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The Council for Aboriginal Rights (Victoria)

by Sue Taffe

The Council for Aboriginal Rights (CAR) was founded at a meeting in Melbourne on 16 March 1951 that was attended by approximately seventy citizens representing unions, women’s organisations, peace bodies, and churches. Its stated aim was to ‘plan, conduct and organize the widest possible support for a campaign to obtain justice for all Australian Aborigines.’[1] Only two Aboriginal people—Pastor Doug Nicholls and Bill Onus—were present at this meeting. The 1960s was the most energetic decade in the Council’s life as its members were at the forefront of national campaigns for constitutional reform, the principle of equal wages for equal work, and land rights. By the mid-1980s the Council was no longer operating. The world into which it was born was much changed, and members could no longer see a role for themselves.

When it formed there were other organisations, such as the Victorian Aboriginal Group, concerned about systemic injustices faced by Aboriginal people but their focus was often to provide welfare support for individuals rather than pressing for broad legislative change. Such organisations were state-based and, as Aboriginal affairs were a matter for State governments rather than the Commonwealth in the 1950s and most of the 1960s, this was understandable. From the outset the Council took a national approach to what it regarded as a national shame. It became a key contributor to the decade-long campaign to press for Commonwealth responsibility in Aboriginal affairs.


The Council came into being at a time of heightened ideological conflict, against the background of the Cold War, when Prime Minister Robert Menzies was exploring strategies to outlaw the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). Opposing this move were bodies with strong memberships such as the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, some women’s organisations, and the peace movement. These diverse organisations drew support from those concerned about the loss of freedom of speech and political expression that would accompany the banning of a political party. They had joined with socialists, Christians, pacifists, and liberal democrats in 1947 in opposition to the joint British-Australian nuclear testing project in the central Australian desert.[2] Opponents who claimed that this project would be fatal to hunter-gatherer Aboriginal people were branded as communists or fellow travellers. The Council attracted membership from all of these groups, at a time when none had the rights of Aboriginal Australians as a central purpose. The Council for Civil Liberties may have seemed the natural starting place for campaigns for Aboriginal civil rights, but under Brian Fitzpatrick, who was its driving force, it was rather Anglocentric in its concerns and unprepared to extend its work to include Aboriginal rights.

The catalyst that led to the formation of the Council was a strike in 1950 in far distant Darwin. The North Australian Workers’ Union (NAWU) supported Aboriginal residents of Bagot and Berrimah reserves when they opposed the curfew imposed on them, asked for more than token wages and demanded better living and working conditions. Identifying Fred Waters as the leader of the strike action, the Department of Native Affairs exiled him to Haast’s Bluff, west of Alice Springs. The NAWU mobilised, publicising Waters’ exile through the press and organising a speaking tour by the president, Murray Norris, who exposed the conditions of Aboriginal Territorians. Waters had not been found guilty of a crime in a court of law but had been forcibly moved over 1,500 kilometres from home and family. As an Aboriginal man he was not protected by habeas corpus. These events, publicised by Norris’ speaking tour through the eastern states, helped interested non-Aboriginal citizens understand conditions which the Council described as ‘an affront to humanity’ and the human consequences when Aboriginal Australians were not protected by Australian law.[3]

A group of people who had heard Norris speak in Melbourne met to form a body that would dedicate itself to the pursuit of rights on behalf of Aboriginal Australians. They named the new organisation the Council for Aboriginal Rights, using the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, passed three years earlier, as their moral compass for the campaigns that would follow. A constitution was adopted and office bearers were elected: Canon Farnham Maynard, an Anglican clergyman, became the president; Reverend Colin Williams, a Methodist minister, accepted the vice-presidency; and Henry Wardlaw, who was not a church man, became honorary secretary. Shirley Andrews, who would later be a key driver of the Council, was a member of this inaugural executive, as was Molly Bayne, an academic from the University of Melbourne, who, like the others on the executive, had been active in the peace movement against war and fascism. What united them was a desire to draw public attention to the legal restrictions under which Aboriginal people lived and to point out that such restrictions were ‘in flat contradiction to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’.[4] The Council was committed to work to eradicate this contradiction.

