Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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The Quest for Indigenous Recognition

1972 - The Aboriginal Tent Embassy
by Michael Anderson
Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Australia Day, 26 January 1972 (Anderson is the first on the left) (National Museum of Australia).

T he establishment of the Aboriginal Embassy from January 1972 was a direct protest to the Billy McMahon Federal coalition government’s policy on land with respect to Aboriginal rights to land and our interests.

I recall that on our way to Canberra a question was asked by Nick Hazzard, editor and photographer for the Tribune: what do you plan on doing when you get to Canberra?

The initial response from me was: ‘we are going to take up a position in a convenient place protesting against the land policy that was proposed by the government to lease land to Aborigines.’ That was the flicker of flame that caused us to adopt an attitude that this is war, but a war of a different kind. We didn’t have the numbers. We didn’t have the resources to mount a revolution; that happens in other places around the world.

The only tool that we had available was our bodies and our determination that leasing land to the true owners of Country was not acceptable, and so we had it in our mind that we were going to do a peaceful protest that witnessed our commitment to demonstrate our resolve to fight for our land.

And so, the ultimate decision was to squat on a convenient place. There were three options: get inside Parliament House and squat in the hall, take up a position on the steps, or find a convenient place visible to the parliament. At the end of the day, it became the location right under the nose of the King George statue directly opposite Parliament House, and thus the name given to the protest by Tony Koorie, the Aboriginal Embassy. As we were told by Mr Hazzard, it would be good to have a name for the protest. The squatting exercise was a symbol of how the invaders got our land. To this day I still find it hard to believe that alleged legal title can be given to people by squatting on the land and saying: ‘You may as well wander over there as opposed to here.’ When our people dared to challenge this land grab they were fired upon with rifles and other artillery, and so the Crown of England obtained a benefit by murdering the ancient owners. But the courts in this country continue to see no merit in examining the rights of the ancient owners to their stolen lands.

Sign used at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, 1972 (National Museum of Australia).
The Aboriginal Embassy also carried a second political claim of sovereignty—a sovereignty that was given to us by the Creators under Celestial Law on the basis that we were to observe these Laws forever and a day. By observing these Laws we are now known to hold the oldest living continuous culture on earth. The embassy was our commitment to saying: ‘NO! This is not your Country and never will be.’ The longevity of the Aboriginal Embassy’s presence now takes us into a third generation, and it will continue while the governments and courts on this country ignore the truth. Australian governments and the courts continue to put their heads in the sand in an attempt to hide from the reality of injustice. They have been doing this for more than two hundred years and they have not been able to lift their heads out of the sand. It must hurt to know that the sins of their fathers will always be there while ever our people are alive.

Instead of giving us beads and blanket offerings, deal with reality, get your head out of the sand, admit to the wrongs, and negotiate with the different First Nations an end to the misery, hopelessness, and despair.

The embassy sought this very end and only one group of politicians truly commenced a program of action to begin the process for each Nation to become self-determining, and an acceptable way for Aboriginal Peoples to gain land rights, and that was the late and former prime minister, Gough Whitlam, and his executive government. They didn’t promise, they started to make it happen, the reality of which ended when the conservative coalition government got back into power, and changed the policy back to self-management, not self-determination.

The question now is: is there a purpose for the Aboriginal Embassy to continue to have a presence? The answer is yes, more so now than in 1972.


left arrow 1970 - The Cook Bicentenary Protests
1972 - The Larrakia Petition right arrow