On Australia Day in 1972, four Aboriginal men pitched a beach umbrella opposite Old Parliament House in Canberra. They were Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey and Bertie Williams.
In April of 1971 the Northern Territory Supreme Court decided against Aboriginal people in favour of a mining company to have access to Aboriginal land. The decision affirmed that Australian common law did not recognize Aboriginal land rights.
The Prime Minister, William McMahon, was expected to respond and make a speech on land rights in Australia. On the eve of Australia Day he did.
“The time for white domination of black people is over. It’s time for black people to do things for themselves and get things for themselves because it’s the only way they’re going to get it.”
Jack Waterford of the Canberra Times recalls, ‘Billy McMahon had delivered a widely awaited speech on land rights in Australia. And the speech said in effect, there aint gonna be any. So they set up under a beach umbrella right in front of Parliament House. It was covered in the local newspapers as a one off event. Diplomats came to look at it. Politicians came to have a look at it. It acquired a status of its own.”
The news of that day featured one of the embassy’s founders saying “the time for white domination of black people is over. It’s time for black people to do things for themselves and get things for themselves because it’s the only way they’re going to get it.”
“Very quickly it started to annoy the politicians,” says Jack. “There was one famous pollie who said really early ‘it looks like a blacks’ camp out there,’ and called for it to be removed as an eyesore. And of course it was supposed to look like a blacks’ camp, and it was supposed to be sitting there as a reproach to white Australia.
“Then a policeman came out and nicely asked that they remove it. And when the people said no, suddenly from behind Parliament House marched about 400 policemen in lines and they then surrounded the embassy and moved in.
“In front of all of the TV cameras, and with quite a lot of violence, the tent was pulled down. And [the embassy occupants] were in effect fighting for their lives to protect this tent, this symbol.
About fifty people went to hospital as a result of it. By then it had been on the front page of the London Times, The New York Times, all around the world. It was a national and an international embarrassment to Australia, and something that no politician could afford to be silent about anymore.”
The embassy has been a platform for people to have a voice. That voice hasn’t always been listened to."
The tents were re-rected, and the embassy has now survived for forty-two years.
Ruth Gilbert emphasizes its continued importance. “The embassy has been a platform for people to have a voice. That voice hasn’t always been listened to. We’ve got the highest rate of child imprisonment; we’ve got really high rates of deaths in custody. These issues aren’t going away.”
Aboriginal people from the Kimberely reigion suffer from the highest suicide rates in the world. Western Australia also has the world’s highest incarceration rates, with one out of thirteen indigenous men behind bars.
Lara Pullin of the Gundungarra tribe believes that the embassy still has work to do in bridging the gap between indigenous Australians and the rest of the country. “we’re having child removals at a higher rate than during the Stolen Generation and the Bringing Them Home report was written, it’s about fourteen times higher. We’ve got incarceration rates that are many times higher than they were even under South African apartheid.”
Other residents of the embassy share their stories. “I am Stolen Generation” says Jude Kelly. "Stolen Generation people over the past two hundred years have been moved, have been murdered, been prostituted, been coerced, and assimilated in to the system.
I’m here, and I’m not going away until business is done.”
I should be in Geralton living with my family. I feel sad to be here because I like my ocean. But I have to compromise to be here to stand up for what I believe is the right thing to do to change things. I’m here, and I’m not going away until business is done.”
Shane Mortmer, a Walgalu-Ngambri Allodial Elder, disputes the notion that indigenous Australians have come a long way since 1972.” Nothing has changed. Nothing has altered. The Aboriginal Embassy is a representative office for Aboriginal people from all over Australia, from all over this continent.”
“There’ll be one day, when its very poverty, its very ordinariness, its very reproachfulness, will be seen to have great dignity,” says Jack. “I think it’s a very special place.”
We have to find a new way forward, and it’s actually by having a real dialogue
Ruth Gilbert continues to fight for the welfare of indigenous Australians through the embassy. “We have to find a new way forward, and it’s actually by having a real dialogue, not just by using the power of the state against aboriginal people to legitimize Australian occupancy. It’s going to have to come from a much more profound place than that.”
Keischa pays tribute to her grandfather. “My grandfather had the courage to do what he did, to make this for us, the way we like it and the way we live. The future of this Aboriginal Tent Embassy is very important because my grandfather died trying to keep this up.”