Timeline: Aboriginal Tent Embassy

Indigenous Sovereignty

As NAIDOC Week marks 40 years of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, our timeline looks back over the history of the protest.

The theme of this year's NAIDOC Week is the 'Spirit of the Tent Embassy: 40 years on'. Our timeline has the history of the protest, which has come to symbolise the campaign for equal rights for Indigenous Australians…

January 1972 - Four Aboriginal men - Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Bertie Williams and Tony Coorey - set up the Aboriginal Tent Embassy opposite the then Parliament House in Canberra overnight on Australia Day, 26th January 1972.

They put a beach umbrella in the ground as a symbolic first stake proclaiming Australia as Aboriginal land, in protest at the refusal of the Liberal William McMahon government to recognise Aboriginal land rights.

It had ruled that land could only be leased, and without any rights to mineral or forestry resources.

The four camped under the umbrella and the protest quickly grew to at least a dozen tents with up to 2,000 supporters at one point.

July 1972 - Police moved in after the government banned squatting on parliamentary lawns. They arrested eight people and removed the tents. An angry confrontation followed days later when activists tried to re-establish the embassy.

1973 – The tent embassy returned late in 1973 after Aboriginal protesters staged a sit-in to get a meeting with Gough Whitlam, who by then had become Labor Prime Minister.

Whitlam had been to the embassy as Opposition Leader and met with the protesters, changing his party's policy to promise that Aboriginal people would be allowed land rights.

This support started the process that eventually led to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

1976 – The Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1976 allowed people in the Northern Territory to claim the title to land if they could provide evidence of their traditional association with it, and as long as the land was not already owned or leased by someone else.

It also permitted the use of land for mining, but only in agreement with the title holders and with appropriate payments being channelled back to Aboriginal communities through land councils.

The introduction of the act led to the temporary suspension of the tent embassy next to the then Parliament House.

1976 to 1992 – The tent embassy protest continued temporarily at various sites in Canberra, including the site later used by the new Parliament House, but returned to its original setting on the 20th anniversary in 1992 and became a permanent site.

1992 – This year also saw the landmark Eddie Mabo case in Queensland, where the High Court formally recognised native title as part of Australian land law.

The decision overturned the doctrine that Australia was 'terra nullius' - a land belonging to no-one.

It led to the Native Title Act 1993 and the formation of the National Native Title Tribunal, which mediates over land claims and registers native titles.

1995 – The now permanent tent embassy was listed on the Register of the National Estate by the Australian Heritage Council.

The embassy had also become a tourist attraction, with visitors from around the world invited to place gum leaves on the ceremonial fire as a symbol of protection during their journeys in Australia.

1998 – The new Parliament House was officially opened by the Queen, a short distance away from the old Parliament House, but the tent embassy remained in place in front of the former parliament building.

2000 – Canberra's embassy has prompted similar protests elsewhere in Australia, including the establishment of a tent embassy at Victoria Park in Sydney in the Olympic year.

The embassy received an official visit from police chief Peter Ryan, who added to the peace fire in a symbolic ceremony.

Mid 2000s – During the middle of the decade, the Canberra tent embassy saw a number of attempts by the government to clear the makeshift site and replace it with a permanent building. The embassy also suffered a number of arson attacks.

2008 – Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered an historic formal apology to Australia's Indigenous people.

"We reflect on their past mistreatment, we reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were stolen generations - this blemished chapter in our national history”, he said in a speech to the House of Representatives.

"The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page… to deal with this unfinished business of the nation.”

January 2012 – The embassy celebrated its 40th anniversary with a three-day 'Corroboree for Sovereignty' with thousands of Indigenous Australians travelling to Canberra for the occasion.

But the celebrations were overshadowed by comments from Opposition Leader Tony Abbott that it was 'time to move on' from the tent embassy protest, as a lot had changed for the better since it was established.

About 200 protesters trapped him and Prime Minister Julia Gillard inside a restaurant at an Australia Day awards ceremony, prompting police to rescue them amid scuffles outside.

Also in January, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott welcomed an official report, which recommended Indigenous Australians be recognised in the body of the Australian constitution.

June 2012 – As NAIDOC Week also marks 40 years of the tent embassy, protesters say their fight is still far from over.

In an interview to mark the anniversary, the only surviving founder, Michael Anderson, tells SBS that while many things have changed, Aboriginal people are still being deceived over their land.

He says that having native title is not the same as land rights, and that Aboriginal people should be allowed to own the land fully and benefit from it in the same way as everyone else, without the need for government intervention.

He still firmly believes that his people should be allowed to take full sovereignty and control of their traditional communities, just as he and his co-founders first demanded 40 years ago.


Sources: AAP/SBS/NAIDOC/ABC News/Central Land Council/Northern Land Council/National Native Title Tribunal

Source: SBS

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch