Australian Racism 101 – Aboriginal Disposession and the Tent Embassy

You may or may not have heard the recent remarks of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott that the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was “no longer neccesary” but how many of us know exactly what it is and where it came from.  After reading some depressingly racist remarks on the internet and print media, and seeing the most DISGUSTINGLY racist cartoon in the Herald Scum, oops, forgive me, Sun,  I decided to do a bit of research and look at what exactly the Embassy represents and the events of disposession leading up to its establishment in 1972 and what life is like for many Aboriginal Australians.

(disclaimer: I do not speak for any Indigenous group, I am a white Australian. However, I am simply seeking knowledge beyond racism, and am trying to reach an understanding with compassion and a desire for  justice)

January 26th 1788

This day to Aboriginal people marked the day when White settlement began.  For those of you not up to speed with Australian History, Australia was declared “Terra Nullius”  – land belonging to no one. This paved the way for White Settlement to begin, despite the presence of Aboriginal life on the land for thousands of years.At the time of British settlement,  Aboriginal people were thought to be part of the flora and fauna of the country, rather than human beings. Attitudes of white racial superiority existed and Aboriginal people’s rights did not exist under British law. Therefore the colonists believed they had the right to settle throughout Australia. (  Although there were some brave struggles of resistance many Aboriginal people were slaughtered and almost all lands were taken over without an acknowledgement of sovreignty. Sovreignty is still formally denied to this day.  This lead to the day being marked “Invasion” Day instead of Australia Day by some Aboriginal people and their allies. 

1905 onwards.

The Federation of Australian states saw the “Aborigines Act” come into being, this meant that the Chief Protector of Aborigines had all  powers of legal guardianship over all Aboriginal people to the age of 16 years. This power over-rode any parental legal rights as normally exists between child and parent. This meant the Chief Protector could remove Aboriginal children from their parents or family, as he saw fit. And he did. Children, particularly children of mixed descent, were removed from their parents in droves and placed in white foster homes, missions, orphanages, hostels etc. Almost all children were removed forcibly and with tragic results, the most evident being the children now coined the ‘Stolen Generation’; children who never found their way home and suffered enormous trauma and brutalisation as a result of this removal policy.  Very often this brutalisation occurred at the very institutions where the children were placed. Aboriginal parents were often not told where their children were, names were changed or the children told that their parents were dead. (  Aboriginal parents, many of whom spoke or read no English, were told to sign documents removing their children under the pretence that their children were going on an excursion or short holiday.  It was not untill 2008 that former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd officially apologized to the Aboriginal people for the atrocities committed during this period of time.

Aboriginal people over the age of 16 years were also controlled by the Chief Protector as they had to apply for marriage rights, did not have the right to move freely from reserves or missions, did not have property ownerships rights, had no human rights, were not citizens of Australia and so on.

In order to move from under the burden of the 1905 Aborigines Act, Aboriginal people had to gain Australian citizenship. Aboriginal people, under the Australian Constitution, were not considered to be Australian citizens and therefore, Australian citizenship was not automatic. If an Aboriginal person gained Australian citizenship, the 1905 Aborigines Act could no longer control them.

To gain this citizenship, these people had to complete an application for citizenship in which their ‘caste’ and the ‘caste’ of their parents was stated, they had to prove disassociation from Aboriginal people and culture, provide a photo and references as to their good character. This went before a board who decided if citizenship was approved. Once it was gained, the Chief Protector of Aborigines could remove it at any time.  In short, if an Aboriginal person wanted any movement away from their community, to marry, work or visit family, they had to renounce their Aboriginality.  Many older Aboriginal people carry “certificates” stating they were for a period of time non Aboriginal. 

May 27th 1967 

On the 27th of May 1967, the voters of Australia made dramatic history. On this date, a referendum was held to poll the voters’ opinion about changing racially discriminatory sections of the Australian Constitution. The result was an overwhelming 90.77 per cent vote in favour of these changes.  This was also in response to “Freedom Rides”  buses of predominantly university students taking rides to Aboriginal communities to witness discrimination first hand. Many of the rides were lead by activist Charlie Perkins, who was pivotal in the establishment of the Tent Embassy a short time later.  The referendum ended the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the “Flora and Fauna” Act, and saw them granted legal equality, such as the right to work and right to vote, and the abolishment of homesteads, granting Aboriginal people the right to move without impediment throughout the community.