On 19 June 1951 the Council held its first public meeting, attended by over nine hundred people who gathered in the Melbourne Town Hall to hear three well-known speakers, Dr Charles Duguid, Alan Marshall, and Pastor Doug Nicholls, launch a campaign ‘to win justice for the Aboriginal people.’ Duguid, a medical practitioner from South Australia and moderator of the Presbyterian Church in that state, had fifteen years of experience working in Aboriginal communities, where the conditions faced by residents prompted him to become active in their cause. More recently he had been forthright in his opposition to the proposed rocket range in the Central Aboriginal Reserve. He had predicted, correctly it later became clear, dangerous harmful effects of nuclear testing on the desert nomads who were still living tribally. Journalist Alan Marshall was the author of Ourselves Writ Strange, based on his meetings with Aboriginal people when touring Queensland and the Northern Territory in the mid-1940s. The only Aboriginal person on the stage was the Church of Christ pastor, Doug Nicholls, who was remembered by many in the audience as the short, speedy, and very talented footballer who played for Fitzroy in the 1930s. The meeting publicised the new council, and individuals from a number of states, as well as organisations, including unions, women’s organisations, and religious bodies, joined. At the end of the first year Wardlaw concluded: ‘It may fairly be said that the foundation for effective work to win justice for the Aborigines has been laid.’[5]

Educating, Organising, Expanding

Early in 1952, following Wardlaw’s resignation, Shirley Andrews was elected honorary secretary of the Council. She had returned to Australia after a year in Europe, having travelled as a member of the Australian delegation to the third world Festival of Youth and Students held in East Berlin. She brought a trained scientific mind, a humane concern about social injustice, and a capacity for sustained hard work to the cause of rectifying social inequalities. While a student in the new field of biochemistry at the University of Melbourne, she had experienced discrimination from male lecturers who questioned women’s ability to be scientists. She would later link her fellow feeling for Aboriginal people to her experience as a woman in the predominantly male scientific world. She saw both gender and racial discrimination as irrational and unjust. During the decade in which she held the office of honorary secretary Andrews would shape the Council, developing a wide network of correspondents, initiating campaigns to amend discriminatory laws and practices, and beginning to shift entrenched negative community attitudes towards Aboriginal people.[6]

In the early years of the Council Andrews had limited contact with Aboriginal people. She felt constrained in her social interactions with them as she was acutely self-conscious about appearing patronising in her dealings with people from a different social and cultural background. Consequently, she depended on information from correspondents from different parts of the country who did work closely with Aboriginal communities.

Her two most prolific and informative correspondents were both from Western Australia. Don McLeod lived and worked with Aboriginal families who had gone on strike in 1946 for better wages on pastoral stations in the Pilbara, and never returned to their former employment. McLeod became their spokesman as they set up their own mining ventures supplemented by kangaroo hunting and grass seed collecting to gain economic independence. In 1955 the Council sponsored McLeod to make a lecture tour of the eastern states. Three thousand Victorians heard him speak in church and town halls and mechanics institutes about the co-operative mining group that had formed after the 1946 strike. The Northern Development and Mining Company Pty Ltd was registered in 1951, and in 1955 a new company, Pindan Pty Ltd, was set up. Despite continuing opposition from pastoralists and the Western Australian government, the Aboriginal mining venture provided an inspiration to the Council and evidence of Aboriginal people organising to determine their own lives.

Andrews’ other regular correspondent was Mary Montgomerie Bennett, who had been working with the Wongutha people of the eastern goldfields for twenty years when she began writing to the Council from her Kalgoorlie home. Bennett provided evidence of cases of racial discrimination in Kalgoorlie where elderly Aboriginal workers were denied the old age pension because they were Aboriginal. Andrews used these cases in pressing for the Commonwealth Social Services Consolidation Act 1947 to be amended so that Aboriginal people would be eligible for the old age pension, the unemployment benefit, and other social services. When Bennett alerted Andrews to continuing cases of discrimination after the 1959 Social Services Act was passed, Andrews vigorously pursued the issue with the minister for social services. As she pointed out to politicians, the administrators knew that birth certificates had never been generated for these elderly pastoral workers who could not advocate on their own behalf because they had not been given the opportunity to learn to read and write.

