Aboriginal people and the law

Legislation, regulations, gazettes, committee reports, law


This listing describes the major provisions of Victorian legislation from the Aborigines' Protection Act of 1869 to the Aboriginal Lands Act of 1970. The Acts and their accompanying regulations, (until the repeal of the last of the protection acts in 1967 by the Aboriginal Affairs Act), state where Aboriginal people could live - or not live, and set out restrictions on movement, marriage, employment, earnings and ownership of property. In addition, children's welfare legislation underpinned the removal of Aboriginal children from their families and communities. 

The Port Phillip Protectorate was abolished in 1849 and after Select Committee recommendations, the Central Board for the Protection for Aborigines was established in 1859. Succeeding iterations were the Board for the Protection of the Aborigines (1869-1957) and the Aborigines Welfare Board (1957-1967). From 1967 direct governmental responsibility sat with the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs.

In 1975, Victoria (along with the Northern Territory), handed control of Aboriginal Affairs over to the Commonwealth. For further information on legislation more generally and current materials see the Research guide Finding Australian legislation.

Acts and their regulations

An act to provide for the protection and management of the Aboriginal natives of Victoria

Victoria enacted the first Australian legislation for the "protection and management of the Aboriginal natives". The Act prescribed where "any Aboriginal or any tribe of Aborigines shall reside", set out restrictions contracts, earnings and employment, the care, custody and education of children; bedding and clothing was "on loan only and shall remain the property of Her Majesty."  Any interactions with non-Aboriginal people regarding administering of alcohol (unless as medicine), harbouring, unless ill or injured, taking or selling of chattels were governed by the Act.

Aborigines’ Protection Act 1886 (Vic), No. 912

This act sought to excise “half castes” from the reserve system, unless over 34, a female half caste married to an Aboriginal, a child of an Aboriginal, or any “half-caste” licensed to live on the reserve.  Those failing to meet these requirements were forbidden to live on the reserve, expected to become self supporting absorbed into the wider community, no longer be a financial burden, and thus assimilated.

Limited support could be given to those struggling outside the reserve system, for up to 7 years. The reserve system was to be limited for a fear of creating poor houses, and entrenched Aboriginal possession of lands. For those remaining under the reserve system, freedom of movement, occupation, and conduct of a personal life such as marriage to a partner of choice, living in community with family were restricted.

Aborigines Act 1890 (Vic), No. 1059

This act consolidated the previous two acts (1869, 1886), with the addition of a section allowing regulations to be made defining the nature and degree of support available to “select, acquire, hold enjoy and be possessed of any such Crown lands.”

Subsequent regulations allowed for funding of legal defence for “destitute persons charged with capital crimes, and Aborigines charged with indictable offences”. An 1899 regulation stated that “the Governor may for the better care, custody and education of any Aboriginal child order that such child be transferred to the care of the Department for Neglected children, or the Department of Reformatory Schools. “The previous regulations from 1871, and later from 1890, included the reserves as options for the placement of children in need of care.

Aborigines Act 1910 (Vic), No. 2255

This act reinstated assistance to Aborigines outside the reserve system and removed the distinction between “half caste” and “full blood” Aborigines. This distinction had contributed to the withdrawal of reserve lands as the resident populations fell, and significant hardship for many as they struggled to survive.  The act restated earlier provisions; that clothing and bedding was on loan only, and not to be sold, and the harbouring of any person under the boards control, or providing with alcohol was punishable by a fine.

Aborigines Act 1915 (Vic), No. 2610

Reprinted for 1915 Consolidation, repealing the 1890 and 1910 acts.  The regulations, however, reinstated the distinction between "half caste" and "full blood" Aboriginal people and their corresponding rights to residence and support on stations. Great detail is provided on contacts, certificates, earnings and their distribution, expectation regarding contribution and behaviour and custody of children. In 1917, the Board decided to concentrate the Victorian Aboriginal population at Lake Tyers.

Aborigines Act 1928 (Vic), No. 3631

A consolidation and repealing of previous acts. Clause 32 of the 1931 regulations was repealed, to allow ill "half castes" or children of "half castes" to reside on a reserve, or have a license cancelled.

Aborigines Act 1957 (Vic) No. 6086

Regulations.  Victorian Statutory Rules. 1958, p. 760-764

This act stated its purpose as the promotion of “the moral, intellectual and physical welfare of Aborigines”, but still aspiring to their "assimilation in the general community." Ending the discrimination of the 1931 regulations, Aboriginality was defined to include ‘any person of Aboriginal descent'.

The membership of the new Aborigines Welfare Board was broadened to include two Aborigines, and experts in anthropology and sociology as well as members appointed from ministries of education, health and housing. Essentially a continuation in terms of responsibilities - “exercising general supervision over all matters affecting the welfare and interests of the Aborigines”, the Board continues to have significant power over place of residence, employment, mobility and the power to inflict penalties for improper behaviour.  

Repealed by Aboriginal Affairs Act 1967, No. 7574 

Aborigines Act 1958 (Vic) No. 6190

Consolidation of Aborigines Act 1957.  The regulations of 1958 continued in force.  Still, the Aborigines Act, while promoting their welfare, aspired to “their assimilation in the general community”. 

Aborigines (Houses) Act 1959 (Vic) No. 6498

The Housing Commission was empowered to enter into contracts to build houses for Aboriginal people – an example of the increased connection with mainstream administration. Repealed by Aboriginal Affairs Act 1967

Aboriginal Affairs Act 1967 (Vic) No.7574

 This act abolishes the Aborigines Welfare Board and establishes the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and the Aboriginal Advisory Council – 3 out of 12 members to be Aboriginal people. A detailed list of responsibilities includes support for housing, education, health, workplace, legal aid and development of projects “for the benefit of Aborigines”. 

The tenor of the act is more of support than management and brings into the mainstream Aboriginal support and its mechanisms. The Reserves remain the responsibility of the Ministry “for promoting the interests of the Aborigines”, acknowledging the right of Aboriginal people to their traditional lands – shaped as they were by government actions. 

Aboriginal Lands Act 1970 (Vic) No. 8044

The first Act to recognise Aboriginal people’s entitlement to land in Victoria, and Australia.  The deeds for the reserve land at Lake Tyers and Framlingham were transferred to their communities under Trusts.

Useful links

  • To remove and protect - laws that changed Aboriginal lives - timeline with links to legislation affecting Aboriginal people in state, territory and commonwealth jurisdictions. This site also includes links to digitised select committee reports and lists the key provisions of legislation relating to removal of children.
  • Bringing them home: Stories of the Stolen Generations - an interactive map leads you to people stories as members of the Stolen Generations. There is a link to the report  from the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, tabled in parliament in 1997.  From 1998-2002, the National Library carried out an oral history project.
  • Australian Indigenous Law Library (AUSTLII) - online resources including legislation, journals, case law, reports and treaties and a timeline of legal developments affecting Aboriginal people since 1820.