I have to say that I am pretty unimpressed with the actions of the activists who forced Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to flee the Lobby Restaurant yesterday, where she was attending an Australia Day function to celebrate emergency services. For non-Australian readers, yesterday was Australia Day, a public holiday which falls on the anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet in Australia. It is an emotionally charged day for many indigenous people, many of whom believe that it should be regarded as Invasion Day, and see it as a day for sorrow, not celebration.
The whole thing started when, earlier on Australia Day, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was asked about the significance of the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy outside Parliament House. Abbott said:
“I think the indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian. I think a lot has changed since then, and I think it probably is time to move on from that.”
Although some have seen Abbott’s comments as deliberately inflammatory, personally, I do not think he would have intended them to start a riot. Later, The Australian reports, Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard were attending an event celebrating Australian emergency services at the Lobby when a version of Abbott’s words filtered through to the people gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the Tent Embassy. Elder Barbara Shaw told the audience that Abbott wanted to tear down the site. About one hundred protestors ran to the Lobby Restaurant and started banging on the glass walls, shouting slogans. Gillard and Abbott became concerned that the glass walls of the restaurant would break, and Gillard’s minders arranged for them to leave the restaurant. In the confusion, Gillard tripped and lost her shoe – the picture above shows her fleeing to her car.
The Tent Embassy leader, Michael Anderson, admitted that he had not heard Tony Abbott’s exact words before the protest began, and that the words had been misinterpreted, but remained unrepentant:
The protesters had misinterpreted those [Abbott's] comments, Mr Anderson said.
However he said the only people that owed an apology to the Prime Minister after yesterday’s drama were the police.
“No I don’t owe the Prime Minister an apology. I’ll tell you what though, the security guards do,” Mr Anderson said.
“Because we were after Tony Abbott and not the Prime Minister and I think the security people overreacted and let’s put things into perspective here. Tony Abbott wasn’t even invited there, he invited himself. I think he came here as an agent provocateur deliberately.”
Other Aboriginal leaders have condemned the actions of the protesters in no uncertain terms:
…Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda condemned the protest and accused the activists of showing disrespect to Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott.
“I think the issues they raised 40 years ago are as relevant today . . . (but) I’ve got to condemn the behaviour in the strongest possible terms,” Mr Gooda said.
“People are allowed to protest and raise issues but it’s disrespectful to our Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader. I think it was absolutely appalling.”
Former ALP president and indigenous leader Warren Mundine labelled the activists a “disgrace”, said the embassy had long ceased to be relevant for most Aborigines and had been “hijacked by a motley crew of people” from outside the indigenous mainstream.
“No human being, let alone the Prime Minister of this country, should be treated in such a manner,” Mr Mundine said.
“It’s a disgrace and anyone who was involved in it should be prosecuted as far as the law can take it.”
Sue Gordon, the former chairwoman of the Northern Territory intervention, said the right to protest did not include the right to be violent.
“Regardless of what people might think of the Prime Minister, she’s still the Prime Minister,” Dr Gordon said. She said the views of tent embassy activists did not reflect those of indigenous people in remote Australia.
They do not represent us. …They were not elected by us, they were just appointed by the government not Aboriginal people. They’re just interested in representing the middle to upper-class indigenous Australians and paying off their mortgage.”
(What’s wrong with wanting to pay off your mortgage, I have to wonder? – showing my own bourgeois prejudices… ) The incident has received widespread coverage in overseas media.
Now, I understand that some indigenous people regard the Tent Embassy as sacred ground, and that they would be upset and distressed at reports that the Embassy was being disbanded. Personally I would not endorse Abbott’s comment: obviously the Tent Embassy is important to many indigenous people, and it provides a constant reminder of ongoing issues for indigenous people in Australia.
However, my concern with activism is always how best to get the message across to the majority of people. (Perhaps it is because what persuasion is what litigators and academics are all about, and I am both). I do not think that this incident will help the Tent Embassy’s cause or profile in any way. As this article in the Guardian points out, people often regard the perpetrators of mob violence as “mindless and irrational”, although it is really more complex than that, and often riots represent an indication that a group has “a sense of illegitimacy about how they are treated by others…they see collective confrontation as the only means of redressing the situation.” Nonetheless, if the members of the Tent Embassy want to achieve their aims (Aboriginal sovereignty, a treaty with the Australian government, increased land rights etc) they will have to convince mainstream Australia of the necessity of these things. The behaviour we saw yesterday is very unlikely to help their aims, as I suspect most Australians were appalled. In fact, I suspect that it will do the precise opposite of what the protesters wanted to achieve – it may well add credence to Tony Abbott’s claim that the Tent Embassy has had its day, and should be disbanded, as the protesters came across in media reports as violent and disrespectful troublemakers. And that’s a pity.