The group of Aboriginal activists and their white supporters who set fire to Old Parliament House on December 30 were marking what will soon be the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in the parliament’s grounds. They were emulating the degree of violence that took place at the same location on Australia Day in 2012 when demonstrators marked the fortieth anniversary of the Tent Embassy’s existence.
This is a point that none of our mainstream news media have so far chosen to make in their plainly subdued reports of this willful assault on such an important symbol of Australian democracy. Indeed, even The Australian let down its readers, claiming “The Tent Embassy was getting ready to celebrate 50 years of peaceful occupation of the site.” Its journalists said the incendiaries were motley outsiders, many of them white. The newspaper said there was “rising tension” between the long-time occupants of the tent embassy and “the new arrivals, many of them anti-vaxxers and ‘sovereign citizens’ who believe laws don’t apply to them”. However, let me remind Quadrant readers what happened on the fortieth anniversary and what the Tent Embassy occupants regard as acceptable political behaviour.
At 2pm on January 26 2012 Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott went to the Lobby Restaurant on King George Terrace, Canberra, just down the road from Old Parliament House, to present the National Emergency Medals. These awards are part of the Australian honours system and only given for exceptional action in protecting lives and property in direct response to events like the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009 and the Queensland floods and cyclones in 2010–2011. The ceremony is usually a dignified affair that the recipients of the medal and their families are proud to remember. On Australia Day 2012, however, the ceremony was anything but.
Soon after it began, an angry mob of 200 Aborigines and their white supporters marched up to the front door of the restaurant and loudly interrupted proceedings. When security would not let them inside, they surrounded the building and, banging hard on its glass walls, shouted “shame” and “racist” and chanted: “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land”.
As they kept pounding, the crowd’s anger steadily grew. After thirty minutes of it, the Prime Minister’s Federal Police escort regarded their temper as so volatile that it constituted a physical danger to her safety. “We feel the situation is deteriorating and can’t stay much longer,” a television crew recorded one security man saying as he called for reinforcements. In particular, the police thought the force of the crowd battering the restaurant’s glass walls would cause them to collapse, exposing the Prime Minister to a rush of protesters.
So a police bodyguard seized Julia Gillard and, with arms wrapped around her, he and others rushed her from the building. As they left down the outside stairs, protesters punched police officers on the back. The Prime Minister stumbled and fell, losing a shoe and cutting her foot. She recalled:
The Federal Police officer shielding me, Lucas Atkins, picked me up, literally hurled me into the back of the waiting Commonwealth car and then threw himself on top of me to protect me, lest a protester try to force their way into the car. While covering me like this, he swivelled around and grabbed Tony Abbott, dragging him into the car too.
As this was taking place, reinforcements of about fifty Federal and Australian Capital Territory Police, including members of the riot squad wielding batons and shields, cleared a path through the angry mob. Some protesters held aloft makeshift weapons such as rocks and sticks, while others pursued the Prime Minister’s car down the road, banging on its roof and bonnet.
None of these people was arrested, let alone charged with any offences. In the Australian Capital Territory, Aborigines can obviously threaten violence against the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader with impunity. The police and other security personnel confined themselves to an entirely passive role, allowing the mob to withdraw 200 meters along King George Terrace to rejoin others at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy site, opposite Old Parliament House. There, in front of news cameras, Aboriginal parents and their children publicly spat on the Australian flag, burnt it and danced on the ashes, all to the applause of onlookers.
On the morning of the drama at the Lobby Restaurant, a group of about 1500 people had marched through the streets of Canberra chanting “Who owns the land? We do.” Speakers included one of the Tent Embassy’s original participants, Michael Anderson. He said the aim of the founders was to secure indigenous people’s sovereignty over Australia. This meant, he said, self-governance as well as compensation for land lost. He said if the Gillard government did not meet their demands for sovereignty, those present would wage an international campaign, including international legal action and pressure through international organisations.
