Australia Day shenannigans

By Legal Eagle

Lukas Coch via Associated Press Australia

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.

Mr Anderson has responded by criticising Mr Gooda and Mr Mundine:

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… :-P) 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.


  1. Adrien
    Posted January 31, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    And I think (hope?) Adrien misunderstands what he said.

    I’m not sure Mr Abbott understood what he said. It could well be interested as a signal to remove the embassy.

    I don’t think that’s what he meant. But I think he was wrong in that it’s not time to move on from that because we haven’t actually moved on from that.

  2. kvd
    Posted January 31, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure Mr Abbott understood what he said

    I’ve yet to read any Abbott-speak which wasn’t what he ‘meant’ – at the time. And please note the qualifier.

    That said, I do agree we probably have not ‘moved on from that’ anywhere near as much as we might have. A great pity – hence the word ‘hope’.

  3. Adrien
    Posted February 1, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    L’eagloe- But I cannot condone their actions, which, as you note, is an entirely different question. My non-tempestuous, logical, legal side thinks that this kind of stuff ought to be deterred, no matter that the motives and frustration are understandable to me personally.

    Fundamentally I agree, but there aren’t too many people advocating understanding amidst all the calls to try this lot with treason. So I’ve got to be a bit of ratbag, sorry. 🙂

  4. Mel
    Posted February 1, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]:

    “In the Major Cities and Regional Areas, Indigenous people in couple relationships were more often than not partnered with a non-Indigenous person. In almost nine out of ten couples (88%) in Major Cities where at least one partner was Indigenous, the other did not identify as Indigenous in the 2006 Census. In Regional Areas, the proportion was 77%. In contrast, in Remote Areas only around one-quarter (24%) of couples where one partner was Indigenous, the other was non-Indigenous.”

    Other studies have repeatedly demonstrated outparenting is stronger amongst indigenous women, so the figures for indigenous women will be higher than the figures stated above.

    Less than one quarter of indigenous persons live in Remote Areas. As the figures above are 6 years old and the trends are strong in respect of both movement to urban areas and outpartnering for indigenes in all but remote locations (where choice is presumably limited), I stand by my 80% figure although I cannot find the original source for that figure.[email protected]/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features10Sep+2010

  5. Posted February 1, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the update. It looks to me that there is a trend and things have changed since 1991 and 1996. Two complicating factors for assessing that trend however would be the increased rate of identification as indigenous over this time. Obviously, also, many people identifying as indigenous are the children of only one indigenous-identifying parent – probably more likely, incidentally, to be a mother than a father.

    I’m still troubled by the conclusion you draw that this establishes a strong preference by indigenous women for non-indigenous men.

    To take the capital city figures as the strongest example: if 9 out of 10 indigenous women in partnerships are with a non-indigenous partner, that still means one in ten of is with an indigenous partner. This is three times their 3% representation in the population as a whole [even assuming “indigenous” is a relevant ethnic descriptor for these purposes: we don’t say, for example “Asian” and expect Indians to marry Chinese], which is surely a preference – albeit a weaker preference multiple than many other groups.

  6. Posted February 2, 2012 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    @marcellous 57.

    I’m still troubled by the conclusion you draw that this establishes a strong preference by Indigenous women for non-Indigenous men.

    That statement bothered me too. (As have others of Mel’s that I am not about to get into because frankly I get tired of of non-indigenous people telling me the -often misrepresented, misconstrued and twisted- history of my own Mob.)

    But here’s something many may not have considered when it comes to Indigenous women partnering up with non-Indigenous men.

    I come from a very large Indigenous family. All the Indigenous people I know I am related to in some way or another. Either by blood or by certain cultural connections that would make a relationship something to be frowned upon. Though some of the cultural bounds are lessening over time, there is also still the echoes of the stolen generation that makes intimate relationships between Indigenous peoples complex. We often don’t know who we are and aren’t related to.

    This has nothing to do with the stereotype bandied around that all Indigenous men are violent women bashing rapists. That kind of statement just fuels the ridiculous assumption that Indigenous women choose non-Indigenous partners because of course no Indigenous woman has ever been abused or raped by a non-Indigenous man.

    Also in relationships, there are two people. Men make choices about who they want to be with too.

  7. Posted February 2, 2012 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    [email protected]

    It doesn’t address the underlying problems one of which is that we don’t listen.

