During the 1960s, there was increased awareness and activism around Indigenous rights in Australia. This culminated in the 1967 constitutional referendum. The referendum successfully amended the Constitution to include Aboriginal people in national censuses and granted the Commonwealth Parliament power to make laws for Aboriginal people.
In 1971, a group of Indigenous claimants argued they had a claim to native title over traditional land where a bauxite mine was going to be built (Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd (1971) 17 FLR 141). Their argument was rejected by Justice Blackburn in the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory (note: this decision was later overturned by Mabo v Queensland (No 2) (1992) 175 CLR 1). This was a source of disappointment and frustration for many rights activists who wanted Indigenous interests in land to be formally recognised by Australian law. Wiradjuri woman Jenny Munro remembers this decision as giving ‘extra impetus to the Land Rights campaign’, especially in the lead up to the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy (Korff, Creative Spirits, 2020).
The 1972 protests
Just prior to Australia Day 1972, the McMahon Coalition Government announced a new Indigenous land rights policy. This allowed Indigenous people to request a 50-year lease over land from the Commonwealth, provided they could demonstrate that they would use the land in a socially and economically viable way.
The policy was criticised by many Indigenous Australians, who viewed it as undermining their legitimate land rights. This led to the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy by four Aboriginal Australians: Michael Anderson, Tony Coorey, Billy Craigie and Bert Williams. Indigenous activist Michael Anderson emphasised that ‘the land was taken from us by force. We shouldn’t have to lease it. Our spiritual beliefs are connected with the land’ (Deadly Story).
In February 1972, the activists presented the government with a set of demands relating to land rights. The Coalition government did not respond to the demands, but the Labor leader, Gough Whitlam, visited the Aboriginal Tent Embassy to discuss the petition, indicating that the Opposition was willing to legislate on Indigenous land rights.
The protest movement gained popularity throughout 1972. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy became a meeting place to advocate for land rights.
In July 1972, activists clashed on two occasions with police who sought to remove the tents. This attracted significant media attention and raised awareness for Indigenous rights. The Coalition government then introduced law to authorise the removal of the tents and prevent their re-establishment. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was subsequently removed from Parliament House in September 1972.
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy continues to raise awareness and support for Indigenous rights in Australia. In 1992, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was permanently re-established on the lawns of Old Parliament House after moving locations numerous times. The Embassy is now a heritage-listed landmark due to its status as a site of Indigenous rights activism.
While the protest movement in 1972 was mainly concerned with land rights, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy has become a symbol for broader Indigenous rights. Activist and Yuwaalaraay Gamilaraay woman Frances Peters-Little views the Embassy as ‘a place anchored into the psyche of the Australian people… a place that recognises Aboriginal people’s sovereignty’ (Bourchier and Midena, ABC, 2020). The Embassy is also a reminder of the hardships Indigenous people have encountered while advocating for their rights and interests to be recognised by law.
Over the last few decades, other tent embassies have been established throughout Australia as a symbol of Indigenous people’s grievances and goals. In 2020, the original Aboriginal Tent Embassy was used as a meeting place to protest against Indigenous deaths in custody.
In 2022, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy will celebrate its 50th anniversary. This presents Australians with an opportunity to reflect on the importance of Indigenous rights activism. According to Ngambri-Ngunnawal elder, Matilda House, the Embassy is ‘more relevant than ever’ as Indigenous Australians still seek for their rights to be acknowledged by law (Bourchier and Midena, ABC, 2020).