Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy - Canberra (Established 1972)

The 'Aboriginal Embassy' was set up as a Sovereign Embassy to represent First Nations and Peoples, outside Parliament House, Canberra in 1972 - It was later referred to throughout Australia as the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, but for the four people who established it, the embassy was always the Aboriginal Embassy - not the 'Tent Embassy'.


Aboriginal Embassy

On the 27 January 1972 at 1 a.m. four Aboriginal men (Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey and Bertie Williams) arrived in Canberra from Sydney to establish the Aboriginal Embassy by planting a beach umbrella on the lawn in front of Parliament House (now Old Parliament House).

The Embassy was established in response to the McMahon Coalition Government's refusal to recognise Aboriginal land rights. McMahon instead favoured a new general purpose lease for Aborigines which would be conditional upon their 'intention and ability to make reasonable economic and social use of land' and it would exclude all rights they had to mineral and forest rights.

The beach umbrella was soon replaced by several tents and Aboriginal people and non-indigenous supporters came from all parts of Australia to join the protest. During the first six months of its life in 1972 the Embassy succeeded in uniting Aboriginal people throughout Australia in demanding uniform national land rights and mobilised widespread non-indigenous support for their struggle.

Other people associated with the Embassy demonstration in 1972 include Paul Coe, Gary Foley, Chicka Dixon, Gary Williams, John Newfong, Sam Watson, Pearl Gibbs, Roberta Sykes, Alana Doolan, Cheryl Buchannan, Pat Eatock, Kevin Gilbert, Dennis Walker, Isobelle Coe, Shirley Smith.

In February 1972 the Aboriginal Tent Embassy presented a list of demands to Parliament:

  • Control of the Northern Territory as a State within the Commonwealth of Australia; the parliament in the Northern Territory to be predominantly Aboriginal with title and mining rights to all land within the Territory.
  • Legal title and mining rights to all other presently existing reserve lands and settlements throughout Australia.
  • The preservation of all sacred sites throughout Australia.
  • Legal title and mining rights to areas in and around all Australian capital cities.
  • Compensation money for lands not returnable to take the form of a down-payment of six billion dollars and an annual percentage of the gross national income.

The demands were rejected, and in July 1972, following an amendment to the relevant ordinance, police moved in, removed the tents and arrested eight people.

In October 1973, around 70 Aboriginal protesters staged a sit-in on the steps of Parliament House and the Tent Embassy was re-established. The sit-in ended when Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam agreed to meet with protesters.

In May 1974 the embassy was destroyed in a storm but was re-established in October.

In February 1975 Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins negotiated the "temporary" removal of the embassy with the Government, pending Government action on land rights. The Fraser Government subsequently enacted the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in 1976, after its drafting by the Whitlam Labor Government in 1975.[citation needed]

In March 1976, the Aboriginal Embassy was established in a house in the nearby Canberra suburb of Red Hill, however this closed in 1977.

For a short period in 1979, the embassy was re-established as the "National Aboriginal Government" on Capital Hill, site of the proposed new Parliament House.

20th Anniverary
On the twentieth anniversary of its founding, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was re-established on the lawns of Old Parliament House. Despite being a continual source of controversy and many calls for its removal, it has existed on the site since that time.[citation needed]

As well as political pressure, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy has also been under attack from criminal elements, having been fire bombed on a number of occasions.

In 1995 the site of the Tent Embassy was added to the Australian Register of the National Estate as the only Aboriginal site in Australia that is recognised nationally as a site representing political struggle for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
When the 2000 Olympic Games came to Sydney, Aborigines set up a second Tent Embassy on the Olympic grounds.

A tent embassy has also operated intermittently in Victoria Park, Sydney in recent years.

A symbol at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy is the Sacred Fire which represents peace, justice and sovereignty. The Sacred Fire is said to have been kept alight since 1998.

There have been a number of suspicious fires at the site, with the most devastating being the loss of 31 years of records when the container burnt down in June 2003.

40th Anniverary
On 26 January 2012 Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott were attending an event at the Lobby Restaurant when the site was surrounded by protesters who had arrived from the nearby Tent Embassy.

The protesters were angry at comments Abbott had supposedly made in an ABC interview that morning. Gillard and Abbott were hastily escorted from the restaurant under the protection of police officers and during the scramble Gillard lost her shoe, which was collected by protesters.

Source: Wikipedia

See: 2012 Tent Embassy - fact v fiction by Chris Graham