February 4, 2022

Indigenous rights

Why hasn’t the government recognised the Aboriginal Tent Embassy?

By Russell Marks
Image of the first day of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, outside Parliament House, Canberra, on January 27, 1972. Left to right: Billy Craigie, Bert Williams, Michael Anderson and Tony Coorey. Image courtesy The Tribune / SEARCH Foundation.

First day of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy outside Parliament House, Canberra, on January 27, 1972. Left to right: Billy Craigie, Bert Williams, Michael Anderson and Tony Coorey. Image courtesy The Tribune / SEARCH Foundation.

The decades-long protest is a symbol of Aboriginal sovereignty, which has been vigorously resisted by the Australian government

Aboriginal people had been making increasing noise during the years leading up to 1972. The minister for the Interior, the Nationals’ Ralph Hunt, had been nine years old when the Day of Mourning protest in 1938 cast a shadow over Sydney’s party for the 150th anniversary of Arthur Phillip’s landing at Port Jackson. (Local Aboriginal organisations had refused to participate in the re-enactment of the First Fleet’s arrival, so the government kidnapped a group of Aboriginal men from a western New South Wales reserve and kept them in the Redfern police stables overnight, so that they could run up and down the beach at Farm Cove pretending to be afraid of the tall ships.) Since then, there’d been petitions on bark, a series of strikes and – most audaciously of all – a pioneering court case brought by Yolngu people at Yirrkala in protest of a bauxite mine the government wanted built nearby. Like the striking Gurindji stockmen, the Yolngu wanted land rights: they argued that hidden inside Australian law was a form of “native title”. The plaintiffs lost – the mine was built (and is still there) and native title took another two decades to emerge – but the ground was shifting.

On Australia Day in 1972, Billy McMahon was pleased to offer every assistance he could to ameliorate disadvantage and to encourage the civic participation of the Indigenous population. But he baulked at recognising Aboriginal rights to their lands, instead offering a new form of lease for existing reserves. Consistent with prevailing government policy, he wanted Aboriginal people to assimilate.

For some time, a growing number of First Nations men and women who had drifted into Redfern had been educating themselves about black and anti-colonial struggles in other parts of the world – and learning from older activists in Sydney. There was frequent talk about protest tactics. McMahon’s Australia Day speech provided the spark. Kevin Gilbert approached the Communist Party for funding, and gathered Michael Anderson, Tony Coorey, Billy Craigie and Bertie Williams. They left Sydney in a car driven by Tribune photographer Noel Hazzard with a CPA-supplied umbrella and materials for placards. Their plan was to camp outside Parliament House. Coorey suggested they call themselves ambassadors. They arrived in Canberra while it was still dark, and set up the umbrella and a sign: “Aboriginal Embassy”.

What were they doing? asked Commonwealth police. “We’re having a protest,” the ambassadors replied. They’d stay until they won land rights. “That could be forever,” said the officers, but they let them stay. The Embassy made the news in the morning. “As soon as they start tearing up Arnhem Land,” Anderson told the press in reference to the bauxite mine, “we’re going to start tearing up bits of Australia … The land was taken from us by force … We shouldn’t have to lease it.” On February 6, the Embassy issued a list of demands: statehood for the Northern Territory, Aboriginal land ownership including mineral rights, preservation of sacred sites and compensation. These weren’t new demands. First Nations activists had been demanding them for most of the century. On the lawns, the ambassadors assigned themselves portfolios (Chicka Dixon was defence minister, Anderson high commissioner) and eventually they flew Harold Thomas’s Aboriginal flag, first flown at Victoria Square/Tarntanyangga in Adelaide the previous July.

