INSIDE THE TENT: The ‘behind the scenes’ story of the Tent Embassy debacle


A file image of three of the original Tent Embassy founders.

SOME believe the debacle that engulfed the Tent Embassy 40th anniversary celebrations in Canberra last month set back the Aboriginal cause a decade or two. CHRIS GRAHAM, who served as the Embassy’s media adviser for the event, thinks its opened up an opportunity for a conversation about the future of Aboriginal protest.

IN THE months before he died, Chicka Dixon, one of the most loved and respected Aboriginal leaders of the modern era, would host a weekly meeting at his Sydney home with young and upcoming Aboriginal men and women.

One of the central messages Chicka wanted to get out was this: ‘The days of marching on the streets are over. You have to beat them in the boardroom.’

An impressive young Sydney Aboriginal leader who made frequent use of Chicka’s mentoring was relaying the story to me recently.

The conversation was sparked by his disappointment at what had occurred at the 40th anniversary celebrations of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on January 26.

He spends his days fighting for the rights of his people, and felt that the actions of some Embassy activists – the demonstration outside an event attended by the Prime Minister, and in particular the burning of the Australian flag – had set the cause back some years.

Aboriginal opinion on the Embassy protest is obviously divided. Some were outraged by it; others were disappointed, but understood where the frustration came from. And of course some supported it, while others felt the Embassy activists didn’t go far enough.

The frustrations of the young Sydney Aboriginal leader are real. But so too are the frustrations of Embassy activists.

If nothing else, the debacle that engulfed the Tent Embassy celebration has once again exposed to the rest of the world the racist underbelly of a very ignorant nation.

But first the facts, because a lot of people have formed opinions on the Embassy based on media reporting.

And that is always a bad idea.

THERE is perhaps no event in the last few decades that better sums up the divide between black and white Australia than the debacle that engulfed the Embassy celebrations.

It had everything: media misreporting; white political mischief; black political disunity; police violence; frustrated activists. And it had the odd rat-bag, black and white.

The Embassy celebrations kicked off with a large march through the streets of Canberra. It was loud and proud – by some margin the most inspiring march I’ve been to. It was a festival atmosphere and a celebration in every sense of the word.

There was virtually no mainstream media present, certainly nothing comparable to the pack that would descend on the Aboriginal Tent Embassy a few hours later.

The rot began to set in shortly after lunch on January 26, when one of Julia Gillard’s senior media advisers, Tony Hodges, phoned Kim Sattler, a union official who was visiting the Tent Embassy.

According to the official version of events Hodges told Sattler that Tony Abbott had just been interviewed by media about the Embassy, and he expressed the view that it was time to move on.

But what Sattler passed on to Embassy activists was something else altogether.

Audio of the exchange between Sattler and young Central Australian Aboriginal leader Barbara Shaw, reveals that Sattler says Tony Abbott has just told the press the Tent Embassy should be “pulled down”, not that it’s time to move on.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is rushed out of the Lobby restaurant on Survival Day. Aboriginal activist Michael Anderson – one of the original founders of the Embassy – is pushed against the stair railing.

It’s a pretty subtle difference, but Shaw relays that message – pulled down – to the crowd, word for word.

Shaw was pilloried in the press for her role, but the fact is she merely passed on information that came, embellished or otherwise, direct from the Prime Minister’s office.

Shaw then directs people to The Lobby Restaurant, a few hundred metres from the stage. The rest, as they say, is history. Or in this case, the whitewashed version of history.

Several hundred protestors descended on the restaurant as a result of Shaw’s announcement.

A small handful of them began banging on the glass walls on two sides of the building.

The crowd was chanting ‘Shame’ and ‘Racist’. The object of their anger was Tony Abbott.

Without question, he, Gillard and her minders had reason to be concerned. Protestors were furious at what they’d been told Abbott had said.

After half an hour, Gillard’s security detail is captured by a Channel 9 news crew informing the Prime Minister that they’re becoming increasingly concerned for her safety, and have decided it’s time to go.

The subsequent images of Gillard being bundled out of the restaurant are startling.

