The National Riot Mismanagement Squad

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It hasn’t taken long for the myth of the "violent" tent embassy protest to take hold.

It was a relatively minor protest that took place on Australia Day outside Canberra restaurant, The Lobby, near Parliament House. Even so, the dramatic television pictures and the syntax of nearly every journalist subsequently covering the incident, have worked to establish a false consensus that the events outside The Lobby, were "violent" and a "riot".

Christian Kerr’s feature in The Australian on the events leading up to and following The Lobby protest is an excellent example. His article begins with the following paragraph, which uses a variation of the word "violence" twice:

"Australia Day this year was marred by violence and clouded by intrigue that has cost Julia Gillard one of her staff, threatens others and has created a violent and unwanted distraction at the start of the political year."

Elsewhere in The Australian, an article is headlined "Riot won’t affect constitutional reform to recognise indigenous, says Pat Dodson". This is despite the fact that Dodson didn’t use the word "riot", and that he offered a nuanced defence of the actions of protesters on Australia Day, arguing that while he condemns "bad manners and unnecessarily aggressive behaviour," he also "will always defend people’s rights to assert their political position and try to look to the heart of why people feel so oppressed that they feel violent confrontation is the only recourse."

As we argued here on Friday, it’s far from obvious that the events of Australia Day really were violent in the first place. There were no arrests on the day. There still haven’t been any charges laid, and it now looks as though there won’t be. Nor have any injuries been reported by any guests at The Lobby. The Lobby itself does not appear to have sustained any obvious damage, at least as far as we can ascertain. New Matilda contacted The Lobby today and asked them if any damage occurred during the events on Australia Day. We were told they won’t be commenting on that.

Is a protest in which no-one was arrested, no-one was injured and no property was damaged really a "riot"?

New Matilda spoke to National Indigenous Times reporter Gerry Georgatos this morning, who was at The Lobby restaurant protest. (He can be clearly identified in some of the video footage wearing a red NIT T-shirt.)

Georgatos says that the protest was emotional, but non-violent. "There was no riot, there was no violence, there was chanting, there was some outrage." Georgatos describes the now-notorious "banging" on the glass of the restaurant as "more like tapping".

"The glass was never going to be broken", he argues. In fact, he says that the Australia Day medals ceremony had already concluded by the time the protesters arrived. "The ceremony wasn’t even interrupted," he said. Georgatos saw the detachment of security staff exit the restaurant in flying wedge formation, dragging the Prime Minister with them. He confirms the widely reported observation that there were in fact only a couple of protesters outside that door. "The Prime Minister could have simply walked out," he tells us. The footage of the police frantically waving their hands and yelling "get back" was in fact evidence of their over-reaction, as the only people in front of the exiting column were media and Michael Anderson himself. "The flying wedge was waving their hands at no-one," he said.

Further, the only violence that actually occurred was directed at protesters, by police and security staff. "A lady got smacked in the face, she did nothing, one hot-headed police officer had to be pulled in and removed by his own superior," Georgatos said.

The National Indigenous Times will be carrying a major story about the Australia Day events tomorrow, in which it will reveal, via a "reliable source" inside the Gillard Government, that "Julia Gillard knew" about the decision to tell tent embassy protesters about Tony Abbott’s comments, and to encourage them to come down to The Lobby to protest. "It was a confrontation that was generated by the minders," Georgatos claims.

The role of the Prime Minister’s office in the events that transpired on Australia Day certainly merits interest, if only for the disquieting spectacle it presents of media mismanagement. One Gillard staffer, Tony Hodges, has already resigned over the affair.

Hodges, apparently without the knowledge of his superiors in Gillard’s office, rang a number of Labor allies in the wake of Tony Abbott’s comments about the tent embassy in a doorstop interview on Australia Day morning. One of the people he rang was Unions ACT Secretary Kim Sattler. The most plausible explanation for what then occurred is that Sattler told tent embassy protest leader Barbara Shaw about Abbott’s remarks and let her know that Abbott would be at The Lobby that afternoon.**

Sattler has changed her story on exactly where she sat in the chain of communication that lead to the tent embassy protesters being called, but it seems fairly clear that she was the link to Shaw and the other protesters.

Like a lot of matters that interest the Canberra press gallery, this is an issue that ordinary punters won’t be overly concerned about. Was there a cover up? Did the Prime Minister know? It’s a matter of largely insider interest. We know that the Prime Minister’s office played at least some role in the Australia Day events.

The political problem for Julia Gillard is all too familiar. Labor has got the optics wrong, again. Having the Prime Minster dragged away by security staff is not a particularly good look. Neither is having staffers tip off protesters about the location of the Opposition Leader, so they can protest against him. As happens so often when politicians and their staffers attempt to get clever in the way they manage public affairs, the attempt has blown up in the Government’s face.

And, as usual with this government, the damage is mainly self-inflicted.

The Government didn’t need to politicise an Australia Day ceremony in an attempt to embarrass Tony Abbott. It’s not as though this government’s record on Indigenous affairs is that great. This is the Labor government that continues to implement income management in remote Indigenous communities, remember, in contradiction to the advice it received from its own inquiry on the issue. If the Government wanted to attack Tony Abbott for the comments he made about the tent embassy, it could have done so in the normal way: by making a statement, or issuing a media release.

On the other hand, the reaction by the Opposition has been just as silly. The Coalition’s George Brandis has written to the Australian Federal Police demanding an investigation over the matter. They also plan to move a motion of no-confidence when Parliament returns. Both are essentially short-term ad opportunistic tactics aimed at harassing the Government and keeping the negative media coverage up, rather than addressing any of the core issues at the heart of the tent embassy protests.

And that’s the real tragedy of the events outside The Lobby on Australia Day. Instead of focussing public debate on the substantive issues of Indigenous disadvantage and the dismal history of dispossession that has marked Australian history — events which began with the arrival of the British on 26 January 1788, but which continued well into recent living memory — the debate has descended into an maze of meaningless tactical tit-for-tat.

It’s an indication of how our political system, and the media that covers it, continually fail to grasp the bigger picture when it comes to the issues that confront our nation.

**CORRECTION: This article originally implied that Tony Hodges rang Kim Sattler "with the knowledge of at least some of his superiors" in Julia Gillard’s office, citing as evidence the National Indigenous Times article appearing today. The Prime Minister’s office continues to maintain that Hodges acted alone without the knowledge of other staff. The article also stated that Sattler "rang" Barbara Show, when in fact she told Shaw in person.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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