Katherine Ellinghaus
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The origins of exemption
The individual exception in the discourse of humanitarianism
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Five Australian states and territories offered ‘exemption’ to some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at various times during the first half of the twentieth century. An exemption certificate enabled a person to be released from the ‘protection’ legislation that controlled the lives of Indigenous people in every colony, state and territory in Australia. There is little written evidence to show why policymakers thought exemption was a good idea. It was sporadically discussed when protection legislation was debated. There was no one administrator who orchestrated the idea, and no government inquiry into whether it might be a good idea or not. It was also utilised in different ways by government administrators, became popular at some times and places and not others, and was the cause of transgenerational trauma and family dislocation. But it did not come from nowhere. This chapter will argue that Australian exemption policies had century-long roots in the humanitarian impulse which made the inclusion of an ‘escape clause’ in Protection legislation inevitable. The humanitarian practice of ‘civilising’ individual Indigenous people had been around as long as colonisation. While scholars have noted that there are links between the notions of a universal human nature and pathway of progress that existed in the eighteenth century and the humanitarian-couched assimilationist policies of the twentieth century, the story of those connections is yet to be fully told. This chapter explores the origins of exemption policy, using it as a key with which to begin the process of tracing how colonial policies of protection and control were often balanced by the humanitarian urge to allow individual colonised subjects more freedom.

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Humanitarianism, empire and transnationalism, 1760–1995

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