The CAR understood that in order to effect social change the non-Aboriginal community needed to be educated. It fought individual instances of injustice, while ensuring they received publicity. One such case concerned a former pupil of Bennett’s, Peter Pontara, an Aboriginal child who was taken to Cundalee mission (160 kilometres east of Kalgoorlie) by his parents, who had come in from the bush and were seeking a place to live. When they returned to collect their child the mission authorities refused to relinquish him. Andrews took up the case with alacrity when it was reported to her by Bennett, entering into a lengthy and frustrating correspondence with native welfare officials, and Western Australian and federal politicians. The campaign failed because under the Western Australian Native Welfare Act 1954 the Department of Native Welfare had the right to intervene in Aboriginal families to provide custody, maintenance, and education of their children. The publicity about the case, however, provided an example, replicated especially in Queensland, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory at this time, of the ways that the human rights of Aboriginal families could be overridden.

From 1953 to 1961 Andrews wrote and edited a biannual publication simply called Bulletin, a stapled circular of some four or five foolscap pages, to keep members informed as to CAR activities. It was sent to members as far afield as England, Italy, and India, and drew attention to particular instances of injustice, such as the Peter Pontara case, as well as describing successful efforts of Aboriginal communities to address their problems, as in the Pilbara. Readers learned of the CAR’s decision to arrange defence for Albert Namatjira, after he was charged with an offence under the Northern Territory’s Aboriginals Ordinance, relating to sharing alcohol with a relative. Namatjira had been granted citizenship but his family had not. The CAR sought to publicise the case as an example of both irrationality and injustice.

Andrews’ strength was as a researcher. As the committee members became aware of the plethora of controlling state laws that constrained Aboriginal people, she came to recognise that their legal status changed when they travelled across a state border. She began collecting and analysing laws and the regulations under them, and in 1962 she published The Australian Aborigines: A Summary of their Situation in all States, a nine-page comparative chart in a question and answer format. Questions such as ‘Can Aborigines own property? Can Aborigines handle their own money? Are Aborigines free to marry? Do Aborigines have control of their own children?’ were posed and answered (mostly in the negative) for each state and the Northern Territory. This was the first time that information about legislation had been brought together in such a way and made available for public scrutiny. Andrews later observed that this was a task more suited to a lawyer but no-one had undertaken it. The Australian Aborigines was revised a couple of times in the following years and it contributed to public education by demonstrating that human rights, such as guardianship of one’s own children, were routinely denied to those people defined as Aboriginal under state laws.

Throughout the 1950s the CAR, more than any other body, addressed injustice for Aboriginal people across the country, not just in Victoria, and played a crucial role in the movement to develop a national advocacy body. Andrews first wrote to other state bodies, such as the South Australian Aborigines’ Advancement League and the Western Australian Native Welfare Council, in 1953 canvassing this idea, but the response was lukewarm. Three years later, however, Jessie Street, an Australian committee member of the London-based Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society, sought Andrews’ view on that organisation’s plans to bring Australia’s treatment of its Aboriginal population to the attention of the United Nations. Street argued that if a national activist body existed, this strategy could be more easily pursued. Conversations between Street, Andrews, Duguid, and others coincided with an event that provided what Street referred to as ‘the psychological moment’ when society was more open than previously to change.[7]

Early in 1957 a Western Australian parliamentary committee reported on the suffering, malnutrition, and preventable diseases of people still living nomadically in the Central Australian desert. This report argued that violations of the Central Aboriginal Reserve by the Commonwealth government in building infrastructure to support the British-Australian atomic testing program in the desert were having the predicted negative consequences on the local people. The loss of water and game meant that survival in the desert, always a challenge, was compromised by these government-sanctioned developments. For more than a month the newspapers focused on the Warburton Ranges controversy, as it was dubbed by the Australian press, highlighting a State-Commonwealth dilemma. The atomic testing program was an Australian government initiative and yet, the Commonwealth argued, the responsibility for Aboriginal people lay with the States. This furthered the case for a referendum to amend the Constitution so as to empower the Commonwealth in Aboriginal affairs.

