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No. 3 1999-2000

Aboriginal » « Tent » « Embassy » : « Icon » « or » « Eyesore ?

Coral Dow

Social Policy Group

4 April 2000



Beginnings and issues

Symbolism: The site and the Aboriginal Flag


Aboriginal Tent Embassy: Chronology



This chronology documents events in the history of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, events which, apart from publicity surrounding its erection and removal in 1972, have been poorly chronicled.(1) It aims to p rovide an overview of Aboriginal political protest within the Parliamentary triangle and Government reaction to such protest. It also chronicles the change in embassy demands for land rights to the wider call for recognition of sovereignty and focuses on some of the issues associated with the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. These include its symbolic significance, its political agenda, government reaction to the embassy and public debate of the aesthetics and legitimacy of the embassy. To provide contextual background the chronology includes significant Government decisions pertaining to land rights, self-determination and a treaty.

Beginnings and issues

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy has become part of Canberra's physical and political landscape. It has intermittentl y existed on the lawns of Old Parliament House since Australia Day 1972 and permanently since Australia Day 1992. In that time it has achieved legendary status in Aboriginal political history and many activists have attributed the raising of their political consciousness and education to the embassy. Shirley Smith (Mum Shirl) classed her experience of embassy politics as 'the beginning of a whole new road for me, another education, and learning about politics. If I was going to think of a sign along the road of my life that marked, for me, the beginning of militant Black Power politics, that sign would have printed on it—Aboriginal Embassy'.(2) Gary Foley stated that from his experience at the embassy he had 'learned a great deal about how one makes history, and the nature of history itself, in terms of perspective, power and the ability for the powerful to impose their interpretation on the rest of us'.(3)

The embassy began as a response to the then Coalition Government's refusal to recognise land rights. The embassy's protest on government policy, along with the Gurindji people's walk off at Wave Hill and the Nabalco case of 1971,(4) was a cornerstone in the history of the land rights movement in Australia. However the embassy's petition, drawn up in February 1972, indicated that the issues of self determination and sovereignty, especially in the Northern Territory, were also central to the campaign. These issues gradually replaced land rights as the embassy's central platform. In 1979 the embassy, by then re-established on Capital Hill, site of the proposed new Parliament House, called for a Bill of Aboriginal Rights and recognition of Aboriginal Sovereignty. In 1992 when the embassy was re-established at Old Parliament House a Declaration of Aboriginal Sovereignty was presented to the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, the Hon. Robert Tickner.

From its inception the embassy combined a mixture of politics, symbolism and theatre which governments and administrators found difficult to counter. The choice of Canberra was significant. When a group of Aborigines met in Sydney to plan a response to Prime Minister McMahon's offer of general purpose leases rather than land rights, Chicka Dixon wanted to take over Pinchgut Island in Sydney 'not just take it over, defend it, because what had happened, the Indians had taken over Alcatraz at the same time and I wanted to put our plight into the eyes of the world'.(5) He was outvoted by those who chose Canberra where, on 26 January (Australia Day), Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Bertie Williams and Tony Coorey set up the protest under a beach umbrella on the lawns of Parliament House.(6) Gary Foley remembered one of them coming up with the 'brilliant idea of saying "this is an embassy: the Prime Minister's statement yesterday effectively makes us aliens in our own land, so like the other aliens we need an embassy"'.(7) The simple act of hanging the name 'Embassy' on the tent was only possible in the nation's capital and it was this symbolic statement that worried the Government. The Hon. Peter Howson, Minister for the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts in McMahon's government, described the use of the name 'Aboriginal Embassy' as a 'disturbing undertone…The term implied a sovereign state and cut across the Government's expressed objection to separate development and was kindred to apartheid'.(8) Similar arguments have been used to reject calls for a treaty, most recently by Prime Minister Howard in opposing the concept that reconciliation might take the form of a treaty.

