The Aboriginal Tent Embassy Is Still Fighting for Justice

Fifty years ago today, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established in Canberra. It successfully pushed Australia’s government to establish indigenous land rights in the 1970s and helped create a model for militant action in indigenous rights struggles today.

Protesters gather for a march at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 2019. (Edgar Crook / Flickr)

On the evening of January 26, 1972, a car of four young men set out for Canberra from Sydney’s inner-city suburb of Redfern. The group considered themselves ambassadors, delegates from a broader collective of radical Aboriginal activists who had been gathering and organizing in the community — and on this occasion, listening to the Australia Day statement just delivered by then conservative coalition prime minister William McMahon.

They arrived in the capital with a statement of their own. Pitching a beach umbrella in the dawn on the lawn outside the Federal Parliament House, they put up a sign with the words “Aboriginal Embassy.” When the group was approached the next morning by the Commonwealth police about their purpose there, their response was, “We’re having a protest.” The protest, they went on to explain, would continue until the government granted land rights to Aboriginal people. “That could be forever,” one police officer remarked.

Today an assembly of tents remains encamped under the same name and at the same site outside the now Old Parliament House in what has become heritage-listed as the world’s longest-standing protest. Despite multiple counts of forced dismantling and relocation, the embassy remains as a visible emblem of resistance.

Reflecting on the longevity of what he and his comrades began decades earlier, Michael Anderson, the only surviving member of the four protesters and a Euahlayi elder from Goodooga, northwest New South Wales, described the Tent Embassy as “a testament to our determination to fight against all odds and the tyranny of the majority to gain that which is ours.” Another of the embassy’s key early members, the activist and historian Gary Foley, who joined the embassy camp days after its establishment, has called it the most important and most successful aboriginal action of the twentieth century.

Sovereignty Unceded

The Tent Embassy’s means may have been novel, but the struggle was old. As legal scholar Larissa Behrendt notes, it was one that was at once “highly political, physically confronting but also deeply intellectual,” drawing on and adapting elements of the Black Power movement. It was also connected to a host of other transformative community actions at a local level, including the establishment in Sydney of the first Aboriginal legal and medical services — initiatives that reflected a core philosophy of self-determination through political and economic independence, the basis of which lay in land rights.

In 1972, however, the year of the Tent Embassy’s establishment, the prime minister took the opportunity of his Australia Day speech to make clear his rejection of land rights. In response, Tent Embassy organizers inverted government policy: where McMahon had implied that Aboriginal people were aliens in their own land, the embassy was mobilized to signpost that Aboriginal people never ceded sovereignty and remained the only cultural group without formal representation.

As the encampment swelled to a community of hundreds, and later thousands, of indigenous and nonindigenous activists from around Australia, a list of demands was submitted to the McMahon government, including the granting of land rights and mining rights, the preservation of sacred sites, and compensation for unreturned lands, starting at $6 billion. As Gary Foley told Jacobin, “Our aim was to develop sufficient economic independence to be able to secede from Australia. The ultimate ideal for us was always secession.”

These demands were flatly rejected by the McMahon government, but the local and international traction garnered by the Tent Embassy — which, amid aggression from the federal police, drew foreign press as well as visitors from the Canadian Indian Claims Commission, Soviet diplomats, and the Irish Republican Army — was key in precipitating an end to the policy of assimilation.

Within weeks of its establishment, the Tent Embassy was also visited by the then Labor leader of the opposition, Gough Whitlam, who left promising that, if elected to office, his government would implement a “complete reversal” of the existing policy on land rights alongside a number of other legal reforms. And indeed, soon after Labor’s 1972 election, the Whitlam government appointed a royal commission for the introduction of land rights. In 1975, a representative of the Gurindji people of the Northern Territory received a handful of soil from Whitlam in a gesture symbolizing the return of more than three thousand square kilometers of land to its traditional owners. In announcing his new policy platform at the time, Whitlam claimed that “the recognition of Aboriginal rights and of land rights is necessary in order to improve Australia’s national shame.”

