practicable means their moral and social condition.

William Buckley was to be employed "as the medium of communication with them" (p.53).

Lonsdale's instructions included directions to investigate earlier violence and killings. As settlement encroached further into tribal land, attacks by dispossessed Aborigines, counter-attacks and killings became more frequent. Attempts by Lonsdale, his military forces and constabulary to deal with the situation were ineffective. In the meantime in Britain a House of Commons Select Committee on Aborigines (1835-1837) was established (extracts from its final report of 26 June 1837 are included in Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 2A, pp.62-69) and the British Government, advised by Sir George Arthur, devised the Protectorate Scheme. General questions about policies to be adopted towards the Aborigines were debated in London, Sydney and Melbourne, while in reality local officials were unable to deal with the appalling effects of colonisation on the Aboriginal population and the Aborigines were frequently subjected to brutal treatment by their would-be "protectors".

During the period 1836 to 1839 several abortive attempts were made to establish a Native Police Corps - from October 1837 to early 1839 under C.L.J. Villiers and in late 1839 under the Chief Protector. A Government Mission under the control of the Anglican George Langhorne was located on the south bank of the Yarra from early 1837 to October 1839. (For details see Historical Records of Victoria, Volumes 2A and 2B).

Chief Protector George Robinson and three assistants were appointed in late 1838 arriving in Port Phillip in early 1839 to establish a Protectorate there (NSW Government Gazette, 12 December 1838 (VA 512)). Lonsdale was advised that he had no authority over Robinson, who reported directly to Governor Gipps and the Colonial Secretary in Sydney, except for the exercise of control over matters of expenditure and to supply provisions (Colonial Secretary to Lonsdale, 11 December 1838, Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 2B,p.391). Robinson proceeded to allot districts to his Assistants and to issue directions relating to a census of the Aboriginal population, to a rationing and supply system, and to the maintenance of order and the control of disease (Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 2B, pp.451-452).

The Guardian of Aborigines 1849-1860

The Guardian of Aborigines (VA 513) was appointed in 1849 following a Select Committee report which recommended the abolition of the Protectorate System. The Guardian was solely responsible for providing "protection to Aborigines". Crown Land Commissioners had been appointed as honourary protectors, their duties being to visit reserves, report on the condition of Aborigines and supply Aborigines with food and clothing "in cases of extreme emergency" (see VRG 27 District Land Offices).

The Central Board 1860-1869 and the Board for the Protection of Aborigines 1869-1957

Following a report by a further Select Committee established to inquire into Aboriginal welfare, the Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines (VA 514) was established in 1860. The new Board set up "native reserves" (stations) and supply depots throughout Victoria. In 1869 the Board was renamed the Board for the Protection of Aborigines (VA 515) and received statutory authority by an Act of Parliament entitled An Act to provide for the Protection and Management of the Aboriginal Natives of Victoria 11 November 1869, (No.CCCXLIX). The provisions of the Act regulated people defined by the Act as "Aboriginal natives", "Aboriginal half-caste", and "half-caste infants". The Board at this time was said to be concerned primarily with the "protection" of Aboriginal people as defined in the Act from the "evils" of European society such as drinking, as well as with the provision of clothing and food at stations and depots, and the provision of education to Aboriginal children. Under the provisions of the Act the Board had extensive powers to control and regulate the classes of people defined in the Act.

It could:
- regulate and prescribe places where Aborigines and Aboriginal tribes could reside
- prescribe the terms under which contracts were made for and on behalf of Aborigines
- prescribe the terms under which certificates could be granted to Aborigines who could earn a living
- distribute the earnings of any Aborigine or any produce resulting from Aboriginal labour on reserves
- distribute money granted by parliament
- regulate and provide care, custody and education for Aboriginal children.

Aboriginal Affairs Legislation 1886-1957

During this period Aboriginal mortality rates increased and a Royal Commission was appointed to investigate this and allegations of mismanagement at stations. The resulting Aborigines Protection Act 1886 (No.DCCCCXII) re-defined the Board's responsibilities and functions. Aboriginal people classified as "half-caste" were increasing in number and were seen as incurring added expenditure. Therefore the Act re-classified Aboriginal people as "Aboriginal natives", "half-castes" associated and living with "Aboriginal natives" over 34 years of age, "female half-castes" either married or previously married to "Aboriginal natives" and still living with "Aboriginal natives", children of "Aboriginal natives", and any other "half-castes" holding licenses from the Board allowing them to reside where "Aboriginal natives" were living. Under this Act "half-castes" were entitled to receive limited benefits and had to be licensed in order to reside with "Aboriginal natives". The Board had the power, under direction from the Governor, to make and enforce regulations concerning "half-castes".

Aboriginal people living on stations during this time were expected to work hard, for little return, in an attempt to curb the costs associated with maintaining the stations.

In 1890 the Aborigines Act (No.1059) gave the Board further powers to license "half-caste" children, enter "half-caste" children into apprenticeships and transfer "half-caste" orphans into care.

The Aborigines Act 1910 (No.2255) gave the Board power, if it thought appropriate, to extend the regulations of the Act to cover "half-caste Aboriginals", the Chief Secretary having claimed that the costs would not greatly increase if "half-caste Aboriginals" were included.

Aborigines' Welfare Board 1957-1967

In 1957 the Board for the Protection of Aborigines was abolished under the Aborigines Act 1957 (No.6086). It was replaced by the Aborigines' Welfare Board which consisted of the Chief Secretary, the Under-Secretary, the Ministers of Education (VRG 35), Health (VRG 39) and Housing (VRG 53) and five other members, two of whom were to be Aborigines. A Superintendent of Aborigines was also appointed. The Board's functions were to "promote the moral, intellectual and physical welfare of Aborigines (including persons of Aboriginal descent) with a view to their assimilation into the general community". The powers of the Board were to:

- prescribe the distribution of money
- provide for the supply of clothing, medicine and rations
- manage and regulate Aboriginal reserves
- purchase, build or acquire buildings and land, and grant licenses to occupy land or buildings to Aborigines
- generally supervise matters concerning the interests and welfare of Aborigines.

The Act also prescribed conditions of employment and the issuing of permits to reside on reserves. In 1959 the Aborigines (Houses) Act 1959 (No.6498) provided for the Housing Commission (VA 508) to enter into contracts to build houses for Aborigines on behalf of the Board

Post 1967: Changing Focus of Aboriginal Affairs Policy

Prior to 1967, although Aborigines were recognised as Australian citizens under the Commonwealth Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 - and before that as British nationals, the special laws passed by State legislatures, including Victoria, with the expressed purpose of "protection", in effect denied Aborigines the vote, required large numbers of them to live on reservations, and gave the agencies responsible for managing their affairs considerable powers to regulate and control their children, property, earnings and employment.

From the late 1950's there was increasing concern in Australia and internationally about policies and programs relating to Aborigines and their legal status, resulting in rapid changes in related legislation, policies and administrative arrangements.

In 1967 a referendum extended voting rights to Aborigines and authorised a change to the federal Constitution (in particular sections 51 and 127 which had largely excluded Aborigines from federal jurisdiction). By the mid-1970's these changes had resulted in the Commonwealth taking over primary responsibility for policy and programs for Aborigines from the States.

In Victoria prior to 1966 responsibility for the administration of policy and programs relating to Aborigines was vested in the Chief Secretary (VRG 26). Administration of the function was undertaken by the Aborigines Welfare Board within the Chief Secretary's Department (VA 475) until 1968, when a Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs (VA 2873) was established under the provisions of the Aboriginal Affairs Act 1967 (No.7571).

In 1966, under the provisions of the Aborigines (Amendment) Act 1965 (No.7267) the Minister of Housing (VRG 53) succeeded the Chief Secretary (VRG 26) as the Minister responsible for Aboriginal affairs. However the staff of the Aborigines Welfare Board remained within the Chief Secretary's Department (VA 475). The appointment of a Minister of Aboriginal Affairs in December 1967 reflected the beginning of a new policy direction in Victoria in regard to matters relating to Aborigines, and a move away from the earlier policy of assimilation, which dated from the late 1950's. The stated aim of the new policy was creation of opportunities for Aborigines to take responsibility for their own affairs. The Minister's responsibilities involved "promoting the social and economic advancement of Aborigines in Victoria".

The Minister was deemed responsible for:

- assisting Aborigines to obtain suitable housing and accommodation
- providing educational assistance, health and medical care, implements and tools of trade, employment and training, rehabilitation, legal aid and advice to Aborigines
- providing training farms and other educational institutions
- purchasing and acquiring land for use or benefit to Aboriginal people
- construction of houses and buildings for use by Aboriginal people
- making loans to enable Aborigines to purchase or acquire lands or buildings
- selling land no longer required for the purposes of the Act
- directing and encouraging economic development projects and programmes for the benefit of Aboriginal people
- co-ordinating voluntary organisations concerned with the welfare and interest of Aboriginal people
- disseminating information to the public on matters relating to Aborigines
- researching matters relating to Aborigines
- providing social welfare services, including accommodation for Aboriginal wards of the State and assisting parents to regain custody of their children following earlier illegal separation
- use and development of reserves and their return to Aboriginal ownership (Lake Tyers and Framlingham being returned under the Aboriginal Lands Act 1970)
- co-operation with the Commonwealth following the 1967 referendum
- preservation of archaeological and Aboriginal relics.

