A diplomatic mission to government
Late on Australia Day 1972 four young Aboriginal men erected a beach umbrella on the lawns outside Parliament House in Canberra and put up a sign which read 'Aboriginal Embassy'.
Over the following months, supporters of the embassy swelled to 2000. When the police violently dismantled the tents and television film crews captured the violence for the evening news, an outraged public expressed its disgust to the federal government.
This political action was initiated and implemented by Aboriginal activists. The site became known as the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. It was a powerful symbol. The original owners of the land set up an 'embassy' opposite the parliament, as if they were foreigners.
This act showed compellingly the strength of their sense of alienation. They were landless. Their embassy was a tent — a well understood image of poverty and impermanence. Their camp attracted unprecedented support from people across the country who recognised their sense of grievance and made their views known to the government.
On 27 April 1971 Mr Justice Blackburn ruled against the Yirrkala people in their case against Nabalco and the Commonwealth of Australia. In a 263-page judgment Blackburn concluded that:
the relationship between clan and land did not amount to proprietorship as that is understood in our law; and that the clans had not sustained the burden of proof that they were linked with the same land in 1788 as now; that no doctrine of common law ever required or now requires a British government to recognise land rights under Aboriginal law which may have existed prior to the 1788 occupation; that Aboriginal land rights in Australia were never expressly recognised; and that if the clans had had any rights they would have been effectually terminated by the mining (Gove Peninsula Nabalco Agreement) Ordinance 1968.
The Yirrkala people were shocked by this result. On 6 May 1971 they sent representatives to Canberra to present a statement to Prime Minister William McMahon.
The Prime Minister assured them that the newly established Ministerial Committee investigating Aboriginal issues would consider how to protect reserve lands for their people's ceremonial, religious and recreational use; how to give residents the tenure necessary for their commercial enterprises; and how to purchase land for Aboriginal people.
Peter Howson, Minister for the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts, and Ralph Hunt, Minister for the Interior, who were members of this committee, were both firmly opposed to the idea of an Aboriginal right to land.
The Council for Aboriginal Affairs, chaired by Dr HC Coombs, presented the Yirrkala people's case to Prime Minister McMahon, with little success.
Meanwhile, the Gurindji people were still fighting for the right to their traditional lands at Wattie Creek. Trade unionists and students showed their support in the May Day march of 1971.
After nine months of deliberation, the government chose Australia Day to announce that there would be no Aboriginal title to land.
Instead, under Northern Territory legislation, which had come into operation at the end of 1970, Aboriginal people would be encouraged to apply for leases which would be considered provided that the land was put to 'reasonable' economic or social use.
'Commonwealth policy in relation to land and related matters', 7 July 1971, file 29, Barry Dexter papers, Menzies Library, Australian National University, Canberra.
Crown Lands Ordinance (no. 2), Northern Territory, 1967.
Tim Rowse, Obliged to be Difficult: Nugget Coombs' Legacy in Indigenous Affairs, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2000, p. 58.
The text of Prime Minister William McMahon's speech was released on 25 January, the day before Australia Day. Aboriginal activists in Redfern, a suburb of Sydney, heard the speech on the radio. They understood that it rejected the idea of an Aboriginal title to land and decided on action.
With the support of the Communist Party of Australia, four young Aboriginal men — Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey, Michael Anderson and Bert Williams — travelled from Sydney to Canberra. By the end of Australia Day they were seated on the lawns facing Parliament House under a beach umbrella with a sign that read 'Aboriginal Embassy'.
Michael Anderson told the press:
The land was taken from us by force ... We shouldn't have to lease it ... Our spiritual beliefs are connected with the land.
Over the following days and weeks they would be joined by other black activists: Gordon Briscoe, Paul Coe, Chicka Dixon, Gary Foley, Bruce McGuinness, John Newfong, Roberta Sykes, Denis Walker and many others from all states and territories of Australia. The press criticised McMahon's statement and gave the group a sympathetic hearing.
When parliament resumed in mid-February 1972, there were 11 tents on the lawns opposite Parliament House. Leader of the Opposition, Gough Whitlam, accepted an invitation from Embassy organisers to visit the tents and speak with representatives. This gave it further recognition and legitimacy.
Aboriginal journalist and activist John Newfong explained the purpose of the Embassy in an article in Identity.
Dr HC Coombs, chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, also accepted an invitation to speak with Embassy protestors.
