Tent Embassy

Room 108

Tent Embassy

Aboriginal tent embassy officials arrive at the embassy after it had be re-erected on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra, where over 1,000 Aborigines and their supporters demonstrated for Aboriginal land rights, 30 July 1972.


SMH Picture by GREEN

Photo courtesy of Fairfax Syndication [Unique identifier: FXJ222250]

Canberra - 30 July 1972: Ghillar Michael Anderson and Cheryl Buchanan are saluted by Tent Embassy demonstrators as they return to the re-established Embassy on the lawns of Parliament House, after it was dismantled by federal police amidst demonstrations for land rights.

This image shows Ghillar Michael Anderson and Cheryl Buchanan - members of the Tent Embassy diplomatic staff - returning to the Tent Embassy on 30 July 1972. Supporters can be seen saluting and celebrating the ambassadors’ return to the rebuilt Embassy after it was forcibly evicted and dismantled by federal police. The Tent Embassy celebrated its fortieth year in 2012; it continues to stand in front of Parliament and attest to the limitations of Australian laws and governments. The embassy demands a diplomatic engagement with First Nations jurisdictions, laws, lawmakers and citizenry that Australian legal institutions still do not understand as truly lawful and authoritative. Such an engagement would compel an internal negotiation of Crown sovereignty in Australia, which is both fraught and fragile.

The Tent Embassy was established under a beach umbrella on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra on 26 January 1972. On 25 January – the eve of the public holiday that commemorates the colonisation of Australia - the McMahon government announced that there were no policy changes at the conclusion of its land-rights debate. Instead, the government slated a scheme whereby Aboriginal groups could apply for leasehold over reserved land in the Northern Territory, in place of comprehensive property rights or access to freehold title. Prime Minister William McMahon proposed that First Nations groups could be facilitated in leasing back small areas of their country, on terms that precluded mineral exploration, forestry and other rights. This announcement and its timing prompted Michael Anderson, Billie Craigie, Tony Coorey and Bert Williams to leave Sydney on a diplomatic mission to the national capital, where they set up an Aboriginal Embassy on the Parliamentary lawns.

Many different people –  ncluding Charles Perkins and Kevin Gilbert – are credited with the original plot to erect a makeshift embassy in Canberra. It was well understood that a particular relation between coloniser and colonised is represented in the contrast between Parliamentary buildings and the canvas tents that constitute the embassy. Luritja man Harold Thomas created the Aboriginal flag in 1971; it was adopted as an icon of Aboriginal solidarity via the Tent Embassy, in keeping with a politic based in Aboriginal identity and Indigenous rights. There was a push for a uniform national landrights scheme, and talk of the embassy as representing an Aboriginal nation. Since that time, some directions and emphases in First Nations and decolonial politics in Australia have shifted. The advent and ambivalence of Native Title, and the work done by First Nations communities to reconnect members of the Stolen Generations with family and country have brought focus to languages, the many different Indigenous countries, and specific cultural identity. Hence, the forms of First Nations’ diplomatic and political engagement with the Australian State have changed. The symbolism of the embassy has grown since its institution and it has taken on new meanings, but it has always provoked and insisted on genuine and respectful engagement with Aboriginal systems of laws and governance.

In February 1972 – shortly after their arrival – the ambassadors presented the McMahon government with a list of diplomatic demands. In the ensuing months, the embassy grew – from one umbrella to a cluster of a dozen tents – and attracted a dynamic and articulate group of diplomatic staff, activists and supporters. The Federal Opposition Leader, Gough Whitlam visited to meet with the diplomatic staff, and subsequently wrote and spoke in measured support of their landrights campaign. The Tent Embassy became a hub for activist conversations and political meetings. Its members included those who acted at the centre of First Nations political and community movements through the second half of the twentieth century; many met and practiced new ideas and modes of political engagement at the embassy. Chicka Dixon, Mum Shirl Smith, Roberta Sykes, John Newfong, Tiga Bayles, Paul and Isabel Coe, Pearl Gibbs and Gary Foley worked with many others to establish and defend the embassy, and further its aims.

For the McMahon government, the embassy was an embarrassment on an international scale. The government attempted to move the diplomatic staff on through legal means and political inducements - including an offer to fund an ambassadorial ‘clubhouse’ in place of the Tent Embassy and in lieu of landrights. All such offers were refused. Having exhausted extant legal avenues for eviction, the government amended the Trespass on Commonwealth Lands Ordinance 1932-1966 (ACT) to ban camping, squatting and the erection of tents on the Parliamentary lawns. On 20 July 1972, by order of the government, 150 Australian Federal Police evicted the diplomatic staff and pro-landrights protestors, arrested eight people and removed the Tent Embassy by force. The violent eviction was followed by large-scale protests. The tent ambassadors and their supporters attempted to re-erect the embassy on 23 July, but it was again destroyed by law enforcement. On 30 July, the embassy was re-established, maintained for several hours against police opposition, and peaceably dismantled again by the ambassadors and their supporters.

In September 1972, the ACT Supreme Court ruled against the use of the Ordinance to authorise eviction of the Embassy, which was then re-erected and removed again by the diplomatic staff in symbolic enaction of their rights. Late in 1973, after the Whitlam government was elected (and persuaded to meet with embassy representatives,) the tents were pitched again. The embassy stood until 1976, when it was again dismantled following negotiations in response to the passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976 (Cth). This piece of legislation created a process for Aboriginal groups’ land claims over particular country in the Northern Territory, within particular parameters. Between 1976 and 1992, the embassy became peripatetic – it stood in various sites around Canberra, including the land surrounding new Parliament House (which opened in 1998.) In 1992 – the same year that the decision in Mabo & Ors v State of Queensland [No. 2] (1992) 175 CLR 1 was handed down – the Tent Embassy celebrated its twentieth anniversary and returned to its permanent site on the lawns of old Parliament House. In 1995, the Tent Embassy was listed on the Register of the National Estate by the Australian Heritage Commission.

The significance of the Tent Embassy endures. Despite the occasional political threat, it is recognised as an important political and historical place, and receives many visitors from around the world. Travellers are invited to place eucalypt leaves in the eternal fire and discuss the history of the site and the reasons why the embassy exists. Some of the founders and instigators and their families remain attached to the embassy, but since the 1970s many have moved to motivate other campaigns of political, cultural or diplomatic importance. Many have worked for First Nations’ rights, land justice and treaties in Australia. But the Tent Embassy remains and still reiterates its diplomatic demands. When Commonwealth and State governments are able to recognise that First Nations’ sovereignty remains potent and unceded, and treaties are negotiated with First Nations groups and signed – Australia’s domestic diplomatic relations will begin to change. Until then, the Tent Embassy will continue to pursue its aims of lawful justice and land justice for First Nations people.

Location of MLS Classroom Photo Murals

In lecture theatre 108 a large-scale mural of the Tent Embassy is installed. The image Aboriginal tent embassy officials arrive at the embassy after it had be re-erected on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra, where over 1,000 Aborigines and their supporters demonstrated for Aboriginal land rights, 30 July 1972 shows activists Ghillar Michael Anderson and Cheryl Buchanan - members of the Tent Embassy diplomatic staff - returning to the Tent Embassy on 30 July 1972. Supporters can be seen saluting and celebrating the ambassadors’ return to the rebuilt Embassy after it was forcibly evicted and dismantled by federal police. The Tent Embassy celebrated its fortieth year in 2012; it continues to stand in front of Parliament and attest to the limitations of Australian laws and governments. Image courtesy of Fairfax Media.