Gillard looks terrified as she’s rushed to her vehicle, surrounded by her personal security team and police, including one with a riot shield.

Not surprisingly, the story made headlines around the world. The fact that Gillard stumbled and lost her blue suede shoe in the process only added to the colour.

Also not surprisingly, the vision sparked widespread outrage among average Australians – news sites that offered the opportunity for comment on the issue were inundated.

Overwhelmingly the responses from readers were negative, and on the news.com.au site, the feedback was rabid. ‘Anthony of Perth’ wrote: “Disgraceful, petulant, ignorant, selfish, stupid. Are these the traits these so-called first Australians like projecting to the world?”

And there was ‘Tris of Melbourne’: seriously no other country panders to one race as much as we do to aboriginals… why are they so special?

Someone calling themselves ‘FAIL-TENT EMBASSY’ wrote: “The race that stops the nation….”

Occasionally it was just plain ridiculous. ‘Ames of NSW’: “What about the invasion by Aborigines thousands of years ago – who did they kill off and displace to take ownership of this land. What the British did is no different. Aborigines are not the original inhabitants of this great land.”

And of course there was the obligatory racist rant from a garden variety Townsville redneck. ‘J Cook (how ironic) wrote: “all you heroes out there are you proud of your two youths who bashed and robbed an 93 year old woman in townsville yesterday there parents havnt handed them in yet oh thats right its your culture”.

The coverage from the ABC – supposedly the moderate national broadcaster – best sums up the unfolding media circus.

‘Gillard puts on brave face after riot rescue’.

It’s a pretty compelling headline. It’s also complete bunkum.

The ‘riot’ – at a glass-walled restaurant, mind you – saw not one pane of glass cracked, let alone broken.

There were no arrests and no injuries.

Protestors were angry, and they were loud. But they had good reason to be.

It’s worth noting, the only damage to the Lobby restaurant was to a door – the one which Gillard is rushed through as she exits the building.

And who caused the damage?

Police.

The National Capital Authority, which owns the building, inspected the Lobby the day after the protest, and confirmed to Embassy organisers that the AFP had broken the door in its haste to leave.

Not only was there no riot, but there was never any actual threat to Gillard’s safety, nor that of Abbott.

As footage that emerged after the media had already written the script clearly showed, the only people pursuing Gillard and Abbott when they were rushed from the building were police, journalists and photographers.

There were no protestors within cooee, and certainly none chasing down a terrified Prime Minister nor an Opposition Leader, who can be clearly seen smirking and smiling as he’s rushed to the car.

But that’s not such a newsworthy story.

A screen grab of an AFP officer at the Survival Day protests in Canberra. He’s so worked up he punches one of Prime Minister’s Gillard’s personal security staff during the PM’s hasty exit from the Lobby Restaurant.

So instead, we got this, from Channel 9: “They made for the safety of a getaway car. The only thing between them and an angry, raging mob were police with shields.

“The Prime Minister, cradled by an officer, lost her shoe, stumbled slightly in the mayhem, the moment of terror, captured here on Julia Gillard’s face.

“Tony Abbott was pushed to the waiting car.

“When she got to the vehicle you can see Julia Gillard shoved inside.

“And in a sign of the danger, the rare sight of Mr Abbott bustled in beside her.”

The media reporting gave the widespread view that Gillard had somehow been attacked, as the news.com.au comments consistently showed.

‘Dean Dudley of Brisbane’ wrote: “I respect anyone’s right to disagree with the PM, but respect for the office means ‘Keep your hands to yourself.’

‘Chris of Sydney’ wrote: “All the violent thugs responsible should be jailed. Gillard and Abbott (and indeed no person) should be treated like this.”

In defence of the Channel 9 hack, he did get one aspect of his story right: he noted that AFTER the Prime Minister’s vehicle left, the violence began.

One of the most memorable images from the ‘riot’, at least from the Aboriginal perspective, is footage of a police officer punching an Aboriginal man – dressed in traditional costume and carrying a spear – in the face.

The images were replayed around the globe – BBC World News, for example, used the footage over and over again during its coverage of the event.

