The windows shudder as hands pound rhythmically on the cool surface. More bodies press in together. The words ‘shame’ and ‘racist’ chanted between each beat. A solid tune starts emerging as the people continue in anger, in pain. Past the smooth dark reflection of the windows, a crowd of nervous smiles, Abbott smug, Gillard unruffled. Hands are held high with a myriad of mobile devices filming, photographing, recording. And still they keep beating against the glass wall, calling for justice, wanting to be heard.
Australia Day 2012, also the 40th Anniversary of the Tent Embassy, erupted into a display of the inherent racism hidden within our society. Through the words of Abbott inciting angry protest at the Lobby Restaurant in Canberra; the subsequent reactionary behaviour of the security detail; the political manipulations; and misrepresentation by media we are shown the true face of stifled growth regarding reconciliation. These events bring to light how little society knows about the Aboriginal Embassy, its history and importance, and those from all walks of life who attended the weekend commemoration. And sadly, the hype surrounding the events of 26th January take from the real issues and problems at hand and what the Embassy represents.
On that same date in 1972, four Aboriginal men – Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Bertie Williams and Tony Coorey – set up camp on the lawns of Old Parliament House. Earlier that month Prime Minister William ‘Billy’ McMahon had announced his policy to lease land back to the Aboriginal people, instead of granting land rights. This prompted the young men to travel to Canberra and set up the Embassy. Their objectives then, and now, were: sovereignty, land rights, a treaty and self-determination. They held a tent conference with Federal Opposition Leader, Gough Whitlam, in which they presented their five-point plan for land rights:
‘1) Control of the Northern Territory as a State within the Commonwealth of Australia; the parliament in the NT to be predominantly Aboriginal with the title and mining rights to all land within the Territory;
2) Legal title and mining rights to all other presently existing reserve lands and settlements throughout Australia;
3) The preservation of all sacred sites throughout Australia;
4) Legal title and mining rights to areas in and around all Australian capital cities; and
5) Compensation monies for lands not returnable to take the form of a down payment of six billion dollars and an annual percentage of the gross national income’ (Newfong, J 1972).
Whitlam responded that a Labor Government would reverse the controversial land rights policy, address the issue of a properly representative body in the Northern Territory and a protection of sacred sites.
Close to six months later federal police (by order of McMahon) knocked down the Embassy while those inside their tents slept, resulting in violent clashes between police and protestors and the closing down of the Embassy for a short time. The Embassy existed in some form at various locations around Canberra until 1992 when it took up permanent residency on the lawns of Old Parliament. The photo of the four men sitting outside Parliament all those years ago in ’72, with a placard made from the words ‘Aboriginal Embassy’ written on an open manila folder and tied with safety pins and shoelaces to an umbrella for shelter, went global. It was a powerful image of the displaced and a most successful protest that forced the Aboriginal plight into mainstream media, worldwide.
We arrived at the Embassy on the Wednesday, the night before Australia Day 2012. It was our first visit and in searching for the Embassy we travelled up the hill to Parliament, passing the gated and security-covered enclave for that night’s Australia Day celebrations, and came back down the hill to old Parliament where a scattering of tents greeted us. Smoke drifted from the Sacred Fire as we made our way to the chai tent in search of an Elder to seek permission for our stay. We were welcomed and set up camp as the sun slowly set and six jet planes flew overhead performing daredevil tricks just above the tree-line to the roar of the appreciative crowd up the hill. In the night we had our tea by the light of other’s fires and fell asleep to the strumming of guitars and the humming of voices.
Settling in for the night.
When we woke, somewhat refreshed aside from the 2am cries of ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi’ as the partygoers from up the hill headed home, we collected our hats and sunscreen and took off by foot to the meeting point in central Canberra for the forthcoming march. The atmosphere when we arrived was comfortable, a sense of family as one greeted a long unseen face with pleasure, and anticipation. There was heartfelt anger and loss through spoken word, traditional dance and didgeridoo. We marched through the city streets, over the bridge and up the hill to Parliament. The usual catchphrases were called and repeated. People were smiling, meeting new people, learning from one another. We arrived back at the Embassy for the smoking ceremony then sat on the lawns to hear the stories of the people and the Elders: those that began the Embassy forty years before and their ongoing battle to be heard, those from the younger generation who spoke with anger of the continuing deafness of Australian society and their feelings of enforced muteness when really they’re screaming to be heard. This was when Barbara Shaw spoke, was interrupted and then broke the news of Abbott’s words and whereabouts.