27th January 1972

At 1 am on this day, four Aboriginal men arrived in Canberra from Sydney to plant a beach umbrella on the grounds of Old Parliament House. The Embassy was established in response to the McMahon Government’s refusal to recognise Aboriginal rights over the land. 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 promotes Aboriginal Sovreignty Their demands included Land rights  and mineral rights to Aboriginal lands, legal and political control of certain sacred sites and compensation for land that  was stolen. Their demands have been consistently rebuffed by past and current governments.

It has also been used as a site for protesting against other issues, such as against 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. Despite several removals, and being affected by storms, thefts and firebombs, the Embassy still stands strong to this day, and the 27th of January marked Forty Years of continuous occupation.

The Tent Embassy uranium  mining at Jabiluka  in the Northern Territory during the 90s. Currently Elders such as Uncle Neville Williams , from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy are working to protect traditional  land in Western N.S.W at Lake Cowal  which is in the process of being mined for gold and more recently the mining for gas in the Kimberly region  and Nuclear Waste Dump proposed for the area near Muckaty.

The group  represents a displaced nation of peoples, unjustly occupied by the Australian government.

Aboriginal Australia in 2012 – Disposession Continued.

Despite remarks that the Tent Embassy should be removed, that it was no longer neccesarry, and that the Aboriginal cause had “moved forward”  there are still some horrendous statistics associated with being Aboriginal Australian.  There is a direct link between the health and wellbeing of our first people, and the legacy of the last 200 years of colonialism and racism.

in 2012 if you are Aboriginal or of Aboriginal descent you are:

more likely to commit suicide or self harm particularly if you are a young person

less likely to be employed or have culturally appropriate housing 

more likely to live below the poverty line or rely solely on Centrelink benefits for your income. This also extends to a lack of culturally appropriate employment in your community. If you are in the Northern Territory, there is every chance your benefit is subject to “income management” – whereby a portion of your benefit is given to you in a “basics card” which is only redeemable at certain stores a great distance from where a person’s community is. This is part of the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response – continued under Labor despite a promise to revisit it.

more likely to be incarcerated in the adult or juvenile justice systems – more likely still to die in custody either by suicide or a lack of access to basic healthcare (Paris Veronica Baxter, an Aboriginal Transwoman had been denied access to anti depressant medication for a week during her confinement and later committed suicide. Her death is subject to inquiry in New South Wales)

More likely to suffer police harrassment during your day to day life.

Suffer a significant mental health problem or substance abuse.

Have a significantly lower life span than your Non Aboriginal Counterparts (the most recent statistics were a non Aboriginal male’s life expectancy was 85 years on average an Aboriginal male’s a mere 65 years of age)

Suffer significant chronic physical health conditions – particularly if you live in a remote community- such as glaucoma, diabetes and heart disease.

Have almost no access to your language and culture available at your educational institutions.  Most classes are taught to Aboriginal students in English, a language that is foreign to some of them. Classes that are taught in Language are often taught that way for a very brief period of time. Many children do not have access to Language or Culture at all. There are over 200 languages recorded as Aboriginal but only 60 of them are expected to survive the next 50 years. These will be gone, extinguished from memory and culture.

Have very little right to determine the direction of your natural resources – Aboriginal land in remote areas such as those in the Kimberly and other regions are subject to leases to mining companies, which result in pristine areas being mined for gas and other resources.  Lake Cowal, as previously mentioned, is being mined for gold.

I could go on… The answer, in short Mr Abbott, is yes, the embassy is still very necesarry. it represents a vital stand against racism and a movement long standing for the rights of the original inhabitants of this land. You’d do well to listen to the lessons that can be learned from it.

Sources: “Aboriginal Tent Embassy”  “Tent embassy”  – Wankga Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre  “1967 Referendum”


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