The officer who delivered the blow is a short, red-haired man, dressed in police overalls.

His behavior after Gillard is removed from the scene is extraordinary when you consider he was called to the demonstration to ‘keep the peace’. Shortly after Gillard’s vehicle has left, footage captured by a protestor shows the officer unleash a barrage of abuse – and blows – at protestors and media.

He comes into the shot screaming “Media f**k off or get out. Get out media, get out”. He turns his attention to a cameraman from SBS and yells, “Fuck off c*nt,” before manhandling a sound technician, who replies, “Get off, mate.”

An Aboriginal protestor standing beside shouts at the cop, “Hey, hey” before the cop resume pushing protestors.

The exchange clearly shows the officer as the aggressor, and media and protestors as the victims.

He then starts yelling, “Move rear, move rear. Move fucking rear,” as he continues to push and swing at protestors, before finally hitting one of them in the head. Alternate footage captured by a news crew clearly shows the man is neither resisting nor reacting to the officer’s aggression. It also shows the force of the blow, which spins and knocks the man backwards.

The protestor’s footage then shows a second cop with wild eyes and a huge grin on his face, nodding his head and willing protestors to take him on, all the while pushing and manhandling them.

As soon as one protestor yells “Get him on camera”, the cop seems to realize he’s being filmed, wipes the smile off his face and steps back from the crowd.

The camera pans back to the red-headed officer, who is now in full-swing, literally.

He’s screaming “Get back off the road idiots” as he pushes more protestors. You can hear one off camera respond, “Little f**king big man. Little big man, pushing people eh?”

It draws the attention of the officer, who responds by pushing him in the chest.

The protestor replies, “Hey, you push me, I’ll spear you brother.”

The cop pushes him again, and you see the protestor push the cop back.

The cop looks down at his own chest – an act which people widely interpreted to mean he was spat on (he wasn’t) – then hits the protestor in the head.

You can’t actually see the hit – it’s slightly off camera. But it’s of such force that you can certainly hear it. Footage captured from a different angle by a news crew shows it nearly knocked the protestor off his feet.

Police line up outside the Lobby restaurant shortly after Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott were rushed out.

What follows is one of the more ironic images from the demonstration.

Tiga Bayles, an early Embassy activist and a former Queensland Father of the Year, steps into the frame and blocks the cop, saying ‘No, no, no, it’s alright’. Other protestors – including the first man assaulted – also surround the cop to prevent another further attack.

It’s not often you see groups of peaceful protestors having to step in to try and calm a police officer down.

The cop keeps pushing and swinging until a female protestor puts her hand on his shoulder and yells, ‘You are inciting, you are inciting’.

Like his colleague earlier, the cop’s demeanor changes completely – he seems to realise that everything he’s just done has been captured on film.

He stops yelling, and starts pleading, “I’m just trying to get you off the road.”

Seconds later, Sergeant Chris Meagher – a community liaison officer who spent the five days working cooperatively with Embassy officials – can be seen walking into the shot, and removing both officers from the front line of the confrontation.

A protestor can be heard yelling, “This officer here is way too pumped up. The officer in the middle, this one right here.”

You can hear someone reply, “Yeah, we got him.”

It’s worth remembering, all of this occurred AFTER Gillard has left the scene. The supposed threat has gone.

So why the police violence?

A measure of how pumped up the red haired officer was before confronting protestors is captured in a video which can be viewed on Tracker online. It shows him mistaking one of Gillard’s personal security team for a protestor, and then elbowing him in the head as Gillard’s car speeds away.

Officially, the Australian Federal Police are happy with the conduct of officers.

Unofficially, the officer’s conduct is under review, with the possibility of ‘retraining’, particularly in relation to his dealings with media.

AS YOU might expect, the inaccurate and sensationalist reporting of the incident sent the nutters into overdrive. Andrew Bolt, of course, weighed in.

You’d hardly expect him not to given Pat Eatock, lead litigant in the recent horsewhipping delivered to Bolt in the Supreme Court, was front and centre in the protests.

