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.
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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.