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Aboriginal Tent Embassy: 40th Anniversary 2012



Australia Day 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of Old Parliament House, Canberra.

On 26 January 1972 four young Aboriginal men: Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Bertie Williams and Tony Coorey set up a protest under a beach umbrella on the lawns of Parliament House. In a sad reflection on Indigenous life expectancy Michael Anderson is the only living member of the four founders. Michael Anderson believes the anniversary and Sovereignty Corroboree will be 'a great day of Aboriginal unity’.

Anderson stresses the significance of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy is that 'it can be regarded as the longest running political demonstration in the world ... 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 original 1972 protest was a reaction to the McMahon Government's rejection of land rights. One of the four came up with the idea of an embassy: "the Prime Minister's statement yesterday effectively makes us aliens in our own land, so like the other aliens we need an embassy"'. The simple act of hanging the name 'Embassy' on the tent was only possible in the nation's capital and it was this symbolic statement that worried the Government. The Hon. Peter Howson, then Minister for the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts described the use of the name 'Aboriginal Embassy' as a 'disturbing undertone...The term implied a sovereign state and cut across the Government's expressed objection to separate development and was kindred to apartheid'.

The tent embassy intermittently existed on the lawns of Old Parliament House until Australia Day 1992 when on the 20th anniversary the embassy was re-established and the vacant Old Parliament House occupied by 60 protesters. Bill Craigie stated 'twenty years down the track we found we had to re-establish the embassy because Aboriginal affairs was starting to stagnate back to the position prior to '72....we're now asking the politicians and the rest of white Australia to recognise us as a race of people and to recognise us as the sovereign owners of this country'.

Similar sentiments might be expressed at the 40th anniversary for although different Governments have looked at the possibility of removing it, the embassy has continued its permanent occupation and claims to continue do so until recognition of Aboriginal Sovereignty is achieved.

A history of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy can be found in Coral Dow, Aboriginal Tent Embassy: Icon or Eyesore?, Parliamentary Library, 2000 and on the Australian Heritage Database