Jessie Street’s ‘psychological moment’ had arrived. Before returning to England she delegated to Andrews the task of convening a meeting with representatives from existing Aboriginal rights organisations in order to form a national activist body. With Duguid, of the South Australian Aborigines Advancement League, and Stan Davey, of the newly formed Victorian Aborigines Advancement League, Andrews planned the February 1958 meeting at which the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA) was formed. The other bodies represented were the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship and the Association for the Assimilation of Aborigines, both from New South Wales, the Western Australian Native Welfare Council, the Aborigines Advancement League of Western Australia, and Queensland’s hastily formed United Council for Aboriginal Welfare. The new federal body agreed to five guiding principles that owed much to Andrews and the ideas she had been exploring over the previous five years.[8]

Maturity: Supporting Indigenous Advocacy and National Campaigning

In 1957 Mollie Bayne, who had been active in the CAR since its inception, resigned from the presidency. She was replaced by Dr Barry Christophers, a medical practitioner in Richmond, an inner working-class suburb of Melbourne, who would hold the position until CAR ceased operation in the 1980s. Christophers was, like Andrews, a member of the CPA. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation considered the CAR to be a front organisation, operating to advance the cause of communism. This was not the case: neither Andrews, nor Christophers, nor later Pauline Pickford (also a CPA member) were driven by central CPA policy, although they did agree with CPA policy that removing economic discrimination was central to the cause of Aboriginal justice. During these Cold War times, the ‘red’ smear, coupled with the loss of the churchmen who had been on the early executive, led conservatives to question the motives of the CAR. The idea of equal wages in the pastoral industry challenged powerful vested interests and their exploitation of Aboriginal people employed as stockmen and domestics for token wages.

A decision by Doug Nicholls and Stan Davey, both CAR members, to address more directly the welfare needs of Aboriginal Victorians led Andrews to suggest they form a new organisation. Aware of the possibility of damaging assertions that communists manipulated Aborigines for their political ends, she encouraged them to form what would become the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League (VAAL). The League and the Council were both affiliated with the FCAA, an umbrella organisation comprising member bodies from all mainland states. However, the location of the FCAA headquarters in Melbourne meant that the CAR was frequently given research projects by Davey, the FCAA’s secretary. Among these were a national petition campaign to pressure the Federal government to hold a referendum to empower the Commonwealth in Aboriginal affairs and a campaign to amend racially discriminatory clauses in the Commonwealth’s Tuberculosis Act. Andrews took primary responsibility for the campaign to amend the Constitution, while Christophers, as a medical practitioner, was well placed to expose racial discrimination in the Tuberculosis Act and campaign to have it amended.

Christophers brought to his new position a sense of outrage at social injustices and a tenacity to undertake the research and writing necessary to expose them. His early work included publicising the abuse of legislation initially designed to stop the spread of leprosy by forbidding Aboriginal people in Western Australia to travel south beyond  the twentieth parallel. In 1957 this legislation was invoked to charge members of the Pindan group in Port Hedland who crossed ‘the Leper Line’ in order to encourage Aboriginal pastoral workers to leave their employment. Christophers also drew attention to the use of demeaning nicknames, such as ‘Ruby Yaws’ and ‘Blind Nelly’, in the Commonwealth government’s register of wards in the Northern Territory

Pauline Pickford, who became honorary secretary in 1961 when Andrews relinquished the position to become the CAR’s research officer, brought new Aboriginal members into the Council. Her warm, friendly personality was a great asset as the CAR realised that it needed to engage more closely with Aboriginal Victorians. She developed friendships with Aboriginal people, some of whose families she had known since childhood as they were her mother’s friends. She drew on common experiences as a mother with Aboriginal women, and she and her husband holidayed at Lake Tyers recreational camping ground near the Aboriginal Reserve, where, sitting around a campfire they listened to the concerns of the local people. By the mid-1960s over thirty Aboriginal correspondents in Victoria and Queensland were writing to Pickford to seek assistance in such matters as social service benefits. Under her secretaryship Aboriginal membership and representation on the executive grew, with Laurie Moffatt from Lake Tyers, Margaret Edwards (the sister of Joe McGinness), Nicholls, and Bill Onus active over a number of years in the 1960s.

