Aboriginal activists speak on Tent Embassy 40-year milestone

January 13, 2012
Aboriginal activists launched the embassy in 1972 in response to then-prime minister Billy McMahon's refusal to grant Aboriginal Land Rights

Few Australian political protests can claim to have made an impact as great or as lasting as the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. First set up on the lawns of Old Parliament House in January 1972, the embassy has been a focal point for the struggle for Aboriginal rights.

Four Aboriginal men, Michael Anderson, Billie Craigie, Tony Koorie and Bertie Williams, launched the embassy in response to then-prime minister Billy McMahon’s refusal to grant Aboriginal land rights. Instead, McMahon had offered to lease stolen land back to Aboriginal people.

The protest swelled, capturing the imagination of Aboriginal activists and their supporters around the country. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy received wide media coverage in Australia and internationally. It threw the spotlight on the appalling conditions Aboriginal people faced and the refusal of the Australian government to respond to Aboriginal demands for justice.

The activists decided to make the tent embassy a permanent protest, while the government pursued legal avenues to evict the protesters.

In the March 1972 edition of Direct Action (the precursor to Green Left Weekly), Aboriginal rights activist and author Bobbi Sykes wrote from the embassy: “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.”

In late July 1972, having exhausted its legal attempts to move on the embassy, the McMahon government sent in the federal police to evict the protest by force.

A report in the August 1972 Direct Action captured the police brutality: “Over 300 police emerged from beside Parliament House [on July 23] and punched and kicked demonstrators defending the tent. An 18-year-old girl had her head kicked, glasses broken and her stomach stood on and she was taken to hospital.

“Paul Coe, an Aboriginal law student, was beaten unconscious and taken to hospital. In all, eight people were taken to hospital and numerous others sustained cuts and bruises.

“Five police went to hospital — two for knuckle lacerations, assaulted by a demonstrator’s teeth, one for a sprained shoulder, assaulted by a demonstrator’s head. Altogether 18 people were arrested. A number were bashed by police in the cells.”

Since then, the embassy has continued in various forms. In 1992, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was re-established as a permanent occupation. It has remained there ever since. In 1995, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was entered in the Register of the National Estate, Australia's official listing of natural and cultural heritage places.

Hundreds of Aboriginal people and their supporters will converge on the tent embassy for three days beginning January 26 to mark the embassy’s 40th anniversary. For more details about the 40th anniversary events visit http://aboriginaltentembassy40th.com/.

Green Left Weekly’s Jim McIlroy spoke to Aboriginal leaders Michael Anderson, Sam Watson and Lara Pullin about the significance of the tent embassy’s 40th anniversary and the struggle for Aboriginal sovereignty.

* * *

Lara Pullin: ‘Embassy must continue until our people achieve self-determination’

The 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy represents a coming together of several generations of Aboriginal activists. The event has excited a lot of people around the country.

There is a feeling from the elders that now is the time for younger people to become more involved, in the face of the widespread health and mental health problems affecting our communities.

There is a sense of despair, worsened by having a Labor government that promised to repeal many of the worst aspects of the Howard era. Despite the Sorry statement by [former PM Kevin] Rudd, there is immense distress at the lack of improvement in the conditions of the people over the past few years.

There is now a process of passing the baton to a new layer of the Aboriginal people under way.

In the days following the January 26 commemoration, there will be a national consultation on changing the Australian Constitution to recognise Aboriginal sovereignty. But this process should not be counterpoised to the struggle for land rights and other key issues.

The important message of this anniversary is that we are doing it for ourselves, that we have the creativity and the solutions emerging from the communities themselves. We need to listen to and empower these communities.

It is very important that this Aboriginal Tent Embassy continues until all our people are out of poverty and have achieved self-determination.

Moreover, it is exciting to see essentially three generations of struggle taking part: the veterans of 1972; my generation, involved from 1988 until now; and our children, the teenagers, who are coming into action at present.

The program of the anniversary will include excellent cultural content, and workshops on many key topics. There will also be a focus on deaths in custody, including a national day of action, and presentations on the tragedy of Aboriginal youth suicide.

We have actually tried hard to be really inclusive, drawing in people from across the country. It is inspiring to see the results of a history of 40 years of our people sitting down at the embassy and identifying with it.

The anniversary is connecting people in a way not seen since 1988. We can also see the impact of the Canberra convergence of February 2008 [for the government apology to the Stolen Generations].

The more recent struggle to resist the NT intervention, and the connection to the current global Occupy movement, are both being felt.

