Protests celebrating the Aboriginal Tent Embassy have been subject to a vicious media campaign, after a snap protest directed at Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard. This ridiculous beat-up was an attempt to discredit legitimate demands for Aboriginal rights and self-determination.
Two thousand people from all over Australia came to Canberra on January 26 to celebrate 40 years since the Tent Embassy was established, demand sovereignty and to draw attention to the continuing horrific living conditions, police brutality and denial of land rights that still faces Aboriginal people.
That morning, Tony Abbott was asked about the relevance of the Tent Embassy today. He replied: “I think a lot has changed… and I think it probably is time to move on from that.”
The truth is the opposite. As Redfern activist Lyall Munro told the crowd, “things are worse for us now than when I came out of a mission school over 40 years ago”. In 1972 the Aboriginal activists who occupied the lawns of Parliament House were demanding land rights and an end to government assimilation policies (see page 9). But in 2012 both parties support Labor’s “Stronger Futures” legislation that will extend the racist NT intervention for ten years. The policy aims to assimilate Aboriginal people through the de-funding of communities and Protection-era controls on land, alcohol and income.

What actually happened?

At the protest, Abbott’s remarks about the Embassy were relayed to the crowd by anti-Intervention campaigner Barb Shaw, who also reported that at that very moment Tony Abbott was a mere 100 meters away. People walked over and were surprised to see both Abbott and Gillard clearly visible through the glass walls of a restaurant.
Embassy veterans who asked to address Gillard and Abbott were refused. A few people banged on the glass and others chanted and took pictures.
Then, without any warning, riot police burst out of the restaurant, shoving aside demonstrators with their shields and kicking people out of the way, dragging Abbott and Gillard behind them.
Notably, Michael Anderson, the last surviving member of the original 1972 Tent Embassy, struggled to remain standing as he was crushed between riot police and the steel bars on the steps.
There have been no arrests and no one was harmed—apart from the demonstrators shoved by police.
Gillard and Abbott complained about being trapped and worried about their safety. But there was never any threat. And they were protected by a phalanx of armed men. Aboriginal people have no such security. They are frequently assaulted by police. The levels of incarceration of Aboriginal people are the same as they were 20 years ago.

Hypocrisy and the Intervention

The incident pushed the Tent Embassy to the front of news coverage. Yet despite being forced to address some of the real issues, the media and politicians also initiated a vicious smear campaign against the Tent Embassy and the protest. They labelled the demonstration a “violent mob”, a “riot” and covered the incident as if someone had attacked the Prime Minister.
Former NSW Premier Bob Carr commented, “The tent embassy in Canberra says nothing to anyone and should have been quietly packed up years ago. Every government in Australia is aware of its responsibilities to Aboriginal Australians.” His message is the same as Abbott’s—Aboriginal people have nothing left to complain about.
A layer of conservative Aboriginal people in positions of power have chosen to attack or dismiss the protest. Their attitudes correspond to their positions on the Intervention. They included Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner. It is rumoured that he and his office will not be opposing the new Intervention legislation.
Sue Gordon also criticised the protest. But she can have no credibility on what Aboriginal communities want after riding into communities in the NT accompanied by the army during the roll out of the Intervention.
The kind of movement that created the Tent Embassy is needed again today. We need to unite to campaign against the cementing of the Intervention for another ten years.
Julia Gillard must not be allowed to get away with reciting tributes to “elders past and present” and then getting her riot police to shove them out of the way when they criticise her policies.
The defiant spirit on display at the Embassy in 1972 and the tradition of struggle it represents must be carried on in 2012 by everyone who supports Aboriginal rights.

Penny McCall Howard

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