Aliens in their own land: Sovereignty and the tent embassy

Australia does a nice line in political  snafu and last week provided a juicy example as the Australia Day prime ministerial dragging fiasco spiralled out of control. It show screwed Australian political discourse has become. It involves many major issues – inadequate security procedures, police incompetence, political misconduct, media manipulation, treatment of Aboriginal issues and subsequent substitution of white fights masquerading as concern for those Aboriginal issues. Not that Aboriginal leaders would be surprised their issues were criticised and ignored. The Aboriginal Tent embassy that started all the current fuss (and now being ignored in the “who knew what” adviser scandal) was created in 1972.

I recently stumbled on the tent embassy when I was in Canberra. It was around 8.30am and I was on my way to visit the old parliament museum when I found the embassy at its doorstep. The museum didn’t open until 9am so I had time to wander around the site. It remains potent despite its shabbiness. Successive governments and administrators have found its mixture of politics, symbolism and theatre difficult to counter. The embassy’s flimsy tarpaulin is dotted with signs protesting the lack of a treaty and the need for self determination.

The camp proclaimed itself as a dry area and in the middle of the garden lay a giant fire circle with an Aboriginal flag and a sculpture of the word “sovereignty” looking out across the lake. This “sacred fire” of sovereignty gives the embassy an imposing air of permanence. The word “embassy” gives it a stateliness contested by the Australian Government. There was no cops about to shut down a long-standing “occupy movement”. Nor was there any movement there to disoccupy. There was no sign of life that morning though perhaps people were asleep inside the tents.

The tent began in 1972 in frustration at the McMahon Government’s refusal to recognise land rights. Hopes were high for Aboriginal land rights after the 1967 referendum. But McMahon would only agree to general purpose leases” which would not affect existing land or mining titles. Most land titles were granted under common law “terra nullius” which assumed nobody owned the land before the British granted title. The mining titles took precedence because they were “in the national interest”.

One of the embassy founders, Gary Foley, said McMahon’s laws made Aborigines “aliens in their own land”. As aliens they needed an embassy in Canberra. Its status as an “eyesore” has been central to its validity since the start. As John Newfong said in 1972: “If people think this is an eyesore, well it is the way it is on Government settlements.” Aboriginal policy was an eyesore that needed to stay in the public eye. Governments tried to remove the embassy by force, then by invoking territory ordinances and planning guidelines, or by direct negotiation and finally by turning a blind eye hoping the embassy would fizzle out. None worked. With another symbol invented the same year – the black, red and yellow flag – the black power activists’ tent reminded white Australia it was built on shaky foundations.

The embassy only occasional impinged on wider conscience. Paul Kelly’s The March of Patriots covered the Keating and Howard eras in great detail but made no mention of the embassy, even though it became permanent after the elevation of Keating as PM. Aboriginal affairs was a telling difference between Keating and Howard and deeply affected their tenure as prime ministers. Yet both men were affronted by the notion there was “another Australia” outside their jurisdiction though neither was foolish enough to remove the “ambassadors”.

It was not politicians but judges who changed the law. The Mabo and Wik judgements ended the fiction of terra nullius and helped forge an agreement over native title. Two hundred years could not be righted but compensation was needed. Keating offered an apology in his 1994 Redfern speech but was hamstrung by his own side (corrupt WA Labor Premier Brian Burke killed Bob Hawke’s land rights proposal in the 1980s). Keating was voted out in 1996, but not before getting a Mabo agreement through parliament.

Howard inherited Keating’s Stolen Generation Report documenting 20th century interference in Aboriginal affairs. Howard could not bring himself to apologise. His NT intervention was large-scale paternalism under a pretense of preventing sexual violence. Despite the scale of the response (which the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments have kept), there was never a sense they were dealing with equal partners. The prospect of a treaty similar to Canada and New Zealand seems as remote as ever.