A History of Disappointments

This was an optimistic beginning, but, half a century on, what Whitlam called Australia’s “national shame” stands undiminished. Then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to Australia’s Stolen Generations was hailed as a twenty-first-century landmark at the time, but has proven to be little more than symbolic. His “Closing the Gap” policy and funding commitment suffered a similar fate, and indigenous leaders have described the political and economic conditions for First Nations peoples as having “gone backward” over the decade since 2008.

Despite gains in land rights, the federal government continues to lubricate mining and other corporate interests through policies that seek to empty traditional areas in the service of capitalist development — often under the ruse of paternalist development policies of “closing the gap” on economic inequality.

Life expectancy for indigenous Australians is meanwhile up to fifteen years below the national average, with children twice as likely to die before the age of five and almost ten times more likely to be removed from their families. As adults, they are twenty-five times more likely to be imprisoned than the rest of the population — a rate higher than African Americans in the United States.

More than five hundred Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody in the thirty years since a royal commission handed down a report aimed at ending such deaths, while state and federal governments continue to shirk their international commitments to investing in independent oversight of Australia’s discriminatory justice system. The recent rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, which has left indigenous vaccinations rates 20 percent lower than the national average, has likewise reflected continued inequities in access to health care, housing, education, and employment alongside a systemic racism that refuses to permit First Nations people autonomy in managing their communities.

It is a failure that even the current right-wing prime minister Scott Morrison has acknowledged, making reference to Australia’s “national shame.” More surprising perhaps was Morrison’s simultaneous concession to the long-obvious fact that “over decades, our top-down, government-knows-best approach has not delivered the improvements we all need.” As shameful as any policy or funding failure has been the refusal of successive political leaders to engage in a genuine dialogue about sovereignty and self-determination with the First Australians.

Where every other Commonwealth nation has signed a treaty of some form with its indigenous peoples, Australia has engaged in no such formal process to begin to overturn the myths and violence that have shaped its nationhood. Many regard this failure to enshrine indigenous Australians’ inalienable right to land as the biggest obstacle to the country’s evolution. As the Greens Party senator Lidia Thorpe writes, “At its core, a treaty is an agreement between sovereigns that recognizes the existence and inalienability of the rights of all parties. Other forms of ‘recognition,’ even if well intentioned, don’t cut it because they do not resolve this fundamental injustice.”

When an historic 2017 statement signed by a gathering of some three hundred Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at Uluru — the Uluru Statement from the Heart — was presented to then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten to propose constitutional reforms that would enshrine a First Nations representative body to advise parliament, it failed to gain support from either leader. Claiming the proposal was inconsistent with democratic principles, Turnbull stated that such constitutional reform was neither “desirable nor capable of winning acceptance at referendum.”

Sending Envoys Back

Many voices, including Tent Embassy organizers such as Gary Foley, have deemed the campaign for constitutional recognition a performative irrelevance to the real-life struggles of indigenous Australians. Nonetheless, the unwillingness of Canberra to countenance even this more limited form of recognition — let alone to sit down in discussion with radical leaders as Whitlam did fifty years ago — is a yardstick of sorts for the enduring doggedness and denial at the core of Australia’s national politics. Lamenting the record of successive Australian governments in attempting to destroy the gains won by the Tent Embassy, Foley has cautioned other young Australians in the struggle against an unjust society, “Don’t take your eye off the ball.”

Though the movement has shifted and diversified over the past half century, a generation of activists who have inherited the legacy of the Tent Embassy continue the struggle for self-determination through old and new means, including grassroots organizing and resistance in other tent embassies around Australia. It is moot whether these campaigns will be met with an equal determination for change on the part of nonindigenous Australia — though public sentiment looks likely to outpace a retrograde national politics. One of the first journalists on the scene of the Tent Embassy in 1972, Jack Waterford stated on the movement’s fortieth anniversary that it was “time white Australia sent envoys back.” It is hopeful that another anniversary will not have to pass before this, finally, comes to fruition.