For the sake of brevity (and sanity) here’s a short excerpt of Bolt’s rant: “So this is what reconciliation looks like on Australia Day, after so many concessions over so many useless years.

“Reconciliation means Prime Minister Julia Gillard being trapped by furious Aboriginal protesters inside a Canberra building yesterday for half an hour.

“It means Gillard and guests at the Australia Day function being heckled and abused as racists.

“It means Gillard, fear on her face, being monstered and falling in the melee as police rushed her to her car for safety, one shoe lost in the crowd.

“It means Opposition Leader Tony Abbott also being bundled into Gillard’s car to protect him from assault. It means protesters trying to block the car with its terrified occupants.

“It means them fighting police and vilely abusing them.

“And it means Pat Eatock, an Aboriginal elder, triumphantly brandishing to the mob one of Gillard’s shoes, lost in the frantic dash to her car.

“You may have seen her on the news, shouting to the crowd, with Gillard’s shoe in hand.

“There is a lot I would like to say about this matter but the law prevents me from doing so.”

Ah Andrew. Ever the martyr.

A file image of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, pictured in parliament.

The prize, however, for the most ridiculous commentary goes to Bolt’s colleague in harm, Piers Akerman.

Under the headline ‘Innocent victims of a culture of violence’, Akerman somehow links the assault of a teacher in Katherine to the “riot” in Canberra.

“The Sorry Day cheer squad has gone into hiding since the Australia Day riot in Canberra.

“So far, not one of the many self-anointed Aboriginal leaders drawing cheques on the taxpayers’ account has spoken out about a truly shocking report of a former Northern Territory schoolteacher who is to have a leg amputated next week after an unprovoked attack in a Katherine High School classroom four years ago.

“David Arnold, 64, won the 2005 Teacher of the Year award for his efforts with NT students and providing special needs students with “meaningful work, pride and dignity”.

“He was attacked and had his leg stomped on by a group of three teenagers who invaded the classroom because one boy wished to play games on a school computer.

“None of the assailants, aged 13 and 14 at the time, faced any charges because the school did not report the assault at the time.”

If you’re hoping Piers gets to the point, you’ll be disappointed.

He does, however, concede this: “There is no suggestion that the attack had an Indigenous theme but inaction and denial relating to violence against teachers generally is endemic.”

Oh dear. Might be time to look at retirement, Piers.

Hysterical commentary aside, the media reporting before, during and after the event was typically very poor.

It was also laced with a thousand missing facts.

One of them is that Michael Anderson, one of the original founders of the Tent Embassy was approached by Kim Sattler and told that the Prime Minister’s office was on the phone, and wanted to speak to him. He didn’t take the call because he was in the middle of a radio interview.

The point being, it wasn’t a simple case of the PM’s office relating Abbott’s whereabouts to a third party, who then passed the information on to the Tent Embassy.

Gillard’s office actively sought to provide the information directly to the Tent Embassy.

That puts quite a different complexion on events from those advanced by Gillard – that Hodges had merely passed on the information to a colleague, who then blabbed it to the Embassy.

Media commentary has also missed the stark shift in Gillard’s rhetoric before the details of her media minder’s involvement emerged, and her rhetoric after.

A few hours following the event, Gillard played the role of ‘no big deal’ in a clear pitch to try and capitalise on widespread outrage against protestors, and sympathy for the way she was supposedly treated.

“I am made of pretty tough stuff and the police did a great job,” Gillard said on the evening of protest.

It was a brand of spin that worked – a Herald/Neilsen poll released a week after the Embassy debacle showed a six point rise in Gillard’s popularity, despite the involvement of her office in the leak.

It is Gillard’s highest rise in the polls since taking office.

But the morning after the event, Radio 2GB was reporting allegations that Gillard’s adviser had staged the whole event.

Realising she was firmly back in the frame – but this time at risk of losing public sympathy – Gillard went on the offensive.

The target was the Embassy protestors, who had suddenly become “violent”.

“The people who initiated those violent acts, the people who were involved in those violent acts are responsible for the violence that was there,” Gillard told media (indeed they were, and we all look forward to the police officers responsible being charged).