    Listen to whom? The people on the ground or the professionally angry? I have posted about this, including a story that still makes me angry:

    The Galiwin ’ku fishing industry consisted of several small fishing boats made from local timbers at Galiwin ’ku by the Yol?nu and mission staff. The Yol?u named these boats with holy names from their clain or ri?gitj nation alliance. The boats were owned by the mission but were skippered and crewed by different clans. Some small clans would come together in a ri?gitj alliance to make up a crew. …
    These clan groups would use the boats and sell their catch to the mission for processing and re-sale to other places. The people clearly understood that what they caught was theirs until they sold it to the mission and they benefited directly from their catch. From the point of sale on, it belonged to the mission. This arrangement satisfied the legal requirements of both the Yol?nu and Balanda systems of law.
    When the mission at Galiwin ’ku handed the fishing industry over to the Yol?nu council in 1974, everything proceeded well for a while because the mission staff also transferred to the council. For most Yol?u nothing really changed. Then in 1975 it was decided to get a loan from the government to develop the industry. The Aboriginal Development Comission ‘decided’ to bring in a consultant to look at the viability of the loan and how it could increase the efficiency of the industry. Following the consultant’s recommendation, one big, modern fishing trawler replaced the small boats. In the dead of night, the small boats were burned on the beach and one was cut adrift, to ‘convince Yol?u of the need to move up to the big boat’. Within six months the whole fishing enterprise at Galiwin ’ku had collapsed and Galiwin ’ku became an importer rather than exporter of fish products.
    … from a Yol?u perspective the collapse happened because the separate clans and nation alliances found it impossible to work under one Balanda boss on the trawler, as the trawler captain now had to be licensed. Moreover, Yol?u were insulted and grieving over the destroyed boats. With no clear lines of ownership the people could not see that any authority had passed to them. …
    To expect all the clans at Galiwin ’ku to believe they collectively owned the fishing company was like telling twenty-six Balanda companies that they collectively owned an industry incorporated as an association. … But this is not how community structures were set up. … The Yol?u fisherman did not see themselves as working for their own gain anymore; in fact, many now thought that the captain of the new trawler would reap the dividends. They had just become wage earners, and the incentive to work and build the industry for their own benefit was gone.
    On top of all this, people had become confused about where these wages came from. In the past they saw a clear trade with the mission—so much fish for so much money. This trade was what the Yol?u were used to. Now they got wages no matter how many fish were caught. The steps in the development of a cash economy, with its system of wages-for-labour, are many. The Yol?nu were catapulted into the cash economy with little preparation.
    With all this confusion, only conflict could occur, and economic development through industries like fishing was lost. (pp47-8)

    This is a pattern that is so entrenched (e.g. the Stockman’s case).

  8. Posted February 2, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    On treatment of women in Aboriginal society, there were 200 or more Aboriginal cultures: generalising about them is a fraught activity.

    One Aboriginal culture where women were appallingly treated and marrying a white man was a huge improvement was the Tasmanian one. As one wit cruelly observed, Tasmanian aboriginal men swapped women for hunting dogs, thereby improving the welfare of both groups. (It also did bad things for the potential survival of the population except as a mixed-race group.)

    But, Tasmanian aboriginal society was a study in vile dysfunction. Loss of technology, lack of trade, living in small hunting groups terrified of meeting a bigger group who was likely to kill the men and seize the women. It was not a paradisical existence.

  9. Posted February 2, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    I think the Tent Embassy is important for ALL Indigenous people. The concerns I have as an urban Indigenous person are very different to the concerns of an Indigenous person from a reservation or from an Indigenous person in a rural community or from the Indigenous people who still reside on their country land. The Tent Embassy is symbolic of our land being occupied by some one else, and the issues resulting from that. So I think it is relevant to all Indigenous peoples, but its relevance has a different meaning for each of them. But the embassy alone is not going to produce any form of reform or positive outcome. The problem is the eyes ears and voices who have been charged with improving our lot in life are often seeing, hearing and speaking about these issues from a non-Indigenous stand point.

    Tony Abbott might spend a lot of time in Indigenous communities but he has yet to demonstrate that what he perceives in these communities comes from a place of understanding that isn’t coloured by his non-Indigenous world views.

    In light of the current global environment, that the PM may have felt threatened or worried or even afraid of the protestors is understandable. Riots have been a common global theme on our news as of late so the fear of an angry, loud mob, violent or not is completely understandable.

    I do think there was a massive over reaction, but I believe that the fault lies with the MSM on that front. The footage clearly shows the PM being jostled by her security, however, I don’t think the jostling would have been necessary, or indeed, would have happened at all, if not for the media frenzy surrounding the incident. The people pushing and shoving were the media trying to get the cameras in there and the story. The security detail and the AFP did what was appropriate, but the PM would not have lost her shoe if the media had kept its distance.

