Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Schools and Centres

Arts & Sciences

First Supervisor

Dr Deborah Gare


For much of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, public policies for Western Australia’s Indigenous peoples were guided by beliefs that they were remnants of a race in terminal decline and that a public duty existed to protect and preserve them. If their extinction was unavoidable, the public duty was to ease their passing. The Aborigines Act 1905 vested the Chief Protector of Aborigines (after 1936 the Commissioner for Native Affairs), with lawful responsibility for the pursuit of that duty. All Aborigines caught by the terms of the Act, in particular Aboriginal children under the age of 16, and after 1936 girls and women under the age of 21, were wards of the Chief Protector and the Act entrusted him with extensive powers for managing their lives. The historical progression of public policies for the protection of Aborigines is analysed in this thesis. Particular attention is paid to developments guided by A.O. Neville, the third Chief Protector of Aborigines and first Commissioner for Native Affairs from 1915 to 1940. In that time, inadequacies in the law and its false assumptions about the destiny of the Aboriginal race were exposed. Those who framed the Aborigines Act 1905 failed to address the possibility that the race might not be extinguished, but might be transformed by interaction with the dominant white community. They did not anticipate a need to manage an emergent, fertile, and anomic half-caste populace, too black for the mainstream white community to accept as equals, but too white to be regarded as Aborigines. In the face of these and other challenges, public policy shifted under Neville’s guidance from protecting the racial integrity of Aborigines by segregating them from contaminating influences of the white community, towards the absorption of Aborigines, in the first instance those of mixed racial descent, by the white population. Critics of the latter policy have condemned it as being directed towards sinister objectives of ‘biological absorption’, ‘constructive miscegenation’, or, at the extreme, ‘genocide’. It is argued in this thesis that public policy in Western Australia was directed towards none of those objectives. Breeding out the colour was never the intention. Public policy progressively after 1915 was guided by an aspiration that Aborigines might be elevated in public estimation to a level where they might be accepted by the white community. A.O. Neville believed that in the longer term inter-racial marriage might even become acceptable and that ultimately ‘coloureds’ might breed out, but not that public programs should be directed towards that purpose.

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