Clouds loom as Barbara Shaw speaks.
Much has been made of Abbott’s comments on the day, the way in which they were transferred to Barbara Shaw, and the disparity between what she was told and what was actually said. All we saw was her incredulous look as someone spoke to her, she asked the person to repeat themselves, and then informed us that Abbott had just made a statement that it was time for the Embassy to be pulled down and he was over at the Lobby Restaurant, near the rose garden. Regardless of what was said and what was passed on, some focus needs to be put on what Abbott did say:
‘Look, I can understand why the Tent Embassy was set up all those years ago. I think a lot has changed for the better since then. We had the historic apology just a few years ago, one of the genuine achievements of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister. We had the proposal which is currently for national consideration to recognise Indigenous people in the constitution. I think the Indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian’ (Abbott, T 2012).
Now aside from the incredible condescension and inaccuracy of that last sentence, Abbott seems to not recognise how very little the Aboriginal people feel has been achieved since first setting up camp. As Chris Graham states in his article, ‘The tent embassy: fact v fiction, black v white’, ‘the Tent Embassy was set up “all those years ago” because Aboriginal people were demanding national land rights, a treaty and sovereignty. Call me a cynic, but last time I checked, there is still no treaty, still no national land rights, and still no recognition of sovereignty’ (Graham, C 2012 http://www.crikey.com.au/2012/02/15/the-tent-embassy-fact-v-fiction-black-v-white/ ). Not to mention new issues such as the racially discriminatory Northern Territory intervention, black deaths in custody, or the dismantling of bilingual education. Tony Abbott either knew exactly what the repercussions of his comment would be, which is reprehensible, or he really was clueless, which is incompetent.
On arrival at the lobby we were met with three ineffectual security guards who were swept aside within seconds. ‘Come out and say it to our face, Tony!’ was the first call, and then the beating on windows and rhythmic chanting of ‘shame’ and ‘racist’. There were those who stood back recording, such as myself; there were people standing on tables and chairs, on the street. An Elder wound his way through the crowd, informing others that the police were on their way with teargas, it was okay to leave. I stood back from the main crowd and so saw the first wave of riot police arrive, the sinister sliding on of leather gloves, hands behind backs resting on batons. The dogs. From the first it was clear that it was overkill, they were brutish. The scene plastered around the world, of the Prime Minister falling as she was rushed away to a waiting vehicle, was entirely at the hands of those supposed to protect her. Not one person would have harmed either Gillard or Abbott – sure, it was an angry crowd seeking to be heard, but in no way was it a ‘riot’. Once both dignitaries had left the building the police turned on the crowd. There were some officers who remained calm but there were those who didn’t and they were pumped up and hyper. An elderly lady was shoved into a flower bed, a young woman lifted from her feet and thrown aside; there was a viciousness in the eyes of the ‘protector’, a spittle-flecked chin. The riot police had their ‘riot’, but it was all of their own making. The elders started moving amongst the crowd, telling us all to head back to the campsite. And all of this was recorded by mobile phone and media, all of it.
But what did mainstream media report? A ‘violent riot’ on behalf of the protestors, a distraught Gillard leaning heavily on her bodyguard, a lost shoe, a bewildered Abbott (who has fought tirelessly to understand the Aboriginal plight), and a burning flag. Comments filled with racial hatred went unchecked on major websites. Alongside pages of outrage titled ‘Tent Embassy Furore’, The Canberra Times printed a story proclaiming that ‘…our study has revealed that indigenous adolescents are, on average, as happy with their lives as the general Australian population…’ (Soch, P 2012, http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/aboriginal-teens-score-high-in-test-for-happiness-20120127-1t779.html), a fascinating turnaround from five pages before where the front cover showed a young Indigenous girl burning the Australian flag. Her words and actions that day did not appear ‘happy’, here was a girl representative of today’s Aboriginal youth shouting her anger and feelings of disempowerment to the world. The thirty-second news grabs that the media flourishes in no way represent the actual happenings at grassroots level.
So, the windows shuddered and the voices called to be heard on that day. The dark reflections of white faces peered back out at them. The message got distorted but was certainly heard. Not one crack appeared in the panes, no shattering of glass walls shedding light on that moment. Just the continuing chanting of a people, faceless and marginalised, yearning for equality.