    I’m probably not making much sense right now. I am taking five while the kids work on their reading response questions and I have a child in my ear asking if Lady Macbeth’s fear were about whether or not Macbeth had the balls to kill Duncan…(using that exact terminology….13 year old boys…what can I say!)

  10. Posted February 2, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Just on Pirra’s point @58, one thing that does seem to have been common among all Aboriginal groups — on the mainland at least — was almost Roman-levels of horror at consanguinity: remember that rules against marrying your first cousin are culture specific, and that societies that are exogamous (ie, prevent or inhibit cousin marriages) tend to have stronger community and social structures.

    When I was working on the Hurley matter in Townsville, I heard of situations where people who were separated as very young children inadvertently finished up married to or cohabiting with a close biological relative once they’d been sent to Palm Island. In one incident, a half-brother and half sister were involved. Often — as when Europeans lost Roman law after the Empire’s collapse — the only thing to survive complete cultural dislocation was the horror at consanguinity. One of the couple (I think the man) suicided when he found out.

  11. Posted February 2, 2012 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    SL @68, yes exactly. But to take that further, in my culture a cousin is classed as a sibling. And a cousin, is actually some one not related to you by blood, by still considered too close to you for a relationship to be appropriate. (ie. My Godfather is my father’s best friend. He is called my Uncle. His children are my cousins. To form a relationship with one of them would be taboo.)

    As a side note to this, a friend of mine is studying her midwifery degree in Townsville and did one of her placements on Palm Island. She had a patient come in for her first time check up (though she was around 5 months pregnant by then.) and when my friend asked her about the baby’s father, the woman cracked up laughing and said “Well, I didn’t actually know he was my Uncle when I slept with him…” My friend’s jaw hit the floor until she realised where she was. And what Uncle actually meant. (Though for some mobs, that kind of connection is still very much frowned upon.)

  12. Posted February 2, 2012 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    LE @ 63. I love all the questions, I just wish they could wait patiently and leave them until after mummy has finished typing! (It’s the wee comment box, I sometimes have trouble reading what I have typed. Once I hit post I can see that what I type does make sense, but up until then…)

    There has been some major eye rolling as we read Macbeth. My daughter is 16 and has found her feminist voice and our reading is often punctuated with her outraged spluttering. One of the questions I have for them about Act 1 is to consider Scene 5. We can never really surmise from the play itself wether or not the Macbeths have children. How do they think that scene might have played out if indeed they had? I’m pretty sure her initial response will something along the lines “Dear Mum, why would we care if the Macbeth’s had children? Are you trying to be just another patriarchal parasite that insists on reducing women to the status of their wombs and their ability, or lack of, as baby making factories? How very dare you! Sincerely, N.”
    I’m going to keep all her work so when she goes through her phase of pushing back against feminism in her 20’s (like some of us do) I can pull them out and wave them under her nose and shout “Now who’s pandering to the patriarchy?”

  13. kvd
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    How very dare you!

    Treasure her Pirra – you make her sound just like my daughter at the same age. One comment mine made to me when a couple of years younger was “you’re not the boss of me!”. Cracked me up with both the intensity, and the “rightness” of her world view.

    [email protected] your thought about “some kind of official gathering place” is I am sure well meant. But I’d just agree with Adrien many comments ago that what is, is just about perfect as a representation within the otherwise sterile, manicured, disconnect that is Canberra.

  14. Adrien
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo – And would I be safe in assuming that the Yol?u people are obese welfare addicts these days? Excellent article btw; yet another reason why it’s never a good idea to intervene ion Afghanistan. Unless you wanna know what it was like rolling with Ghengis Khan. The lesson of Vietnam and of all similar rationalist interventions has been well and truly brushed under the carpet.

  15. Posted February 2, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    @kvd, oh indeed I do. (I have never understood the whole teens are ‘teh evil’ mindset that you see splattered all over the place.. )

    Hahaha, we had a similar conversation only yesterday. Re: children as parental property. I quite often tell them that I made them and if they don’t do x,y,or z so help me God I will unmake them. Which is always met with eye rolls of “Sure Mum, you can try but you are the one who taught me that I have bodily autonomy you know.” It’s moments like those I think I made a mistake home schoooling them!

  16. kvd
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    It’s moments like those I think I made a mistake home schoooling them!

    No, it’s moments like those that you know you are maybe succeeding in helping your child towards his or her potential. Said with complete respect, and agreement.

  17. Posted February 3, 2012 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Yes, they share in the general dysfunction: possibly not quite so badly, since their local culture is still pretty strong.

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