Protests celebrating the anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy have been subject to a vicious and distorting media campaign, after a snap protest directed at Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard. But this protest, and the demands of the Tent Embassy for Aboriginal rights and self-determination, remain absolutely right and should be defended.
On January 26, 2000 people from all over Australia came to Canberra to mark 40 years since the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Aboriginal rights activists came together to celebrate the struggles of the past, demand sovereignty and to organise against the horrific living conditions, police brutality and denial of land rights that continue to plague Aboriginal communities.
That morning, Tony Abbott was asked about the relevance of the Tent Embassy today. He replied:
“I think a lot has changed for the better since then. I think the Indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian. I think a lot has changed since then, 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 Kooris who occupied the lawns of Parliament House were demanding Land Rights and an end to the assimilation and “protection” policies of Labor and Liberal governments. But in 2012 both parties support the ten year extension of racist NT Intervention powers that aim to assimilate Aboriginal people through the defunding of communities and the reinvention of protection-era controls on land, alcohol and income.
What actually happened?
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 drifted over to the restaurant and were surprised to see both Abbott and Gillard clearly visible through the glass walls of the restaurant, both intent on ignoring the historic gathering taking place next door.
Embassy veterans who asked to address Gillard and Abbott were refused. Chants of “shame” changed to “racists”, and then to “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land”. A few people banged on the glass and others milled about chanting and taking pictures.
Then, without any warning, riot police burst out of the door 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, can be seen in several pictures struggling to remain standing as he was crushed between riot police and the steel bars on the steps.
The only violence that took place was on the part of police. There were no arrests and no one was harmed apart from the demonstrators kicked and 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 at all times by a phalanx of armed men. Aboriginal people have no such security: they are frequently assaulted by police and the rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody continues to rise. In the NT, Indigenous incarceration has increased 40 per cent since the start of the Intervention in 2007.
Hypocrisy and the Intervention
There is no doubt that this incident pushed the Tent Embassy to the front of news coverage. Before it occurred mo media were even present at the Embassy, despite the historic events that were taking place. After the protest, Fairfax started to run a history of the Embassy. Sky carried out a lengthy interview with Michael Anderson. Abbott was forced to go on the defensive, saying that he “never, never” called for the Embassy to be shut down.
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, labeling the demonstration a “violent mob” the event as a “riot” and covering the incident as if someone had attacked the Prime Minister.
Former NSW Premier Bob Carr has come out saying, “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 positions on the protest largely correspond to their positions on the Intervention. Sadly, they included Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner. It is rumoured that he and his office will not be opposing the new ‘Stronger Futures’ Intervention legislation.
Sue Gordon also criticised the protest, saying that it did not reflect the opinions of Aboriginal people in remote communities. But Gordon can have no credibility after riding into Aboriginal communities accompanied by the army during the roll-out of the NT Intervention.
The struggle ahead
The kind of movement that created the Tent Embassy is needed again today. In February the government will move the Intervention-plus ‘Stronger Futures’ legislation. We need to unite in campaigning against this racist legislation, which cements in place the existing Intervention for a further ten years, and in many ways makes it worse.
The debate about recognising Aboriginal people in the Constitution, and in particular about whether racially-based legislation should be banned, will also be a key opportunity to raise awareness of the real state of Aboriginal affairs.
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 remembered and carried on in 2012 by everyone who genuinely supports Aboriginal rights.