The Real Tent Embassy Story


I dropped by the tent embassy after work to see what it was like.

I fully intended to go to an Australia Day barbecue piss-up that had already been raging for eight hours but I was quickly transported by the wonderful events at the tents. The lawn in front of Old Parliament House had been transformed by an assortment of tents, marquees and people. A large marquee was serving delicious food and chai.

I gravitated towards the food tent with a work colleague, and then bumped into some other friends, and then other friends, as is typical in Canberra. We sat ourselves down on overlapping oriental rugs spread across the grass underneath a rainbow coloured circus shaped tent. A succession of bands played into the night on a stage, and when they stopped, people with own drums and guitars and didgeridoos took their place.

We watched the fireworks explode over Lake Burley Griffin for Australia Day and what with all the mirth, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine that the display was all for us, and that the whole town was celebrating the 40th anniversary of the founding of the tent embassy.

At the end of the night, close to 11pm, a phone receiver was put to the microphone on stage. Someone was reading the hot-off-the-press article on the day’s events published in the Herald Sun. David Penberthy’s words reverberated across the hushed audience, "… this illegal assortment of galvanised humpies… This was a new low in the four-decade history of this politically useless eyesore".

The crowd shook with anger and sadness and the cheerful atmosphere was transformed.

Siege and riot were the words used to describe the scuffle that interrupted what had previously been, and continued after to be, a peaceful and cheerful celebration. The usual small handful of nutters who made the scene go wild for the cameras projected Aboriginal Australia to the heart of Australia Day — but in the wrong way. Julia Gillard tripped in her high heels in the commotion and was seized by her security personnel. This generated into a series of snapshots of an enfeebled woman in the arms of protective service men.

The Prime Minister and Opposition leader went to the Lobby restaurant, near the tent embassy, for the National Emergency Medal ceremony. Journalists had asked Tony Abbott earlier that morning whether the tent embassy was still relevant. He had replied "I think the Indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian and yes, I think a lot has changed since then and I think it probably is time to move on from that".

Fred Hooper, chairman of the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations, summed up the outrage: "We were peacefully celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal tent embassy. The Opposition Leader on national television made a comment to tear down something that we have built over 40 years, which is sacred to us. So what do you expect us to do when we are 200 yards away from the person that makes that comment?"

They had no issue with the Prime Minister, Fred Hooper and Michael Andersen, co-founder of the tent embassy, later said. They were furious at that "foolish man", Tony Abbott.

Comments in the media abound that Abbott, while insensitive, was right to say that issues have changed, to say that we can move on. As we today commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day, will anyone ask or affirm that it is time to move on?

It is unfortunate that the 40th anniversary of the tent embassy was overshadowed by an outbreak of violence. It is unfortunate too that this cheerful celebration was only noted for the rage that was unleased by Tony Abbott’s comments. And it is unfortunate that on their way to the Lobby restaurant neither the Prime Minister nor the Opposition leader, nor the Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin took time to acknowledge the celebration.

The occasion didn’t necessarily need another speech, but a few warm words and handshakes and a bit of listening would have been gracious and prime ministerial — even if it wouldn’t have won any votes.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.