Transfer of Responsibility to the Commonwealth

Amendments to the Commonwealth Constitution in 1967 had provided for the Commonwealth Parliament to make laws "for the benefit of the Aboriginal people of Australia". Under the Victorian Aboriginal Affairs (Transfer of Functions) Act of December 1974 (No.8606), the Aboriginal Affairs Act 1967 (No.7571) was repealed, thus abolishing the Victorian Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs (VA 2873) and bringing into force the provisions of the Commonwealth Aboriginal Affairs (Arrangements with the States) Act 1973 (No.115). This Act enabled the Commonwealth (VRG 87) to take over primary responsibility for policy and programs relating to Aborigines. It also provided for the staff of the Victorian Ministry to be transferred to the new Commonwealth Ministry, which occurred in January 1975. The Housing Commission (VA 508) took over ownership of the housing formerly owned by the Victorian Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs (VA 2873).

State Administrative Arrangements from 1975

The Premier (VRG 50) took over responsibility at State level for co-ordinating policy relating to Aborigines, State sponsorship of economic development and cultural initiatives. This role was subsequently assumed in 1985 by the Minister of Planning (VRG 65). Other Ministers continued to exercise responsibility in relation to the provision of a range of services to the Aboriginal community, for example Education (VRG 35), Health (VRG 39), Housing (VRG 53), Community Welfare Services (VRG 60), and Community Services (VRG 80). The Chief Secretary (VRG 26) initially took on responsibility for Aboriginal archaeological relics, a responsibility subsequently (1983) vested in Planning (VRG 78). Further research is needed on the nature of the responsibilities of these Ministers and their Departments. See also archaeological survey (aboriginal).

Though an Aboriginal Affairs Unit was established within the Premier's Department (VA 2717) from 1975 to administer State sponsorship of economic development and cultural initiatives and to co-ordinate State policy relating to Aborigines, a separate aboriginal affairs agency (VA 3101) has been dated from 1985 when the small support unit assisting the Premier with the aboriginal affairs function was transferred to the Ministry of Planning and Environment (VA 1024) where it operated within the Heritage and Environment Branch. With the transfer of this function to the Planning portfolio the co-ordination of the state policy function with the cultural heritage and aboriginal archaeology functions was possible.

The functions carried out by Aboriginal Affairs, Victoria have altered over time. After 1985 the focus of the Unit was very much on the protection of aboriginal cultural heritage and the co-ordination of state policy relating to aboriginal affairs. This was achieved through the placement of the Aboriginal Affairs Unit within the Ministry for Planning and Environment (VA 1024) which also had responsibility for State archaeological functions under the Archaeological and Aboriginal Relics Preservation Act 1972. Protection of Aboriginal cultural heritage was also linked to the general cultural and heritage protection responsibilities which the Ministry undertook as part of its overall planning functions.

Between 1990 and August 1991 the Office of Aboriginal Affairs was situated within the Ministry of Consumer Affairs (VA 1026) following the appointment of a separately commissioned Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (who was concurrently the Minister for Consumer Affairs). From April 1990 until February 1992 State archaeological functions, including aboriginal archaeology were administered within the Department of Conservation and Environment (VA 3004).

In August 1991 a Department of Aboriginal Affairs (also known as Aboriginal Affairs Victoria) was established as the Department of State for the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.

After October 1992 the Department of Aboriginal Affairs was abolished and the Aboriginal Affairs Unit (known as Aboriginal Affairs, Victoria) was re-constituted within the newly established Department of Health and Community Services (VA 3092). Aboriginal Affairs Victoria works with other Victorian government agencies to ensure that the needs of the Aboriginal people are reflected in policy and program development. Aboriginal Affairs Victoria consults regularly and widely with the Aboriginal community, state and commonwealth government agencies and local authorities. Aboriginal Affairs Victoria manages grants programs on Aboriginal cultural heritage and capital projects that will help the Aboriginal communities by promoting economic, social and cultural development.

In May 1993 maritime and historic (post-European settlement) archaeology was split from aboriginal archaeological functions and transferred to the responsibility of the Department of Planning and Development (VA 3094).

