Revisiting Assimilation: A Controversial Epoch in Policy

Reframing Assimilation

The period spanning from the 1930s to the 1970s in Australia was deeply marked by the policy of ‘assimilation.’ While anti-assimilations, led by activists like Ferguson, Patten, Gibbs, and Cooper, were combating the government’s restrictive assimilation policies that aimed to curtail First Peoples rights and cultural practices (Maynard 2007).


Assimilation in Policy and Practice

A comprehensive assimilation policy was embraced by all major political parties in Australia from 1937 to 1976, exemplified by the Queensland Aboriginal people’s and Torres Strait Islanders’ Affairs Act of 1965. This marked the shift from protectionist policies to a new phase of assimilation, signifying a change in governmental approaches toward First Peoples (Queensland Parliamentary Fact Sheet 10.5). However, this phase posed a paradox: despite the policy change, economic disparities and high unemployment rates persisted within First Peoples communities, particularly in Queensland, where equal wages were inaccessible for many until 1980 (Roberts 1981).


Assimilation: A Complex Narrative

Historical perspectives on assimilation vary. Those who support assimilation view it as a progressive step toward equal rights, while anti-assimilationists were perceived as perpetuating racist ideologies that doubted First Peoples capabilities for modernisation (Sutton 2009). The proponents of assimilation envisioned it as the liberation of First Peoples individuals, advocating for the abolition of restrictive policies that controlled the lives of First Nations Peoples and curtailed our rights (Rowse 2002).


Differing Views and Regional Realities

The interpretation of the assimilation era varies based on regional contexts. While Gilbey, perceives the 1960s as a time of positive change, characterised by growing goodwill and shifting societal attitudes (Gilbey 1998). It is a narrative that did not resonate universally across Australia.


The Assimilation Imposition

Despite varied feelings, assimilation, like other policies imposed on First Peoples communities, was enforced without consultation, negotiation, or consent. It demanded First Peoples relinquish our culture, eroding our ways of life, values, knowledge, and identity. This imposition threatened the very essence of First Peoples cultures and identity, imposing a form of cultural erasure in the name of assimilation.


Assimilation as a Form of Genocide

Scholars, such as Birch, contend that assimilation policies sought to obliterate First Peoples identity, making it a form of genocide (Birch 2007). This assertion aligns with evaluations that critique governmental policies, like ‘mutual obligation’ and ‘practical reconciliation,’ as perpetuating assimilation practices of the past (Watson 2007).


Assimilation, as a chapter in Australia’s shared history, stays a contentious and complex period, bearing the legacy of imposed cultural erasure and the ongoing struggle for recognition and preservation of First Peoples identity and heritage.



Birch, T 2007, ‘’The Invisible Fire’: Indigenous sovereignty, history and responsibility’, in A Moreton-Robinson (ed.), Sovereign Subjects: Indigenous Sovereignty Matters, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, pp. 105 -117.

Gilbey, K 1998, ‘Indigenous Women in Education: Issues of Race, Gender and Identity’, in G Partington, Perspectives on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education, Social Science Press, Sydney, pp. 108-132.

Maynard, J 2007, Fight for Liberty and Freedom: The Origins of Australian Aboriginal Activism, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra. 

Queensland Parliamentary Fact Sheet 10.5 IndigenousSuffrageTimeline.pdf accessed 26 April 2016

Roberts, J 1981, Massacres to Mining: The Colonisation of Aboriginal Australia, Dove Communications, Melbourne.

Rowse, T 2002, Indigenous Futures: Choice and Development for Aboriginal and Islander Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney.

Sutton, P 2009, The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the End of the Liberal Consensus, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Watson, I 2007, ‘Settled and Unsettled Spaces: Are We Free to Roam?’, in A Moreton-Robinson (ed.) Sovereign Subjects: Indigenous Sovereignty Matters, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, pp. 15-32.

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