50 years of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy resistance

1972 Land rights protest in Canberra. Photo: National Library of Australia/Ken Middleton collection.

1971–1972

The Aboriginal Land Rights Campaign built momentum, calling protests in most large cities.

January 26, 1972

Liberal Prime Minister Billy McMahon refused to grant Aboriginal land rights. Instead, he offered 50-year pastoral leases to groups who could prove they could profit from the land.

Gumbainggir activist and academic Gary Foley wrote in The Aboriginal Tent Embassy: Sovereignty, Black Power, Land Rights and the State that McMahon’s decision to make his offer on Invasion Day was doubly insulting.

The in Canberra. First Nations activists Michael Anderson, Billie Craigie, Tony Koorie and Bert Williams travelled to Canberra and set up the Embassy at Parliament House. They discovered that they could legally camp on the Parliament House lawns. This allowed the protest to continue and grow.

Wangerriburra and Birri Gubba leader (1952-2019) recounted: “A small group had travelled from Sydney to Canberra on Invasion Day, 1972, in response to the then McMahon Liberal government’s absolute refusal to consider Aboriginal land rights.

“The original Tent Embassy was established because Aboriginal people were treated as foreigners in their own country. The 1970s produced a big movement of struggle in the Black community, led by a new, angry, younger generation.”

The activists decided the Tent Embassy should be a permanent fixture. Meanwhile, the Liberal government pursued legal avenues to evict them.

Other protest actions included a delegation of Redfern Black Power activists travelling to Brisbane to attend and gather momentum for the cause at the Action Conference on Racism and Education, organised by students at Queensland University.

Aboriginal rights activist and author Bobbi Sykes told a March 1972 edition of : “As a solid affront to the government, and a matter of great national embarrassment, the Embassy could not be more strategically placed — opposite Parliament House, where each day politicians and the public are forced to display either sympathy, ignorance or apathy in the face of those whom they continue to oppress, and who now fight back to win their rights to an independent and dignified existence.”

January 28

First Nations women from the National Council of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Island Women (NCATSIW) arrived at the Embassy. They denounced McMahon, calling for his resignation.

February 2

Embassy activists started designing a flag to draw attention to their status as “aliens” on their own land and assert sovereignty. The first flag flown was the Black Consciousness Movement flag, designed by Marcus Garvey.

February 5

The Tent Embassy issued on the government for Land Rights.

  1.  First Nations control of the Northern Territory as state within Australia and the installation of a primarily Aboriginal State Parliament with title and mining rights to all land in the Territory.
  1. Legal title to all existing reserve lands and settlements.
  1. The preservation of all sacred sites.
  1. Legal title and mining rights to city and urban area.
  1. Minimum compensation of at least $6 billion and a percentage of the gross national product every year for land that could not be returned.

February 8

Labor Opposition leader Gough Whitlam visited Tent Embassy to discuss the five-point plan.

Whitlam was convinced to change Labor’s policy and denounced assimilation. He declared that, if elected, he would legislate for land rights.

The McMahon government hurriedly drafted a new law banning camping on so-called “unleased Commonwealth land” in Canberra.

Labor was elected in December 1972 and Whitlam announced he would reverse the racist policy of assimilation and promote self-determination.

April

Another flag design was created and flown which featured a spear across a red and black background, with four crescents looking inward to symbolise First Nation’s struggles from across Australia.

Eventually the famous red, yellow and black flag, designed by Harold Thomas in association with Gary Foley, was chosen.

July 20

McMahon new law banning camping on federal land came into effect and his government ordered the first police raid on the Embassy.

Sam Watson how “waves of police moved in and forcibly removed the tents” and arrested people.

described it as “the most violent demonstration I have ever been in: 300 police came marching around German Nazi style”.

(1937-2015), who was working for the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, had been forewarned that police were waiting to remove the Embassy. “I left work early and took off to the Embassy to warn that it was about to be attacked. There were about 30 of us to defend it. We circled the tent and waited. Before long, 70 police turned up and knocked us all flying like nine pins.”

First Nations activists, along with student and union supporters resisted. After four days, around 3000 First Nations activists and allies forced the police to back down.

July 23

A was ordered on the Tent Embassy. said: “When the police came marching from the back of Parliament House, stomping like storm troopers, I was on the opposite side of the tent so I did not see them coming, but I heard this collective sigh.

“We all had our arms links but once again we went down like pins. There were so many police. They were five rows deep.  I think this may have been the time that Paul Coe was stamped on and sent to hospital with three broken ribs.

“I ended up on the ground underneath all these blue serge legs and big black boots. I remember thinking this is what it feels like to be stamped to death. I couldn’t move. But just then a blue serge leg came near and I bit into the back of a policeman’s calf.” 

July 30

In response, more than 2000 Aboriginal people and supporters mobilised at the Embassy. Eatock said about 3000 supporters from Sydney and elsewhere gathered at ANU and marched up to Parliament House and re-established the Tent Embassy. “The police formed a long line but we held them off for three hours before we let them take the tent, to avoid serious violence. But we had the moral victory. We held up bits of ground sheets above our heads and held signs saying Aboriginal Embassy.”

September 1972

 The Tent Embassy was violently removed after a new ordinance law was passed.

1972-1992

The Aboriginal Tent embassy continues in a variety of forms, at different sites in Canberra.

1973

Whitlam failed to deliver his promise to legislate land rights and the Tent Embassy returned to Parliament House.

December 1976

The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act was passed.

January 26, 1992

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was on its original site on the lawns of Old Parliament House on its 20th anniversary. Activists occupied the then unused Old Parliament House building and declared First Nations sovereignty.

1995

The Embassy was entered in the Register of the National Estate, Australia’s official listing of natural and cultural heritage places.

February 8, 1999

The Tent Embassy was again attacked by police.

 First Nations activists took the to draw attention to the ongoing genocide of First Nations peoples, the stolen generations, Black deaths in custody and racist laws of Prime Minister John Howard.

Protesters took ceremonial spears, saplings and embers from the “Fires of Justice and Peace” — the camp fire at the Embassy — as well as 211 ceremonial sticks that represented 211 years of genocide.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) extinguished the ceremonial Tent Embassy fire and confiscated the ceremonial sticks.

2000

In the lead-up to the Olympics, the Embassy was temporarily in Sydney to draw international attention to the genocide and oppression of First Nations peoples. The protest was led by Auntie Isabel Coe. The South Sydney City Council tried to shut it down, but activists negotiated away 10 of the Council’s 11 stringent demands and remained on site.

February 19, 2003

Acting on orders from the federal government’s National Capital Authority (NCA) armed, riot police . They destroyed a recently-erected goonji (a tin A-frame), extinguished the sacred fire, removed the toilets and cut off their electricity. They confiscated ceremonial spears and removed important documents, including those relating to land theft and dispossession. The NCA, along with federal territories minister Wilson Tuckey, had spent months harassing the Tent Embassy prior to the raid.

July 17, 2003

The was again attacked by about 100 Australian Federal Police, acting for the NCA.

January 26, 2012

Coalition opposition leader Tony Abbot said the Tent Embassy was no longer relevant and should be packed up and “moved on”. First Nations .

January 26, 2022

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy will mark Australia’s longest running site of continuing resistance — 50 years.

As Eatock said in 2012: “The Tent Embassy would live on in our hearts, we said, and you can’t take that away from us. We said to the authorities: whatever you do you cannot win.”