There is a real feeling that Aboriginal people have no genuine political voice at present; that the National Congress of Australia’s First People’s is not a real voice, not representative of our people.

We encourage the growing movement of non-Aboriginal solidarity with the Aboriginal struggle, including the support of trade unions and community organisations.

Preparations for the big event are stepping up, notably with the involvement of a great women's collective. I'm sure that the 40th anniversary will be a tremendous landmark for the Aboriginal rights movement in Australia.

Sam Watson: ‘We’ve defended the embassy through thick and thin’

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy has always been acknowledged as the most successful and significant protest in the entire history of our Aboriginal struggle. We have defended it through thick and thin.

After the embassy was established on January 26, 1972, the Liberal government tried to destroy it. When squads of police removed the tents in July that year, the people mobilised to put them back.

On the 40th anniversary this year, it is time for us to come together as a network of Aboriginal nations, to stand together with our supporters and salute the achievements of the magnificent men and women who have since passed on.

It will be an emotional time, to acknowledge the bonds formed on the Old Parliament lawns over the years of revolutionary struggle. I was invited to join the embassy in the first week of February 1972, as a co-founder of the Black Panther Party of Australia.

The Aboriginal struggle at that time was against the then McMahon government of the day, to demand uniform land rights across the nation. We needed to ramp up the campaign for justice and higher living standards for Aboriginal people.

The tent embassy became a national focus, with hundreds of tourists visiting every day. We handed out thousands of leaflets, raising international awareness of the plight of Aboriginal people in Australia.

The attempt to forcibly close down the embassy in July 1972 merely reignited the campaign to defend it. I was there from February to July that year, and remember and honour the brothers and sisters who fought to keep the embassy going.

We have to come together again as a national movement, and put into place a genuine national Aboriginal leadership team. We also need to welcome a new generation of young Aboriginal activists and encourage them to move forward with the next level of struggle.

Michael Anderson is preparing to launch a legal campaign to overturn the lie of peaceful British colonial settlement of Australia. This legal action will establish beyond dispute that Aboriginal people never ceded our sovereign rights over this land.

This legal challenge will be taken to the international community. We need to seek a binding treaty to fully recognise our rights.

This will recognise our demands for comprehensive land rights and an end to mining on our land.

We also stand in solidarity with all the families who have suffered over the years from deaths in custody arising from state violence. Police and prison officers who commit these crimes must be identified, charged and sentenced.

We need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to reveal the facts behind these criminal actions.

In addition, the Northern Territory intervention must cease, and local communities be given the rights and the funding to properly manage their own affairs.

These are among the key aims of our movement as we mark this historic 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy this month.

Michael Anderson: ‘It will be a great day of Aboriginal unity’

The significance of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy is that it has a history over 40 years, continuously for the past 20 years. This means it can be regarded as the longest running political demonstration in the world.

When I was in London last year, I addressed Occupy London, and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was described as one of the first Occupations in the world. Now, with the Occupy movement, there are tent gatherings everywhere.

The 40th anniversary will have great significance, as elders will be attending from all over Australia. From the Northern Territory, there will be delegations from Arnhem Land to Katherine.

The Central and Western Deserts will be sending representatives. Law men and women will be coming from all over the country, one of the first times this will have occurred.

We will begin to form a sovereign union of Aboriginal nations.

Young people are coming down from Queensland. It will be a great day of Aboriginal unity.

No law has ever been passed to abolish Aboriginal sovereignty. These issues are now being considered in the Australian Senate.

This is the beginning of a new movement, a new way. We will pursue all avenues, national and international, to ensure our rights are properly recognised.

We welcome support from the general community, from the multicultural community, from the unions and elsewhere. We want a united community, which fully recognises Aboriginal rights.