As others came and pitched tents and planted placards, Ralph Hunt assured his fellow elected representatives that the protestors were peaceful, orderly and cooperative. (They’d even offered to mow the lawn.) Meanwhile he ordered round-the-clock police surveillance and got to work on a way of evicting them. He waited until the cover of the winter recess to amend the Trespass on Commonwealth Lands Ordinance. Suddenly it became illegal to either camp (whether under cover or in the open), or erect or occupy a structure (including a tent, booth, stall or broken-down car), on Commonwealth land in Canberra. “We will decide who comes to this capital and the circumstances in which they come,” Hunt might have said. Instead he emphasised the need to “ensure that Parliament Place is reserved for its purpose”. It was the Cold War, so he issued a Red Scare. He worried that communists were using Aboriginal people in their nefarious plans for “a mass anti-racist movement attacking apartheid and racial discrimination in both South Africa and Australia”. On July 17 police tore down the tents and made three arrests for breaching the ordinance. Three days later, 200 police temporarily prevented the ambassadors from rebuilding.

Yet, 50 years later, the Tent Embassy continues. Why did a group of campers provoke legislative changes and an army of evictors? It has never been formally recognised, yet so powerful was the Tent Embassy, apparently, that the government had to retreat up and under the hill into a new Parliament, which opened – with a visit from the Queen – on the second centenary of invasion.


If there’s a single strand that runs through settler authorities’ dealings with First Nations people since the beginning, it is the stubborn insistence by settlers that there is only “one people” on the continent. First Nations people were, mysteriously and automatically, British subjects, albeit ones who couldn’t sue, give evidence in court, or expect protection from murder or massacre. In the 20th century they became citizens, albeit often with no right to vote or freedoms to choose where they lived or worked, or whom they married. For Billy McMahon, the 1967 referendum was when “the Australian people recognised Aborigines as members of one Australian society”. For John Howard, Australians were “one people, one destiny” at Federation and continued to be a century later.

Australia’s denial of the sovereign status of the people and nations already here when the British arrived is unique among Britain’s former settler-colonies. In the United States, Canada and New Zealand there were treaties. Not so here. Largely on the say-so of Joseph Banks, Arthur Phillip assumed that the Indigenous Australians were at such an early stage of human development they’d be unable to consent to treaties. When the first colonists observed that to be patently untrue, they pressed on regardless.

The logic of Australia’s “settlement” has long since collapsed. For “settled” to be the right word in British and international law – even at the time – the continent had to be empty, conquered or ceded. Empirically it was none of these. No matter. Governments, courts and the Colonial Office kept things theoretical when they could, and magicked away the rest. Wars fought here were never declared, so they didn’t happen. In 1836, lawyer Sydney Stephen saw the situation clearly. The Australian continent “had a population having manners and customs of their own, and we had come to reside among them,” he told New South Wales’s chief justice. “Therefore, in point of strictness and analogy to our law, we were bound to obey their laws, not they to obey ours.” By 1889, the Privy Council simply endorsed the fiction – without considering any evidence – that the Australian continent was “practically unoccupied, without settled inhabitants or settled law, at the time when it was peacefully annexed to the British dominions”. It was and remains nonsense. To avoid making a decision that reflects the reality of what happened here, courts now simply decline to do so.

The last 60 years have seen gradual, yet insistent, shifts in settler Australia’s willingness to recognise First Nations claims. The easiest claims for governments to recognise, and therefore the first to occur, were those to equal citizenship. Then came limited forms of land rights from 1976, and native title from 1992 and 1993. But claims to sovereignty, despite their unassailable legal, moral and historical logic, have always been vigorously resisted.

The latest such resistance is the Morrison government’s decision to spend public funds asking the High Court to overturn its two-year-old decision in Love & Thoms v. Australia. In that case, a 4–3 majority decided that First Nations people who had been born overseas can’t be “aliens” under the Constitution and, as a consequence, can’t be deported after they’ve served sentences for crimes. If Australians are all “one people” and Aboriginal people merely one ethnicity among many, then Love & Thoms makes no sense. Yet if First Nations people do have an ongoing spiritual or cultural connection with the land and waters, then to describe them as “aliens” who belong elsewhere would be nonsensical. This is what the majority decided in February 2020. Now two of those judges have retired, and Morrison is having another bite at the cherry.


There is no greater symbolic representation of modern Australia than the contrast between the makeshift Embassy, insistent and unmoved, in the shadow of the heavily fortified Parliament House on Capital Hill. Strength, as it turns out, is not in fortified concrete and falsified history. It’s in commitment and truth, however shabbily clad.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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