In the course of her press conference, Gillard referred to violence seven times.

Of course, she never actually saw any (unless you count her tripping over one of her security advisers and losing her shoe as violence), because as Channel 9 accurately reported, it occurred only after Gillard had left, and then, as the footage showed, only at the hands of police.

Gillard’s attempts to fit the blackfellas up when it’s clear her office had set out to orchestrate the entire incident is disgraceful.

It goes not only to her credibility and her fitness to hold office, but it speaks volumes about her ethics, her cowardice, and her willingness to play politics with the nation’s most disadvantaged people.

And then there’s Tony Abbott.

It was Abbott’s comments, after all, that sparked the whole debacle.

Granted, he did not call for the Tent Embassy to be “torn down”, although that was how media reported his comments.

Australian Associated Press paraphrased his comments, noting that the embassy should be “pulled down”. Like a game of Chinese whispers, media then embellished it further until finally it was reported Abbott wanted the Embassy “torn down”. The AAP story was posted on news websites around the nation. It remained uncorrected for two hours (and is now the subject of an internal AAP investigation).

But having been asked on the very day Aboriginal people were celebrating 40 years of resistance what he thought about it all, Abbott could have elected to say nothing, knowing what an important day it was for Aboriginal people.

Instead, he chose to twist the knife that he has plunged into the back of Aboriginal people on countless previous occasions.

Despite the fact Federal Police announced no charges would be laid against demonstrators – it is, after all, not a crime to be assaulted by police – we had to endure the better part of a week listening to the Opposition bleat about the need for a thorough investigation.

The events that followed his comments have also taken the focus off the full text of what Abbot actually said.

Apart from calling for the Embassy to “move on” Abbot added: “I think a lot has changed for the better since (the Embassy was established). I think the indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian.”

Sorry? The respect in which they are held by every Australian?

Tony Abbott is clearly not familiar with the myriad of Australian race-hate pages on Facebook, not to mention the views of the extreme right wing of his own party.

Has he not met Wilson Tuckey? And has Abbott never heard of Pauline Hanson, or David Oldfield?

His comments are clearly complete nonsense. Indeed they are Howard-esque in their ignorance (who can forget the former Prime Minister refusing to accept racism was a factor in the Cronulla riots, or predicting that the $2 billion NT intervention would cost “some tens of millions”).

Abbott, however, is rather blessed when it comes to media analysis.

Don’t hold your breath for media to revisit and analyse Abbott’s original remarks or Gillard’s deceit. And don’t wait for the media to correct the public record about the riot that never happened. In the words of Abbott, it’s time to move on.

Two children sit around the sacred fire at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

IN THE wash-up of the Tent Embassy debacle, a few opportunities have emerged.

The most important is a discussion – particularly among young Aboriginal people – about a way forward.

Many Aboriginal people were highly critical of the decision by some Tent Embassy activists to burn the Australian flag the day after the clash at The Lobby.

But what they perhaps miss is that while the story played out disastrously locally – Australians were outraged – it played out very positively internationally.

The world’s media doesn’t have to play parochial politics in its reporting of Aboriginal affairs, so overwhelmingly delivered a straight news report.

People around the world simply saw images of very angry people burning the Australian flag.

The effect internationally has been to shed further light on the atrocious relationship between black and white Australians. Regardless of your views of the actual incident, exposing the racist underbelly of this nation to the rest of the world is not a bad thing for the Aboriginal cause.

So to the opportunity for discussion – I think the debate really is about two classes of protesters – boardroom blackfellas, and grassroots activists (by that I mean ‘Embassy-style activists and mission blackfellas’).

I also think that Chicka Dixon was wrong. While I have enormous admiration for the man, if there’s no place for the street march, then there’s no place for grassroots activists.

They can’t battle it out in the boardroom, because they’ll never get in there. But nor can they sit on their hands and do nothing. Their frustration and their sense of alienation is no less relevant.

Just as there are two classes of protester, there must be two battlegrounds. But in engaging in the struggle, the grassroots activists face a number of specific hurdles.

The first is owning up to the reality that the behavior of some protestors – albeit a small minority – was, on occasion, disgraceful.