What a disgaceful day organised by the tent embassy!The aboriginal community has now, because of a stupid few, has been catergorised as a culture that does not know what it is fighting for! Most Australians have seen the utterly childish and unlawful behavior by a mob today. I am hopeful though, that most aborigines don't spend their days crying about something that has happened in the past, rather they make the future better for all races and creeds of Australia to make one Australia. If the stupid children(tent organisers) actually analysed what Tony Abbott said, they would see that he DID NOT SAY TO RIP DOWN THE TENT RATHER JUST MOVE ON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The leaders of the tent embassy need to learn comprehension and not incite a riot on playing of words! Obviously you don't want a solution, you just want a cause to make your lives worthwhile. I really do pity people like that. No lives or fullfillment!!!!!!!!!How sad!!!!!!!!!!
yeah because Aborignals should be happy with the respect and treatment from aussies, your a tool, I know ignorance is bliss but what about your integrity, no wonder Aborignials are focusing on the international community as Australians have been brain washed, a lost cause, Aussies need to get over themselfs, we dont care what you tools think, we never want to be like you's and we definatly dont care if dont support us because you never would anyway, just make a treaty and pay the rent, Australia is the land of bludgers, aussies would be poor in their own countrys without Aboriginal stolen wealth, the whinging from aussies in their perfect world without a care shows why Australians got voted the biggest whingers in the world for 2012, this doesnt even affect you, thanks whinger
Firstly, I don't quite see the need for all this suppressed anger lashed out on these 'tools' and 'children tent organisers'. Because honestly, we're creating more of a barrier between the Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians. Australia day, for some Aboriginals represents the commemoration of invasion of their country. Yet for us, we celebrate the day we invaded and stripped away their land. So LET THEM keep their embassy. Although its purpose has been fulfilled and many question its relevance today, it demonstrates how the Aboriginal people fought for their land and political rights which brought attention to aboriginal issues. So yes, this is their fulfillment. Doing something is much better than lounging around criticizing the accomplishments of others. The fact that you say 'we dont care what you tools think' is clearly a statement that defies itself. Because the fact that you're throwing a bunch of repetitive names indicates that you DO care. The fact that the federal government has made several negotiations with them in the past indicate that THEY care as well. I know that the main idea is that the protestors overreacted. True - they did. It was a misunderstanding, chinese whispers doing its thing. My main point is that THERE IS NO NEED FOR ALL THIS IRREVERENT HATE.
'don't spend their days crying about something that has happened in the past'. Something that happened in the past?! Would you happen to be tallking about the near genocide of the Indigenous population of Australia and how White Australians almost caused the extinction of Aboriginal Australian Culture? Aboriginal families were separated, babies taken away from their homes to be assimilated into one digusting European race. Aboriginal history and race was slowly deteriorating while Europeans laughed and continued to shoot down the Aborigines left, right and centre. Aborigines' human rights were completely disregarded and they were treated no better than animals. I cannot stress enough how important it is for Aborigines/ Tent Embassy to do this, and fight for their rights as they weren't able to when White Colonists first invaded Australia. I really do pity people like you. Get your facts straight and think about both sides of an arguement before you comment something like that.
We have to remember the past... we have to take responsiblity of what happened to the Aboriginal people when the 'Boats' with the white man came and totally raped one of the most ancient cultures on earth. For 40 thousand years the Aboriginal people lived off the land, peacefully and in harmony with a relationship towards it. Anyone thinking otherwise has a strong case of colonial mentality, another disease of the white man that still exists today. They brought the poison known as alcohol, genocide and european superiority against indigenous races. Anyone who thinks that the white man civilized the black is totally a sympton of colonial mentality. Colonial mentality is exactly what is sending our country backwards. If theres anything that we have to eradicate from the past and from our modern era, its colonial mentality.
your are soo blind! do you belive everything the government says like it gold comming from his mouth? you will get far in life then Im not even Aboriginal, im wog but i think that the Aboriginals should have the right to own not just parts of this country but all of it and we should all be the respectful citizens that thanks them to let us into their country and share it
To the person who wrote this comment are you white or Anglo-Australian? If you are that's just a typical response always telling black people how to behave. I thought the tent embassy riot was a great stance by our black brothers of the continual discrimination, racism, and persecution of indigenous people which still continues today. The white Australia population needs to understand you have seventh or eighth generation great grandfathers who have murdered and raped the first black race in this country. You have also installed a south-African style apartheid system were indigenous people weren't allowed to walk into shops and cafes, there income was managed by the aboriginal protection board, and you tried to white out there population by trying to marrying them to white Australians so that they will produce white children down the line. This country has the most shameful and disgusting history it makes my stomach churn even just writing about it. In regards to indigenous people should stop there days crying and living in the past. Well maybe if everyone took the time to acknowledge our shameful and burnt history and admit the crimes and shames of your white ancestry. Do you expect an indigenous person to overcome there distress of having been removed from there family as a child and made to work as domestic servants? Do you expect them to overcome the aparteid system back in the 1950's-60's when a new style of aparteid called the NT intervention takes place? Do you expect them to overcome the brutality of the Native Police who shot and hanged indigenous people when still today there is a high black deaths in custody rate due to the orchestration of the KKK- style police and government who wipe there hands clean of brutality. Whether Tony Abbot did say those things or not it still doesn't matter. Our country still treat the black folk of this nation like dog shit.

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