With Christophers as president, Pickford as honorary secretary, and Andrews as research officer, the CAR pursued local concerns as well as national matters. The early 1960s were the CAR’s heyday. In 1961 Pickford represented the Council at a hearing in north Queensland, where Pastor Erich Kernich, superintendent of the Hopevale Mission, faced a charge of breaching the Queensland Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act by beating a resident. With a coalition of left-wing union representatives, Cairns and Townsville Trades and Labour Council representatives, and members of the Cairns Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League, Pickford attended the hearing at which Fred Paterson, who had earlier represented Bowen in the Queensland parliament as a member of the CPA, provided pro bono legal representation for the man who had been beaten. The magistrate found the pastor guilty and he was transferred away from the mission. The case was a triumph for the activists. A long-term benefit was the friendship which developed between Pickford and Gladys O’Shane, the president of the Cairns Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League. For the remainder of the CAR’s existence, it had strong ties with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists from far north Queensland, such as McGinness, Evelyn Scott, and others.[9]

At a time when the Lake Tyers community were fighting to keep their land, Pickford’s people skills were vital in encouraging the residents of this isolated Gippsland community to organise. The CAR responded to a request from Laurie Moffatt, a Lake Tyers spokesman, to assist as they campaigned against the Victorian government’s plan to sell the Lake Tyers Aboriginal reserve and disperse the residents. The Council encouraged and financed Victorian Aboriginal people to travel to Canberra to attend the annual conferences of FCAA (later the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, or FCAATSI). These Gippsland representatives told delegates of the struggle for Lake Tyers at a time when Aboriginal reserved land in many other parts of Australia was under pressure from mining. Such connections between Aboriginal activists from all over the country provided the opportunities for political organisation that would, within a decade, lead to the formation of all-Aboriginal bodies.

Once the FCAA was effectively operating, the CAR was able to relinquish the de facto national responsibility it had taken upon itself in the absence of a national body. The close relationship and personnel overlap between the Council, the VAAL, and the head office of the FCAA(TSI) in Melbourne, meant that office-bearers such as Andrews, who was also a member of the league and on the FCAA executive, worked on national campaigns, like the campaign for a referendum to change the Constitution to empower the Commonwealth in Aboriginal affairs. The work of writing the leaflets to set out the arguments for change, and the preamble to the petition, fell to her, a member of the planning committee along with Davey, Nicholls, and Gordon Bryant, the federal Labor member for Wills. Petitioners would ask that section 127 of the Constitution, which did not require Aboriginal Australians to be counted in the census, be repealed. The other change sought was to section 51 (xxvi), which read:

The Parliament shall, subject to the Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to the people of any race other than the aboriginal race in any state, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.

The proposal was that the italicized phrase would be removed, giving the Commonwealth the power to make laws specific to Aboriginal people as a group. Andrews was the principal author of ‘National Petition: Towards Equal Citizenship for Aborigines’, and much of the day-to-day work of the planning committee fell to her as more than 100,000 signatures were gathered, organized, and distributed to members of parliament to table in the House of Representatives.

When the FCAA established a committee system in 1963, Andrews and Christophers continued their work for equal wages and access to social service benefits through the FCAA Equal Wages   for Aborigines Committee. With Rodney Hall, Andrews wrote ‘A Yinjilli Leaflet’ to Aboriginal people eligible to claim social service benefits after the Social Services Act was amended in 1959. Properly a task for the federal government, the leaflet provided information on how, where, and when to apply for benefits. The campaign for equal wages in the cattle industry was also effectively run by this subcommittee, with Christophers and Andrews responsible for much of the work.

