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Charity in South Australia

In 1890 the First Australasian Conference on Charity was held in Melbourne from 11—17 November, convened by the Charity Organization Society of Melbourne. Remarkably for the time, speakers came from around the country and from New Zealand to explain how their welfare systems operated and to discuss common problems. This group of representatives could be seen as the forerunner of the present peak welfare body in Australia, the Australian Council of Social Serivces (ACOSS).

After the inaugural address opening the conference, Catherine Helen Spence gave the first paper on Charity in South Australia. Her paper described the enlightened system operating in South Australia, where the Government accepted prime responsibility for the welfare of those in need.

"More than 50 years ago, during the first year of that long part of my life which I have spent in the province of South Australia, I lived with my family on West-terrace, close to the place where the Roman Catholic Church now stands. Just fronting our house, on the park lands, which, as you all probably know, surround the fair city of Adelaide to a depth of half-a-mile or more, there lay a square of small wooden houses known as Immigration-square. These houses were erected for the accommodation of newly-arrived immigrants, who, in those days, came in every ship that left Great Britain, their passages being paid for by the price of land in the young colony.

South Australia was founded on the Wakefield system, which fixed a comparatively high price for land, and spent the money in importing labour to make that land productive. The immigrants were provided with houseroom in Immigration-square, and a fortnight’s rations for themselves and their families. During that fortnight they were expected to find employment and lodgings, and they were then turned out to make room for fresh arrivals.

This acknowledgment that it was the business of the State to give temporary aid to immigrants, who might be supposed to be without means, has never been retracted. South Australia, so far as I know, is the only one of the Australian colonies where the most socialistic principle of English legislation, the right of the destitute to claim shelter and food from public funds, still holds good.

A year or two after the time I speak of, the socialistic principle greatly extended its operations. South Australia fell into those difficulties which every new country must encounter before settled industry produces actual wealth from the virgin soil. The distress in our case was intensified by land speculation, and by a drought in the neighbouring colonies from which we derived our food supplies.

Col. Gawler, the Governor at the time, was so distressed at the number of unemployed who had been brought out from their old homes by such fair promises, that he set them to work on unproductive things—a gaol and a Government House. He not only did this, but he paid wages in food at almost famine prices, giving the largest supplies to the men with the largest families, not to the most industrious and skilful. This was the principle of the old English Poor-law, abolished in 1834, and was not approved at head-quarters. The well-meaning Governor was recalled, and Captain, now Sir George Grey, sent in his place. No man was allowed to refuse any offer of private employment, and the colonists set to work to subjugate the soil in good earnest, so that, from the dearest place in the civilized world to live in, it became in two or three years one of the cheapest.

But in spite of this episode, the colony never lost sight of the claims of destitution being a first charge on the land, i.e., the country. Even in our direst straits there was always an organization for the relief of the poor, supported by the general revenue.

In the other Australian colonies Government aids substantially various charitable institutions and organizations which have been formed by voluntary combination. Possibly, nay, probably, as great a proportion of charitable funds is drawn from the great milch cow, the general revenue in other colonies, but in South Australia alone is Government directly responsible for the administration of charity, not in the city of Adelaide alone, but throughout the length and breadth of the province.

The main stream of relief, therefore, flows through the Government Destitute Board, the Government hospitals and the Government lunatic asylums. All benevolent associations outside of these are comparatively small, and in some case, are merely auxiliary to that main stream, and their volunteer funds are generally supplemented by Government grants."

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