Internal tensions became so great during the four-day celebration that delegations from Western Australia and South Australia walked out.

At one point during a press conference, sanctioned by the Embassy, one Aboriginal man threatened a cameraman who had been invited on the grounds by Embassy officials.

“Don’t you f**king film me c**t or I’ll smash your f**king head in,” he screamed.

The cameraman had simply turned and panned around the Embassy grounds to get a different shot.

It was a disgraceful display, but one that was repeated by this man, and a few others (women included) over the course of the next few days.

During the march to burn the flag another Aboriginal man threatened to assault a number of journalists. Later that night, he arrived back at the Embassy drunk and started several altercations.

On yet another occasion, an Aboriginal man walked up the middle of the Embassy grounds with a baseball bat, threatening several people. He was chased off the grounds by dozens of Embassy activists.

As media camped up on the steps above the Embassy grounds innumerable Aboriginal people took it upon themselves to approach crews and hurl abuse. This occurred during officially sanctioned media conferences.

Most of these incidents were captured by news crews, but it’s worth acknowledging that none of them were reported. And with that, I also acknowledge the press gallery’s interactions with Embassy activists throughout the event was mostly professional and respectful. Shame about the subsequent reporting.

Even so, while the overwhelming majority of people at the Tent Embassy were also respectful and well-behaved, there was irrefutably an element that did themselves – and their cause – no favours.

The days of the street march may not be over, but the days of screaming abuse and bullying to get what you want must end. There can be no room in the Aboriginal struggle for this behavior anymore.

There are two other specific challenges for the grassroots activists, and they both relate to how they sell their message.

Media has evolved over the last 40 years. But the methods of grassroots activists have not. Unlike the 1972 Embassy protests, today we have a 24-hour news cycle.

The quickest way to feed a 24-hour news appetite is to run half-baked stories that confirm pre-existing notions about Aboriginal people.

Grassroots activists, on occasions, handed those stories up on a platter.

The other challenge is that their message hasn’t changed. That’s understandable given there’s been bugger-all progress on the issues that matter to Tent Embassy activists – treaty, sovereignty and national land rights.

But white Australia has tired of hearing the same message (if they ever heard it in the first place). So the challenge is to communicate demands in a way that breaks through.

What we saw at the Embassy a week ago was a complete inability to do that.

Instead, we saw in-fighting, abuse, chaos and very mixed messages.

Embassy activists told media that their beef was not with Gillard, but with Abbott. And yet news footage shows activists holding Gillard’s lost shoe aloft like a trophy (and for the record, it was returned… another story media overwhelmingly didn’t report).

A well-attended press conference at which Embassy officials listed their demands – sovereignty, treaty – was followed by the flag burning.

No prizes for guessing which story got dropped, and which got run.

The grassroots activists need to get more sophisticated in their message delivery.

That’s where the boardroom blackfellas have a role.

One of the sad realities of black political life in Australia is that in order to be listened to, Aboriginal Australians must put forward an ‘acceptable face’.

It’s why Noel Pearson gets so much traction. It’s why the attacks by Mick Gooda and Warren Mundine on ‘rioters’ dominated the news response to the debacle.

These men don’t threaten the status quo. They tell whites what they want to hear.

But delivering a difficult message to white Australia is not impossible – it just hangs on how it’s presented.

Working together, boardroom blackfellas and grassroots activists have a chance of breaking through.

They can reshape the media landscape, but above all else, they must remember two golden rules. The first is that boardroom blackfellas and grassroots activists are often the same people.

The second is the greatest tool of colonisation – the way whitefellas nowadays try to ‘civilise’ – is to turn one blackfella against another.

When blackfellas fight, whitefellas start rubbing their hands together and counting their cash.

The sooner Aboriginal Australia remembers that, the quicker the battle in the boardroom, and on the streets, will be won.

* Chris Graham is an Australian journalist specialising in Aboriginal Affairs. He has twice won the Human Rights Award for his reporting, and is a Walkley Award and a Walkley High Commendation winner. He lives in Glebe, Sydney.

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