What was Exemption?

Policies of exemption were created by clauses in the ‘Protection’ Acts passed in every Australian state, except Victoria and Tasmania. They created a mechanism whereby state governments could declare individual Indigenous people, who were somehow judged to be worthy, ‘exempt’ from this legislation and therefore the controls—over children, employment, place of abode, racial status—that these sinister pieces of legislation entailed.

Here is an example of an exemption clause from the Western Australian Aborigines Act (1905):

Being exempt from protection legislation meant different things to Aboriginal people from different states, depending on what controls were imposed on them by their state’s protection legislation. It could affect where they lived and how much money they earned, whether they were eligible for social security or the old age pension. The most immediate consequence for some exempted Aboriginal people was that they were allowed buy and consume alcohol publicly. Being exempt often meant constant surveillance, it meant constantly proving your acculturation, and it could mean outwardly cutting ties with family and community. It often meant you needed to carry your certificate around with you to prove your status at any time and with any one. At some times and places only people of mixed descent were allowed to apply, at others it was open to any Aboriginal person.

Exemption clauses were passed at different times between 1897 and 1943 and were in operation in some places until the 1970s. Each state had its own unique way of administering the policy. In some places people were forced to apply, in other places they applied themselves. These policies existed in most states until the 1967 referendum, which put the federal government in charge of Aboriginal Affairs.

Exemption was introduced in:

  • Queensland – 1897
  • Western Australia – 1905
  • Northern Territory – 1936
  • South Australia - 1939
  • New South Wales - 1943

What have we found?

People who got exemption often had to show government officials (or at least pretend) that they were more ‘assimilated’ than other people — they had to show they lived good, upstanding moral lives, didn’t drink much alcohol, had clean houses, earned a living, and—at least in the eyes of the government—didn’t participate in any Aboriginal culture or ‘associate’ with un-exempted Aboriginal people. The history of exemption is thus also the history of family break ups, lost culture and the tensions cause by people finding different, sometimes incompatible ways of surviving settler colonialism.

So why would people apply?

Exemption gave people greater freedom in employment, it allowed them to move through areas of town that were restricted to Aboriginal people, and you could go into the local pub and buy alcohol. People sometimes found exemption humiliating or shameful. For example, Aboriginal people in New South Wales and Western Australia often called Certificates ‘dog tags’, or the ‘dog licence’ — perhaps because they felt as though they needed a certificate to prove they were human. In 1996 Palku and Nyamal artist Sally Morgan made a screenprint that reflects this aspect of the history of exemption. It is held in the National Gallery of Victoria and you can see it here.

While a lot of people ignored exemption, perhaps seeing no advantage to it, or thinking the price of losing their connection to family and community was too high, others did apply and showed significant determination and gumption in their approach to their applications. They wrote eloquent, courageous and politically astute letters. Many applicants refused to take ‘no’ for an answer, and reapplied multiple times. Applicants also showed that they knew the ways they were being judged and what to say to the government officials to get the outcome they wanted. They used a variety of ingenious ways to work the system of exemption to their advantage.

Legislation first introduced 1897 1905 1936 1939 1943
First exemption granted 1902 1906 1936 1941 1945
Available to ‘full blood’ people No, then yes after 1939 Yes Yes (rare) Yes (rare) Yes (promoted)
Revocable Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Applicant could appeal rejection Unclear - informally ? ? Only after 1961 No
Must disassociate Yes Yes Yes Yes No
Could remain in missions/reserves No No No (Strict) No (Strict) No
Conditional (some government control maintained) Yes (bank acct) No (but revocable) Yes Yes (3 yr probation & revocable Officially no but revocable
Minimum age (for individual) 16? 21
Reject if has Indigenous spouse Yes No
Revoke if change in marital status (for women) Yes

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