Meanwhile the CAR saw that the task of continuing to educate the Australian public was critical. In 1962 it completed its most ambitious project, the publication of The Struggle for Dignity. Subtitled ‘a critical analysis of the Australian Aborigine today, the laws which govern him, and their effects,’ this small book was a state-by-state study of Aboriginal conditions of life.[10] Andrews contributed chapters on Victoria and South Australia, and Christophers produced one on the Northern Territory as well as drafting a chapter on Western Australia, which Mary Bennett had been working on before her death. While the booklet was very informative, it received a mixed reception. It provided little-known facts that were damning of state governments’ approaches to Aboriginal affairs. However, all of the living authors were members of the CPA, leading some readers to argue that the work was unbalanced, with, for example, little recognition of the efforts of Paul Hasluck, the Commonwealth minister for territories, to increase the budget for Aboriginal affairs in the Northern Territory and to develop an education for citizenship program. The eighty-page book was widely distributed to schools, filling an information gap and providing a readable account of how state laws dehumanized Aboriginal people.

Declining Years

By the early 1970s, when the CAR was twenty years old, much had changed. FCAATSI became an Indigenous-controlled body in 1973. The Whitlam Labor government provided financial encouragement for new grass-roots Aboriginal organisations, such as Aboriginal legal services and Aboriginal health services. In a post-referendum world, the original goal of the Council, to pursue ‘the widest possible support for a campaign to obtain justice for all Australian Aborigines,’ was being taken up by Aboriginal activists themselves. Indigenous advocacy was formalised in 1973 when the Labor government set up the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee.

The Council now operated to assist and support Indigenous enterprises. Andrews and Pickford were still members, but no longer on the executive; Christophers remained as president and engaged in campaigns such as opposition to the Queensland Trust Fund, but the efficiency and energy of the organisation were now diminished. Relationships formed with Aboriginal activists were now the driving force. When the National Council of Aboriginal and Islander Women (an initiative of Geraldine Briggs from Victoria) was formed in the early 1970s, Pickford provided practical support, such as driving Victorian Aboriginal women to Townsville for an International Women’s Year conference in 1975. When the honorarium paid to McGinness as the president of FCAATSI ceased in 1970 and his work as a wharf labourer dried up due to mechanisation, the CAR ran their last big appeal. ‘Project Field Officer’ raised money to fund McGinness’ work among the far-flung Aboriginal communities of northern Queensland.

The earlier, tight organisation, with monthly committee meetings and regular fund-raising for specific campaigns, was replaced with intermittent meetings of a small core group that included Christophers, Andrews, Pickford, Alan Dredge, who had been the treasurer for a number of years, and Enid Radic, a committee member of many years’ standing. Two new members, Barbara Chmielewska and her brother Stan Pelczynski, who had come to Australia as Polish refugees, joined and were active in the 1970s, with Barbara taking up the secretary’s role for a time, but the earlier structure of organisational membership had collapsed. The sense of purpose and energy that characterised the organisation in the 1950s and 1960s was no longer evident. The Council’s last recorded action in 1981 was to purchase a car for McGinness, described as ‘our field officer’, FCAATSI by that time having disbanded.

The Council operated as a de facto national body in its youth, drawing attention to systemic injustices which hurt individuals. In its maturity it contributed to Victorian and national campaigns for such issues as land rights and equal wages. The declining years of the CAR, when these battles were taken up by other bodies, saw members engaged in assisting Aboriginal activists who asked for help. Shirley Andrews, Barry Christophers, Pauline Pickford, and others made a real contribution in the long struggle, as they often called it, for justice for Aboriginal Australians. The files of this organisation, held in the State Library of Victoria, do not indicate when it was wound up, but it seems that it had ceased operation by the mid-1980s.

Citation details

Sue Taffe, 'The Council for Aboriginal Rights (Victoria)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, originally published 11 April 2014, accessed 24 May 2024.

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