The Aborigines Protection Act 1909 (NSW), and the Welfare Board it empowered, for decades controlled all aspects of life for Aboriginal people in New South Wales for the purposes of our ‘protection and care’.
This regime regulated Aboriginal people’s movement and enforced segregation, banned us from having a drink in a pub or gathering in groups in public and restricted who could visit our homes. It allowed principals to ban Aboriginal children from public schools. Complete strangers might stop Aboriginals in the street to ask what they were doing ‘off the reserve’.
Welfare Board bureaucrats could enter Aboriginal homes without notice. Apparently two men from the Welfare Board tried to walk uninvited into our home once. According to the story, my mother chased them away with a broom.
Aboriginal people in New South Wales were subject to a 5pm curfew. Once my father was arrested coming home from work late after working in a town a few hours away. The police didn’t believe he’d been out of town for work and arrested him. He spent a night or two in the police cells before the police sergeant spoke to his job supervisor who confirmed his story. After that, his boss insisted he apply for what we all called a ‘dog tag’, a Certificate of Exemption under the Aborigines Protection Act. The dog tags were a government licence that allowed Aboriginal people to move about freely, go to the pub, go to public schools and not be subject to all the restrictions
Years later, reading the original legislation, it surprised me to find it actually didn’t even apply to my family because we didn’t live on a reserve or mission or receive rations. My parents owned their own home in South Grafton. But we lived under the protection regime too. After all, my father wouldn’t have needed an exemption from the restrictions if the authorities didn’t think the restrictions applied. In reality, the protection regime extended well beyond what the legislation strictly called for and the Welfare Board acted well outside its stated powers. And no one ever questioned this. Indigenous Australians fought long and hard to end these protection regimes around Australia. It took a Constitutional amendment via the 1967 referendum to do it.
Public health officials are the new welfare boards with unprecedented control of Australians’ lives; regulating our movement – whether we can work, have a drink in (or outside) a pub, restricting who we can spend time with, stopping school attendance, coming into our homes to check compliance and requiring us to get government permits to go to work –and imposing curfews.
These rules are supposedly for our protection from Covid. But we’ve been given little, if any, evidence how so.
Some rules seemingly contradict medical advice. The safest place to be in a Covid outbreak is outdoors. NSW Health has said there have been no confirmed cases of outdoors Covid transmission ever. Asked to comment on Australia’s playground closures during the latest rounds of lockdowns, a leading US infectious diseases expert cited extensive research that Covid (including Delta) rarely spreads outdoors. The CDC recommends being outdoors to reduce infection risk. So why have NSW and Victorian health officials been forcing people to congregate at home for 22 hours a day where most transmission is taking place? Especially in places like Fairfield in Sydney where average household size is among the highest in Australia.
Other rules seem based on ideology or expediency. What science says it’s safe to visit a brothel (even without a mask) but not your extended family? And politicians don’t even pretend curfews are justified on medical advice.
NSW Health has routinely declined to provide police with details of public health order breaches including for significant transmission events at a Maroubra party and a Pendle Hill funeral. But then when rules aren’t obeyed, they suggest we need more.
Meanwhile, health officials have failed to progress, even thwarted, vaccine take-up. Over the last few months, I’ve received numerous calls from Aboriginal friends worried about western NSW’s Covid outbreak. At the commencement of that outbreak barely 30 per cent of Indigenous adults had had one jab; only 15 per cent were fully vaccinated. In western NSW it was only 8 per cent. Yet Indigenous Australians are more at risk of Covid and have had priority vaccine access.
Vaccine hesitancy is part of the problem, inflamed by high-profile morons pushing wild theories about population eradication. This wasn’t helped by health officials demonising AstraZeneca (and, by association, all Covid vaccines) through confused, highly technical messaging. Bizarrely, ATAGI’s initial recommendation, since changed, that AstraZeneca wasn’t ‘preferred’ for people under 60 was based on an assumption of low to zero risk of Covid infection. Any medication could be more risky than an illness there’s little to no chance of getting.
In July, a 38-year-old woman in NSW with no co-morbidities died from Covid. She reportedly tried numerous times to book a vaccine but found no appointments until October. At the time there were plenty of Astra Zeneca appointments but, being under 60, she was ineligible for them.
Here’s a simpler message. Covid will never be eradicated, we can’t keep it out forever, you will likely get it and you would prefer to be vaccinated when you do. We don’t need daily media conferences where politicians and public servants scold and hector. We don’t need an ever increasingly complex set of rules which people struggle to follow and health bureaucrats refuse to help enforce.
Until my teens, I lived under the control of bureaucrats who micro-managed Aboriginal lives under the guise of ‘protection and care’, bureaucrats who treated Aboriginal people like children, not trusted to take care of themselves or make their own decisions. I don’t want to live my remaining decades under even more stringent controls, imposed by even less compassionate bureaucrats, all under the guise of public health.
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Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO is author of ‘Speaking My Mind’ and ‘Warren Mundine In Black and White’ @nyunggai
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