By David Jagger
CANBERRA — In symbolic and tactical moves against what they call Australia's "illegal regime", about 100 Aborigines occupied, then peacefully quit, the old Parliament House in Canberra after the Invasion Day long weekend.
Four protesters who remained were arrested on the evening of January 28 following an eviction ordered by Prime Minister Keating and the minister for administrative services, Senator Nick Bolkus, more than 24 hours after the occupation. The four were charged with trespass under the Public Order Act and removed in a "dignified manner", according to spokesperson Bill Craigie.
Their arrests were calculated to strengthen a declaration of Aboriginal sovereignty sent to the United Nations which claims Aboriginal "occupation of the site of the old parliament building is evidence of our right to self-government and self-determination".
A statement to police after the arrests denies Australian courts have the power to judge the case because it involves "trespass" of Aboriginal people on land they never legally relinquished.
"A draft application to seek the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice is presently being prepared", said Paul Coe, a member of the original tent embassy that camped for six months outside parliament 20 years ago. Coe is now a senior lawyer with the Aboriginal Legal Service.
The camp is again expanding on the lawn opposite the building, with "bus loads" of support expected from around the country.
Coe said all negotiations on sovereignty will now be supervised by the United Nations. From last year, Australians can lodge complaints with the UN Human Rights Committee under the International Covenant on Civil Rights.
He dismissed the federal government-sponsored reconciliation process, which has replaced discussions for a treaty. He said Australia has had 20 years to understand and act on Aboriginal demands, which still include national land rights legislation and compensation.
"We've been a very patient people", said Coe. "Our patience has run out."
The protesters also demand real reform in the joint government response to the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody recommendations, due in March. Contrary to the commission's suggestions last year, police and prison officers have faced no further investigations.
"I don't know what it takes to educate the white Australian population", said Coe. "There is all the evidence under the sun to show that this is a racist regime, an illegal regime."
Aboriginal author Kevin Gilbert said: "We will spread dissent, white Australians do not hold sovereign title. It is a defective title because we never surrendered our land."
But he added, "It is important for the public to know that we have not refused to negotiate".
The order to quit old Parliament House contradicted earlier assurances by Bolkus' office and by police that the protesters could stay if no damage was done. The new tenants prohibited smoking and eating inside and laid mattresses on the polished floor. They draped the Aboriginal flag carefully over a statue of King George V and flew a smaller version atop the white empty hulk.
But the eviction was painless compared to 20 years ago. One of those arrested last week, Isabell Coe, remembered the end of the protest that discredited the McMahon Government's anti-land rights stand and heralded significant changes, including land rights in the Northern Territory, introduced by the Whitlam Labor government.
"It was very, very violent", she said. "The women were on the outside and they [the police] were slinging us around like we were rag dolls."