For this event, the demonstrators set up a campfire as the embassy’s centerpiece. Giant letters around the fire spelled out in caps the word “SOVEREIGNTY”. The campfire can still be seen burning today, and clearly provided inspiration for the protest fires on December 30, as well as persuading Canberra police that lighting fires was an acceptable accompaniment to Aboriginal protest.
Australia Day 2012 was the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the Tent Embassy, and people had come to Canberra from around Australia to commemorate it. The 1972 symbolic embassy, deriving its political tactics from the 1960s American Black Power movement and its initial funding from the Communist Party of Australia, had remained in place most of that time, although it was mostly nothing more than a handful of intermittently occupied tents. During those four decades, with no water, electricity or sanitation, the site normally looked like a camp for homeless people, a miserable eyesore opposite the stately art deco lines of Canberra’s Old Parliament House. However, during the several attempts over the years by Canberra police and health authorities to close it down, the camp quickly sprang to life (below), repopulated by activists from near and far.
The original decision to call it an “embassy”, thereby declaring that Aborigines belonged to a separate country, was a shrewd tactic. One of the founders, Paul Coe, described it quite accurately as “one of the most brilliant symbolic forms of protest that this country has ever seen”. So it was not surprising its fortieth anniversary in 2012 generated a conspicuous revival of attendance and passion for the cause.
News reports of the riot that afternoon initially blamed Tony Abbott, who the Tent Embassy inhabitants had been told made a provocative call for the protest site to be disbanded. It later became known, however, that Abbott had not said this. Rather, one of Julia Gillard’s press secretaries, Tony Hodges, had passed a false report to the Aborigines that Abbott wanted the embassy closed down and that he was soon to attend a function very close by. In other words, Gillard’s own office incited the incident with the aim of smearing her opponent as a racist and reactionary. Nonetheless, it said a great deal about Aboriginal activist attitudes that they needed so little encouragement and were so ready and willing to be used as militant political fodder.
In fact, the damage the publicity caused to wider Aboriginal political objectives led some Aboriginal public identities to quickly disown the rioters. As they did after the recent incident of incendiarism, the Aboriginal industry in 2012 blamed motley outsiders. Human Rights Commissioner Mick Gooda condemned the protest and its disrespect for the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader. Western Australian indigenous magistrate Sue Gordon said the Tent Embassy did not reflect the views of remote Australia.
The reason for these concerns was clear at the time. Just one week earlier, the government released the report of the panel Julia Gillard appointed to make recommendations about recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait people in the Australian Constitution. Co-chaired by Patrick Dodson and Mark Leibler, the report recommended alterations to the constitution to not only recognise these indigenous peoples but to acknowledge their land and water rights and to respect their cultures, languages and heritage.
At the time, it seemed obvious that as long as the Australia Day riot remained the public face of Aboriginal Australia the chance of a national referendum endorsing the panel’s report was poor. Some observers said prospects for constitutional change were now non-existent. “The proposed amendment is now dead,” wrote Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan. “The Australian public will not enshrine special privileges for any group on the basis of race, especially after the events of the past few days.”
However, political memories these days are short and the 2012 riot took place under Gillard’s minority government whose days were numbered. When Tony Abbott subsequently became Prime Minister, his decision to endorse the campaign for recognition put constitutional change back on the political agenda. Two years after the tent embassy riot Abbott said his objective was not to change the Constitution but to complete it, so that we can make our country “whole”.
This was a gracious approach from a politician who had suffered more than most from public abuse by leading Aboriginal identities. But Abbott’s sentiment was never reciprocated. The aim of most Aboriginal activists is anything but making the Constitution complete or the nation whole. Their ambition for decades now has been to increasingly divide the nation between them and the rest of us.
They see themselves as “First Peoples” — now rebranded with the Canadian term “First Nations” — whose ancestral status gives them rights unavailable to other Australians. They do not regard the current Australian nation as their true country. They describe the Australia nation as no more than a recently arrived “settler state” whose rule they reluctantly endure, and whose institutions they regard as fit not for respect but destruction.
This is an edited extract from Keith Windschuttle’s book The Break-Up of Australia: The real Agenda behind Aboriginal Recognition, Quadrant Books, 2016