Protection of Aboriginal Cultural Heritage and Funding of Aboriginal Capital Projects

New legislation to provide adequate protection for Aboriginal cultural material including oral history, sites and objects of religious or cultural significance was developed in conjunction with the Commonwealth after 1985. The aim of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Heritage Protection Act 1987 is to give local Aboriginal communities control over matters relating to their cultural heritage and responsibility for public awareness of aboriginal culture. It also encourages Aboriginal communities to be directly involved in the protection of objects and places of religious, historical or cultural significance through a State and Commonwealth grants allocation process to fund various capital projects .

Other cultural heritage projects undertaken during this period include the Koori Oral History Program; National Aboriginal Week activities; Aboriginal Site surveys and assessments in conjunction with local Aboriginal communities and co-operatives; and the production of cultural awareness information kits.

Funds were made available for various capital projects with the aim of encouraging Aboriginal self-management and economic independence and sponsoring cultural heritage and social development projects which were not the responsibility of other agencies. Such projects included:

- purchase of Crisis Accommodation for sobering-up centres in Mildura, Morwell and Warrnambool
- development of a craft/tourism/community centre in Echuca
- construction of an administrative centre at Lake Tyers
- improvements to the tourism/community centre at Cann River
- purchase of property for a building company in Melbourne
- title for land and a Community Centre in Bairnsdale made over to the Gippsland and East Gippsland Aboriginal Co-operative
- purchase of land for an enterprise/cultural development in Bahmah.

The Federal Aboriginal Land (Framlingham Forest and Lake Condah) Act 1987 was also introduced. This Act relates to two pieces of traditional Aboriginal land which were reserved in the 19th century for mission stations. Descendants of the Aborigines who lived on these missions and still live on the same land in the 20th century obtained inalienable title to the land under the legislation.

Commonwealth Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs also had co-ordination responsibility in relation to the recommendations of the Interim Report of the Commonwealth Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody after December 1988.


The responsibilities of the Victorian Minister Responsible for Aboriginal Affairs include:

- administration of grants programs for Aboriginal cultural heritage and capital projects that will help Aboriginal communities by promoting economic, social and cultural development
;- protection of aboriginal cultural heritage through aboriginal archaeology programs
;- working with other Victorian Government Ministers to ensure that the needs of Aboriginal people are reflected in policy and program development; and
- consulting with the Aboriginal community, State and Commonwealth Government agencies and local authorities.

Related FunctionsRelated Functions
  • Related Functions
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    Function Title Function Number
  • Broader Functions
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    Function Title Function Number
  • Narrower Functions
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    Function Title Function Number
    Health, public (aborigines) VF 389
    Welfare services (aborigines) VF 495
Other InformationOther Information
Agencies with prime responsibility for this FunctionAgencies with prime responsibility for this Function
Display entries per page
Date of Responsibility Agency Title Agency Number
- 1839 Police Magistrate Port Phillip District VA 472
1839 - 1851 Superintendent, Port Phillip District VA 473
1851 - 1855 Colonial Secretary's Office VA 856
1855 - 1856 Chief Secretary's Department VA 475
1856 - 1857 Surveyor-General's Department VA 2921
1857 - 1860 Department of Crown Lands and Survey VA 538
1860 - 1968 Chief Secretary's Department VA 475
1968 - 1975 Ministry for Aboriginal Affairs VA 2873
1975 - 1982 Department of the Premier (also known as Premier's Department 1960-1982) VA 2717
1982 - 1985 Department of the Premier and Cabinet VA 1039
1985 - cont Aboriginal Affairs, Victoria (known as Department of Aboriginal Affairs 1991-1992) VA 3101
2013 - cont Department of the Premier and Cabinet VA 1039
Other Agencies responsible for this FunctionOther Agencies responsible for this Function
Display entries per page
Date of Responsibility Agency Title Agency Number
1957 - 1968 Aborigines Welfare Board VA 4371
2002 - 2007 Department for Victorian Communities VA 4562
2007 - 2013 Department of Planning and Community Development VA 4838
Groups related to this FunctionGroups related to this Function
Display entries per page
Date of Responsibility Group Title Group Number
- 1839 Police Magistrate, Port Phillip District VRG 7
1839 - 1851 Superintendent, Port Phillip District VRG 11
1851 - 1855 Colonial Secretary VRG 16
1855 - 1856 Chief Secretary VRG 26
1856 - 1860 Lands VRG 18
1860 - cont Chief Secretary VRG 26