The embassy celebrated two anniversaries last week. The embassy has existed intermittently since Australia Day 1972 and permanently since Australia Day 1992. The howls of protest that accompanied Tony Abbott’s claim the embassy’s time may be over, reflect a deeper concern that as Prime Minister he would not advance Aboriginal interests. He might also use his power to shut it down using the media-generated confected rage against the “riot” that apparently caused the prime minister to lose to trip over and lose a shoe. The Courier-Mail front page called it a “day of shame” without saying who should be ashamed. “Australia Day 2012 will be remembered for scenes of a terrified looking Ms Gillard being dragged away to safety,” the paper thundered.

They hinted whose fault that was. They said police clashed with protesters from the embassy and the two leaders were shoved into Ms Gillard’s bulletproof car and taken to “a safe place”. Police overreacted as they escorted the politicians from the premises. Gillard and Abbott were at the Lobby restaurant presenting emergency services medals when “100 protesters surrounded the building”.

They were protesting against an answer Abbott gave in a doorstep earlier that day. An unnamed journalist asked him: “Is the Tent Embassy still relevant or should it move?” Abbott said he could understand why the embassy was established but a lot had changed for the better. “We had the historic apology just a few years ago, one of the genuine achievements of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister,” Abbott said. “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 and yes, I think a lot has changed since then and I think it probably is time to move on from that.”

No one asked the follow-up question: Did he mean moving the tent on? Instead the media circus moved on to Albanese’s Hollywood faux pas and the embassy answer hung out to dry. The implied answer, Abbott might act as PM to “move on” the embassy, took little time to filter out.

Gillard’s media adviser Tony Hodges told union secretary Kim Sattler and Sattler told the demonstrators. When they got to the restaurant, Aboriginal people clashed with police but no evidence suggested violence was intended on Abbott or Gillard. It was the mob violence that wasn’t. All they wanted was for both leaders to talk to them. The prime minister’s security detail took a different view. On camera Gillard accepts their advice to leave and asks them whether they should also inform Abbott. She is seen letting Abbott know they were “in it together”.

Instead of confronting the protesters, the prime minister was dragged unceremoniously away. The footage showed the politicians, their security detail and news cameras. The protesters were well back. World media were entranced particularly over the fairytale angle of the “lost shoe”. Abbott was also ushered away quickly without wardrobe malfunctions. Gillard lost not only her shoe, but her dignity, her press officer, her backroom probity and the political high ground. Abbott was able to say, “At the very least the Prime Minister should be offering an apology to everyone who was in that awards ceremony.” He did say what Gillard had to apologise for except perhaps for incompetent staff who did not think through their actions. Hodges paid the penalty and Abbott should stop playing put upon. He would have known fully what mischief his statement could cause on the Australia Day anniversary.

The sovereignty battle over the embassy has been damned by association. Since the so-called “riot”, influential voices like Bob Carr, Warren Mundine and David Penberthy have called for the embassy’s abolition. But the time has not yet come to fold up the tent. The eyesore has not been treated. Sorry day has come and gone but the justice of sovereignty is no nearer for Australia’s oldest and most misunderstood inhabitants. Until it happens, they remain aliens in their own land.

4 thoughts on “Aliens in their own land: Sovereignty and the tent embassy

  1. Great post, Derek – unlike most of the commentary on the events of Australia Day, your piece doesn’t lose perspective – Gillard and Abbott being rushed out by security surely pales in comparison to the dispossession of Aboriginal people from their land.

  2. Great post, I have tried to debate Bob Carr but he wont engage in any real debate, he lacks any understanding of his own stance, a common theme in Australia, if only aussies could be more intune with the world instead of letting murdoch do all their thinking for them, no one with a platform in the media will talk about the underlying issues or you end up in the media wilderness, thanks for putting your views out there knowing its not what the public want, they prefer propaganda to justify their own guilt, great to read a real journalists work, a dying breed in this nation

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