Stories of Exemption

Exemption policy has left a lasting legacy on the lives of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Some people have written about experiences. While experiences of exemption were varied, there are also common themes running through their stories.

Marnie Kennedy, Born a Half-Caste (Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1985).

‘Being free was like giving us something we never had before. We were told we could go anywhere and do anything we liked provided it was within the law. We were able to handle our own money and leave any job we did not like. However, we were not prepared for all the knock-backs, all the hurtful insults that were said to us like “sorry, we don’t serve blacks.” When we went to the pictures the man who took the tickets would say “all blacks to the front.” Aborigines never felt free—freedom of mind, soul or heart. It lurks deep within us and we are forever afraid. People who have been in jail or prisoners of war, once they are out, could feel free. They know it and feel it. It’s a different kind of freedom. When white man took away our freedom he replaced it with fear. To begin with we Aborigines were very much free souls. Our freedom and our fears are locked in our souls and they’ve thrown away the keys.’

Sally Morgan, Wanamurraganya: The Story of Jack McPhee (Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1989).

‘I went into Nullagine town to see if I could hunt up a different kind of work and while I was there I got into trouble with the Aborigines Department again. The policeman said to me, “You’re Jack McPhee, aren’t you?”


“I’ve had a report that you own land and stock.”


“Do you have any rights?”

“What rights?”

“Are you exempt from the Native Affairs Act?”

“I don’t know, I don’t think so.”

“Have you ever been given an Exemption Certificate.”


“Well Jack, that means you’ve got no rights according to the laws of this country. Because you’re a native it’s illegal for you to own land or stock. You can only have those things if you’re made exempt by the government. You see, if you’re granted an Exemption Certificate, it puts you on the same level as a whiteman. It means you can do these things and not get into trouble. I think you’d better put in for it, you strike me as the kind of bloke who wants to get on in the world, and you won’t without it.

The policeman went on to explain to me that having an Exemption might also make a difference to the wages I was paid if I ended up working for someone. … I told the policeman that I would have to think about it because I just couldn’t see it was necessary. Why did I need an Exemption Certificate simply because I was a different colour? It made no sense to me at all. You could tell it was the government’s idea, they were always thinking of things that didn’t make any sense.

While I was in Nullagine I heard a rumour about a thing you could apply for called Maternity Allowance. I thought I might be able to apply for it for Susie for our last child. I made some enquiries about it and was told I’d have a much better chance of getting it if I had an Exemption Certificate.

It seemed I couldn't get away from that bloody certificate, so in the end I decided to write to Mr Neville and offer to buy one from him. I asked him to write and tell me how much an Exemption would cost and I would forward to the money to him.

I received a reply a few weeks later, Susie and I were still prospecting and undecided about where we should move to. Neville said he was looking into an Exemption for me but that I owed the Department three pounds from when they looked after Susie. Apparently, I was liable for the bill because I was her husband. They said the money was for her board when she was in the East Perth Girls Home and for a train fare that she’d once had coming back from a job in the country. Three pounds at that time was like a million dollars to me. I wrote and told him I would pay when I could.

Neville then wrote to me again and said before he could grant me an Exemption I had to meet certain requirements. He advised me to go to Hullagine and see the policeman there, as I had to fill out a form before they would consider me.

I went and saw Mick Liddlelow, who was the policeman in Nullagine, and he was very helpful. He helped me with the form and explained it all. He told me that if my Exemption was granted I had to promise not to do certain things. I wasn’t allowed to associate with ngayarda bunujuthu Aborigines, I wasn’t allowed to live in a native camp, I wasn’t allowed to take part in a corroboree, I wasn’t even allowed to associate with any Aboriginal people who didn't’ have an Exemption. In return, the government would allow me to have drinking rights, as long as I showed my Exemption if I was asked for it. I would be allowed to buy and sell stock and land, and I would be on the same standard as a white man. He also said, though, that if I broke any of my promises I could easily lose my Exemption, in which case I would become a native again.

Out of all those things what really got me was the bit about corroborees. I had such fond memories of dancing with no clothes on, of being painted and decorated, of hearing the women and men singing. I couldn’t see anything wrong with that at all. It meant that I had to give away all that my mother belonged to. I felt upset about that. I didn’t think I should have to make a choice, but I agreed to it all because I wanted something better for my family, and at the time that seemed the only way to get it.

In the end I got Mick Liddlelow, Constable Mounter from Port Hedland and Mr Meehan from Austin Downs Station to write me references and forward them to Neville. I followed that up with a letter saying, ‘You asked me for two references and I’ve given you three good ones, more than what you ask for. Can I please have my Exemption?’

While I was working for Len my Exemption came through. Dr Vickers sent word that he wanted to see me, I went and saw him after work and he said, ‘I’ve got your Exemption Jack, you’re not under the Native Affairs anymore, you can have a drink in the pub now’.

I signed the form to say I’d receive it and then set off for home. I knew it wasn’t really important, I knew I was still the same Jack McPhee, but I have to admit, it did make me feel a bit gamer.

Ian Dudley, ‘Growing up Beige’, in Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia (Carlton: Black Inc., 2018).

‘…looking back with the benefit of education our family story has all the hallmarks of the Stolen Generations, though in our case even that is supposition. Someone, somewhere, could have been given up willingly, adopted legitimately. Or maybe, rootless and disconnected already, she saw the writing on the wall and grabbed the ‘dog tags’ when the chance was there, betting everything on the ‘them’ at a time when the ‘us’ seemed to offer no future. Ultimately it could be as simple as saying that we are what the assimilation policy was supposed to achieve.’

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