Its story contains important lessons for the fight today.
‘Land now, not lease tomorrow’ In 1971 a Supreme Court challenge by the Yirrkala people against the Nabalco mining company ended with Justice Blackburn ruling that Aboriginal people had a spiritual connection to their land, but no property rights to it under law.
Then, on the eve of Invasion Day in 1972 Coalition Prime Minister Billy Mc Mahon announced that the government would not recognise land rights through legislation.
The next day four Aboriginal activists, Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Bertie Williams and Tony Coorey, travelled from Sydney to Canberra in a car driven by Communist Party photographer Noel Hazard to establish an Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
They planted a beach umbrella on the lawns of parliament house and held placards that read “Land rights now or else”, “Legally this land is our land.
Aboriginal people lived in squalid housing, facing the constant threat of eviction, lived in segregated communities and encountered daily police violence.
The failure of the Yirrkala court action and Mc Mahon’s subsequent rejection of land rights showed many people that neither parliament nor the existing legal system was going to guarantee an end to discrimination against Aboriginal people.
Radicalism The Tent Embassy drew inspiration from the growing student and working class radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s, including widespread strike action, the movement against the Vietnam War, as well as the anti-colonial struggles across the world and the civil rights movement in the US. In 1966 over 200 Aboriginal workers on Lord Vestey’s cattle station in the NT began a three-year strike against virtual slavery conditions.
White unionists from the Actors Equity Union and the Building Workers Industrial Union toured Gurindji people in workplaces across the country to speak about their struggle.
The NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) raised over $600 to support their strike action.
The Tent Embassy 40th anniversary protest this year has re-opened the debate about the relevance of Aboriginal protest.
The right-wing media has attacked it, using comments from conservative Aboriginal figures such as Warren Mundine, who called the protest “a disgrace” and declared that the Tent Embassy no longer represented the majority of Aboriginal people.
But 40 years on, the Tent Embassy’s demands are every bit as relevant today as they were in 1972.
The Northern Territory Intervention laws expire in June this year, and although the punitive policies have failed by every social measure, Minister Jenny Macklin is determined to entrench the government’s racist policies for another ten years.
The Tent Embassy showed that a protest movement that set out to confront the government could put Aboriginal rights on the agenda and win real changes.
We shall take it if need be” and “Land now not lease tomorrow” on the morning of Invasion Day 1972.
Originally this was intended as a protest stunt to highlight how Aboriginal people continued to live as aliens in their own land.
But when they arrived they discovered that a legal loophole allowed camping on the Parliamentary lawns.
When they realised they could not be removed they began erecting tents.
The Tent Embassy remained for several months and became a central rallying point for the Aboriginal rights movement.
Queensland University students raised the money to send a busload of radical black activists down to Canberra.
Others came from across the country came to join them.
The Embassy was a constant embarrassment to the Mc Mahon government.
Hoping it would disappear they claimed it represented only a “handful of militants.” But the Embassy represented the demands of more than a handful.
After the landslide 1967 referendum, which extended citizenship to Aboriginal people, campaigners had hoped conditions in Aboriginal communities would improve. The government continued to revoke Aboriginal reserve land, forcing families into the cities.
In Melbourne 4000 wharfies struck for a week against the rugby tour.
Due to the success of the campaign, no South African team toured Australia until apartheid ended in 1994.
A leading activist from the time, Meredith Burgmann, recalls: “young Aboriginal activists of the time were very prominent in the demonstrations against the Springboks, so people like me had actually met and started working with Aboriginal activists.” The union involvement against apartheid showed how workers could be won to taking up anti-racist demands.
These struggles showed how Aboriginal people could unite with white workers to fight back and win against racism.
Land rights The Tent Embassy gave a boost to the campaign for land rights.