Unity should re­place a 45-year-old protest

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - NEWS -

DUR­ING my time in Can­berra, I used to drive past the place called the Abo­rig­i­nal Tent Em­bassy most days as I headed up the hill to work.

Then and now it con­sists of sheds made from cor­ru­gated tin, aban­doned shipping con­tain­ers, tents, po­lit­i­cal ban­ners, fires in 44 gal­lon drums and rub­bish. It oc­cu­pies a lawn area in a di­rect line of sight that stretches from the Aus­tralian War Me­mo­rial in the north, across the lake, to Old Par­lia­ment House and end­ing at the cur­rent fed­eral par­lia­ment.

Es­tab­lished in 1972 to high­light the land rights cause, the laws have changed yet the tip that this po­lit­i­cal state­ment has now be­come still ex­ists and this week ac­tivists ex­tended their claim to the re­cently va­cated Lobby Restau­rant nearby.

This lat­est cam­paign by pro­fes­sional in­dige­nous ac­tivists and the left-wing flot­sam and jet­sam of as­sorted other causes does noth­ing to ease Abo­rig­i­nal dis­ad­van­tage. This crowd are not the peo­ple who do the hard yards in re­mote com­mu­ni­ties try­ing to get kids to school or patch up the lives ru­ined by do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. I can’t ever re­call them walk­ing up the hill to see the Prime Min­is­ter to talk about a way for­ward on al­co­holism in in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties or the cre­ation of jobs.

No, their stock in trade is empty protest and to see the kid glove treat­ment of “ne­go­ti­a­tion” this week, rather than im­me­di­ate evic­tion from the Lobby, is just the lat­est ex­am­ple of where Can­berra bu­reau­crats have got it wrong on in­dige­nous is­sues.

The Aus­tralian Par­lia­ment has more in­dige­nous mem­bers and sen­a­tors than any time in our his­tory. None are there on a quota; all have won their seat stand­ing against all com­ers in a demo­cratic race that’s fair­ness it­self. We should cel­e­brate their con­tri­bu­tion not just as black­fel­las mak­ing laws for black­fel­las but as black­fel­las mak­ing laws for all of us. Isn’t this a great ex­am­ple of Aus­tralia’s progress, 50 years on from the ref­er­en­dum that changed the law to recog­nise in­dige­nous Aus­tralians?

I don’t shy away from the fact that Bri­tish set­tle­ment dis­pos­sessed the orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants, and that many laws from that time and be­yond in­creased their dis­lo­ca­tion, and caused suf­fer­ing, fam­ily break­down and eco­nomic hard­ship.

My English-Ir­ish an­ces­tors also suf­fered dis­pos­ses­sion. Be­fore ac­tivists get hys­ter­i­cal, I am not claim­ing cul­tural equiv­a­lency but we can all go back to past gen­er­a­tions and find wrongs com­mit­ted.

When peo­ple talk about the stolen gen­er­a­tions for ex­am­ple, I al­ways re­mem­ber the women who suf­fered un­der forced adop­tion prac­tices in this coun­try and see a sim­i­lar pain that ex­tends be­yond skin colour.

Ac­knowl­edg­ing the past doesn’t mean we should be end­lessly apol­o­gis­ing for mod­ern Aus­tralia; or, out of mis­placed guilt, al­low­ing Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple to take lib­er­ties that wouldn’t be ex­tended to oth­ers, like of­fi­cials turn­ing a blind eye to a shanty-style eye­sore in our na­tion’s cap­i­tal or el­ders break­ing into a build­ing and ba­si­cally squat­ting.

This is not the first time Abo­rig­i­nal ac­tivists have mo­bilised against the Lobby restau­rant. On Aus­tralia Day 2012, about 100 pro­test­ers from em­bassy tried to break into the build­ing while then prime min­is­ter Ju­lia Gil­lard and then op­po­si­tion leader Tony Ab­bott were in­side pre­sent­ing emer­gency ser­vices medals. The trou­ble was di­rected against Ab­bott for al­legedly want­ing to shut the em­bassy down on its 40th an­niver­sary. Only that’s not what he’d said. A Gil­lard staffer had fed the ri­ot­ers a dis­torted ver­sion so protests against Ab­bott might lead Aus­tralia Day news bul­letins.

Back then, the po­lice re­sponse was ro­bust. It’s a pity the same can’t be said now. Ac­cord­ing to the Lobby squat­ters, it’s not their oc­cu­pa­tion that’s il­le­gal; the real tres­passers are the peo­ple who came onto Abo­rig­i­nal land in the first place.

We can see where this ar­gu­ment is lead­ing. Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple should be able to help them­selves to what­ever they want be­cause it’s re­ally all theirs any­way. No one can justly ac­cuse mod­ern Aus­tralia of not car­ing about Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple. If any­thing, it’s a form of re­verse racism that’s harm­ing Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple today: the “tyranny of low ex­pec­ta­tions”, as Noel Pear­son calls it, where young­sters are not ex­pected to go to school and adults are not ex­pected to go to work be­cause what’s right for ev­ery­one else is some­how wrong for them.

You want to read a real story of the hu­man spirit over­com­ing in­dige­nous dis­ad­van­tage? Buy War­ren Mun­dine’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy and in it you will see a way for­ward that’s about a shared re­spon­si­bil­ity for our fu­ture, rather than the end­less re­open­ing of old wounds.

In­dige­nous and non-in­dige­nous, we’re all Aus­tralians now and we all have to obey Aus­tralian law.


The peo­ple of Aus­tralia who showed they did want their say on the is­sue of same-sex mar­riage with a nearly 80 per cent re­sponse to the sur­vey. The re­sult will be re­leased at 10am on Wed­nes­day.


The Mickey Mouse show and tell, rather than a proper in­de­pen­dent au­dit, won’t solve the cit­i­zen­ship mess. In­stead it only fur­ther drags down the rep­u­ta­tion of politi­cians af­ter a bleak 10 years of fac­tional in­fight­ing, chang­ing PMs and self-in­ter­est.

Gough Whit­lam

talks to pro­test­ers at the Abo­rig­i­nal Tent Em­bassy in the early


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