In March 1972 Embassy leaders addressed 200 Australian National University students, asking for their support for the protest.
Canberra university students billeted Aboriginal protestors, joined the crowd on the lawns, and opened a bank account for the Embassy through the Student Representative Council. Law students were invited to examine the legal position of the Embassy.
Overseas visitors to the national capital, such as members of the Canadian Indian Claims Commission, visited the Aboriginal Embassy, as did Soviet diplomats and an Irish Republican Army member.
To Minister for the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts, Peter Howson, the Embassy was an illegal act of trespass and the protesters were ‘unrepresentative militants’. He refused to speak to Embassy representatives, which further boosted public sympathy for the protesters.
In May the Minister for the Interior, Ralph Hunt, announced that a new ordinance making it an offence to camp on unleased land in Canberra would soon come into effect. The ordinance would include the power to remove those who did not comply.
In a conciliatory gesture, Hunt offered a lease on which to build an Aboriginal club. ‘A ‘Club’ is not Land’, the protesters replied.
Twenty-six Labor Members of Parliament said they would physically obstruct any move against the Aboriginal Embassy.
Peter Howson, ed D Aitkin, The Howson Diaries: The Life of Politics, Viking/Kestrel, Ringwood, 1984, p. 892.
As tension mounted between Tent Embassy protesters and the government, Abschol organised a national moratorium for 'Black Rights' for 14 July, National Aborigines Day 1972. Work stoppages and marches took place in capital cities.
Trade unions placed a large advertisement in The Australian, in which they reminded readers of the 1971 Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) decision asking for the restoration of 'tribal land rights' and for the recognition of 'Aboriginal people as distinct, viable national minorities entitled to special facilities for continued self development'.
On Thursday 20 July 1972 a police force of 150 marched towards the Embassy. The supporters linked arms around the tents and sang 'We Shall Not Be Moved'. A brawl, leading to a number of arrests, was captured by the television cameras for the evening news. The tents were torn down.
The following Sunday, when supporters numbered around 200, the tents were re-erected. Further violent confrontation between the 360-strong police force and the protestors took place. The Embassy tents were pulled down for the second time.
By Monday 31 July over 2000 people were gathered on the lawns opposite Parliament House:
'I never saw so many people [in one place] in all my life,' recalled Aboriginal activist Michael Anderson.
The tents were peacefully re-erected and just as peacefully removed by the protestors themselves, bringing to an end this powerfully visual expression of frustration over the government's failure to recognise and act on the call to legislate for an Aboriginal right to land.
Ministers Hunt and Howson agreed to talk to the protesters, but Chicka Dixon, Paul Coe and Robert McLeod did not believe the offer was sincere.
Images of police violence against young women and men were on the front pages of the daily newspapers as well as on the evening television news.
People were outraged at the government's inept and disdainful handling of the affair. Hundreds wrote to Prime Minister McMahon telling him of their voting intentions in the coming election.
This was not the end of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Aboriginal activists questioned the legality of the ordinance which allowed the police to tear the tents down. Justice Blackburn found that the ordinance had not been notified according to the provisions of the Act.
Both Houses of Parliament debated the government's clumsy handling of the Aboriginal Embassy and a former government minister, Jim Killen, crossed the floor to vote with the Opposition over the re-gazettal of the ordinance. The tents were again erected and removed by the protesters themselves, for the fourth time.
Unlike earlier campaigns, the Tent Embassy campaign was initiated and carried forward by Indigenous activists themselves. For Shirley (Mum Shirl) Smith, it was the beginning of a 'whole new road ... learning about politics'. She was not alone.
Advertisement authorised by TR Maudsley, Vice President, Building Workers' Industrial Union, The Australian, 14 July 1972.
Shirley Smith, with Colleen Shirley Perry, Mum Shirl: An Autobiography, 2nd ed., Heinemann Educational Australia, Port Melbourne, 1992.
The lawns opposite what is now Old Parliament House have become an ongoing site for protests at the failure of government policy regarding Indigenous Australians. Embassy tents have stood on this land at different times since 1972.
They create a discomforting visual presence which reminds governments and people, from Australia and elsewhere, of a continuing Indigenous underclass with more health problems, less education and a much shorter life span than other Australians.
The way in which the image of the tents suggests the poverty of Aboriginal Australia contrasts with the idea of an embassy that has the power to represent a group to another government. The resulting symbol is one which highlights Indigenous people's dispossession and lack of representation in their own land.