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The Aboriginal Tent Embassy: relevant, or un-Australian?



From the moment of its first official recognition in 1808 as the anniversary of the “possession of New South Wales”, 26 January has been a controversial date. It wasn’t known as Australia Day until 1946, when all states and territories agreed that 26 January should be deemed a national holiday. (Australia only became a nation in 1901. ‘Advance Australia Fair’ wasn’t declared our national anthem until 1984. Prior to that, it was ‘God Save the Queen’.)

The Tent Embassy was founded on the lawns of Parliament House on Australia Day in 1972 by a group that a Victorian Government website has termed “radical Aborigines”. They were angry that the government had rejected their claims to land rights and had decided to make a stand in full view of the Prime Minister and his cabinet. In Australia’s centennial year, 1988, the term Invasion Day was coined as an alternative title for the national holiday. It’s still in use today.

Given the turbulent history of Australia Day and the mixed emotions that its premise stirs in people, it comes as no surprise that 2012 has seen yet more controversy. It was bad enough that our Prime Minister was forced to flee a Canberra restaurant in the arms of her security detail. What’s worse, though, is that these images were beamed around the world. Our reputation for being a nation with a moderate level of intolerance is already soundly established, thanks to our refugee policies, treatment of foreign students, and Cronulla, to name a few. We certainly don’t need any more publicity in this arena. But get it we did, in the form of insensitive comments from Tony Abbott, a right-wing politician with a penchant for sticking his foot in it, and the subsequent ‘riotous’ backlash from the group he infuriated.

As a result, our PM had to be whisked away by her bodyguards. The target of the protesters’ wrath, Tony Abbott, was also swept up by the PM’s entourage and carried to safety.

The incident on Australia Day has been portrayed in the media as a demonstration instigated by the Tent Embassy, and the protesters’ furore as being representative of the position of the broader Indigenous community. Many prominent Indigenous Australians have been quick to condemn the actions of protesters, and have asserted that the issues raised by the Tent Embassy’s founders are now firmly on the national agenda.

The protesters behaved inappropriately, but their response was not wholly unexpected. Earlier that day, Tony Abbott tentatively suggested that the country “move on” from the founding ideas of the Tent Embassy – that is, Aboriginal people’s right to own and be granted access to land that was taken from them.

Abbott’s words were misconstrued as a desire to tear down the Embassy, which he later stated was not his intention.

Nevertheless, implying that a structure of potent symbolic significance is now redundant is insulting to those who consider it sacred. But that’s not all. Comments of this nature can have far greater ramifications than we realise. The Tent Embassy is clearly important to many people, as it has been occupied and maintained for 40 years. The desire to belong to something – a family, a culture, a group, a nation – is fundamental to human nature. We all need reminders of our roots, things we can see and touch, things that will remain real and true for our whole lives, despite how much we ourselves change.

This is how places like the Tent Embassy become integral to a person’s identity. It also explains why many fight for its survival, even if it’s the reputation, and not the walls themselves, that’s under threat. Because in some ways, a reputation destroyed can have a more devastating effect than a demolished building.

People often forget how vital the bond is between identity, history and place. We all need to feel connected in some way, but we can’t always comprehend the reasons behind other people’s attachments. Perhaps this is why – at least in this case – the difference of opinion has been so expansive. And so explosive.

(Rarely does anyone dare suggest we “move on” from Gallipoli because that implies we should also do away with the ‘ANZAC spirit’, a concept deeply ingrained into the very fabric of the culture, history, heritage and identity of many Australians. The ‘ANZAC spirit’ is intangible, but that doesn’t make it any less real to those who feel a connection with its origins and who cherish its significance.)

Unfortunately, Tony Abbott’s profound ignorance and exquisitely bad sense of timing is replicated throughout Australian politics, extending well beyond the barriers of the right-wing parties. If the Tent Embassy was no longer relevant, Australia would have equal standards of healthcare, education and infrastructure readily available for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. We’d have school textbooks with a balanced view of history, containing a variety of genuine Indigenous perspectives, and not simply tokenistic white imaginings of the Aboriginal experience. The Australian constitution would not ignore the original owners of this land, and our laws upholding traditional land claims of the original owners’ descendants would be strengthened. National legislation would not only safeguard spiritually significant sites and cultural artefacts from destructive processes like mining, but would also deliver stricter consequences for unethical practice and non-compliance.

And if the Tent Embassy was no longer relevant, ignorant politicians would have no need to make such silly comments – because they would no longer be ignorant.

Australia has made substantial improvements in the last 40 years; however, many issues that caused the Tent Embassy to be established are still unresolved. Until those seeking resolution are satisfied, the Tent Embassy will continue to be relevant.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Indigo Spider permalink
    29.01.2012 2:24 PM

    Sounds similar to the Native American Indians here in America. Unfortunately, they are even more alienated and now relegated to nothing more than “casino owners”, with no voice or even symbolic Tent Embassy to embarrass our insensitive politicians. Seems American and Australian politicians are from the same mold.

    • 29.01.2012 6:59 PM

      Yes, we both have some embarrassing politicians, don’t we? It’s a pity we don’t have ostracism laws like the ancient Greeks – if Athens didn’t like a politician, they’d be sent into exile for a year or two. Perhaps we could maroon ours on a remote island. I suggest Antarctica.

      Thanks for your comment, Indigo Spider.

      • Indigo Spider permalink
        30.01.2012 2:50 AM

        I partially agree with the marooning but if we stick them on Antarctica they would truly destroy our polar ice caps within weeks since, here in the US at least, our idiot politicians don’t even believe in environmental issues! They’d still be destroying out lives… perhaps the Roman Coliseums for them?

      • 30.01.2012 5:35 PM

        Haha! Excellent suggestion. Perhaps we can send a few interesting animals in there as well, just to keep the pollies on their toes.

  2. 29.01.2012 11:05 PM

    I love posts that inform AND entertain! Good work.

  3. Kanerva permalink
    30.01.2012 4:54 AM

    Australia has moved on, just not that much or that far. Tony Abbott is a classic case of one who speaks before thinking. What’s the saying about engaging the brain first?

    More distressing for me was to open my morning paper and see the flag being burnt.

    Roll on the day when Australia is a) a republic; b) acknowledges and honours our indigineous population and c) stand united under a common flag.

    • 30.01.2012 8:05 AM

      That will indeed be a great day. I suspect we are still a long way from all three of those goals, but we’re slowly making progress in the right direction (with things like Tony Abbott’s comments dragging us back a few steps every now and again).

      I remember being incredibly frustrated with the timing of the republic referendum in 1999. I was just shy of being 18 and so was ineligible to vote. Not that a lone vote would’ve changed the course of history, but how disappointing was that outcome!

      Thanks for stopping by, Kanerva.


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