One of the enduring criticisms of the embassy has been couched in aesthetic terms. To many it was, and still is, an 'eyesore.' In 1972 embassy spokesperson, John Newfong, countered the first of these accusations by stating: 'If people think this is an eyes ore, well it is the way it is on Government settlements. The place is beginning to look as tired as we are…we all wish we were in other places doing other things. But we know we have to stay here until we get what we want'.(9) Twenty seven years later, the argument had not changed. National Capital Authority (NCA) chairman, Air Marshal David Evans, described the embassy as an 'eyesore and a blight on the national capital'.(10) However, such criticism has effectively been incorporated into the tent embassy's campaign-as a symbolic reminder to policy makers, planners, residents and tourists of the conditions in which many Indigenous Australians live. Spokesperson Isabell Coe took another angle when she stated in 1999: 'they reckon we're an eyesore…this country has become an eyesore'.(11) As part of what might be termed an 'aesthetic cleansing' process, governments have tried to trade off  removal of the embassy in return for permanent meeting rooms, memorial plaques and reconciliation paths. The first of these moves was made in 1972 by the Minister for the Interior, the Hon. Ralph Hunt, who promised to find a permanent Canberra building or 'club' in return for removal of the embassy.(12) The Whitlam Labor Government's Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Senator, the Hon. James Cavanagh, tried similar tactics in 1974(13) and in 1999 the Minister for Territories, Senator, the Hon. Ian Macdonald sought alternative arrangements and called on the National Capital Authority for assistance.(14)

In July 1972 the embassy was removed by police in, reportedly, one of the most violent confrontations experienced in Canberra.(15) Following the confrontation, the Government attempted to portray the Aboriginal Tent Embassy as unrepresentative of Aboriginal opinion. Prime Minister McMahon told the Victorian Liberal Party State Council that 'Aborigines in the north were opposed to unrest and violence among Aborigines in the south'.(16) He was supported by Mr. Howson who attempted unsuccessfully to use a meeting of the National Conference of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Councillors whom he described as 'truly representative of all Aborigines,' to gain support for the Government's policies.(17) However the National Conference gave embassy spokespersons delegate status and passed a resolution calling for the re-establishment of the embassy and recognition of land rights.(18) The Age concluded—'the Government is sadly out of touch with even conservative Aboriginal opinion…. If any issue has the potential to draw the various Aboriginal groups together behind a common flag, it is land rights'.(19) When Faith Bandler, Secretary of the moderate Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), concluded the Government's handling of the embassy had 'brought everybody together and strengthened ties between the black people',(20) it was obvious the Government's attempts to divide Aboriginal opinion and portray the embassy as unrepresentative had failed. Bandler stated—'We've never been involved in party politics before but we've no alternative. Getting rid of the McMahon government is the goal of everyone now—it's a priority even over lands rights'.(21) Similarly, Senator Macdonald in 1999 appeared to play on perceived differences of local opinion when he claimed 'The Ngunnawal people don't want [the embassy] there, they find it embarrassing. They refer to the people who run it as the Redfern mob'.(22)

Symbolism: The site and the Aboriginal Flag

Governments have tried, with varying success, to r emove the embassy by use of police force, invoking territory ordinances and planning guidelines, direct negotiation and simply turning a blind eye with the hope that the embassy would fizzle out. In the intervening years the embassy has developed a significance to some Aboriginal people who can be heard describing it in terms of sacredness. For example, in 1997 when Arthur and Rose Kirby chose to be married at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Arthur Kirby said he and his wife had marched many times from the embassy and the place was sacred to them. In getting married there, they were showing their respect for the site.(23) It has also been the site of memorial services for embassy activists Billy Craigie and Kevin Gilbert.(24) In recent years protests have taken on a more symbolic and ceremonial style with the lighting of a sacred fire at the 1998 anniversary, the erection of 211 spears at Parliament House which the National Capital Authority classed as 'unapproved structures,' and the use of six 'white spirit sticks' representing the six 'fallen warriors of the Tent Embassy'.(25)

In 1972 supporters determined that an embassy and its sovereign nation required a flag. The tent embassy staff set about designing and making their flag. The first flag flown was  black, green and red, black to represent the people, green the land and red the blood shed by Aborigines. It was made by supporters in Sydney and flown in February 1972.(26) By April 1972 this flag, described in the press as a Black Unity or African Congress flag, was joined by another consisting of  a spear laid across a red and black background with four crescents looking inward to symbolise the black rights struggle from the four corners of Australia.(27) It wasn't until July 1972 that the black red and yellow Aboriginal flag designed by Aboriginal artist, Harold Thomas, and first flown in Adelaide on NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islanders Day Observance Committee) day in 1971 was flown in Canberra. In 1995 that flag, so closely associated with the history of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy that it is often mistakenly described as having been created at the embassy, achieved official status, albeit with some opposition. Critics of the gazettal included Harold Thomas who claimed 'the people who are making and support this move have no idea about symbols. The Aboriginal flag is a symbol of the struggle…There are many people who have benefited both psychologically and spiritually over the past 25 years from that flag. It doesn't need any more recognition'.(28)

In the same year the Aboriginal Tent Embassy's place in history and as a symbolic site was recognised through its listing on the National Estate by the Australian Heritage Commission. The site was the only place recognised nationally for the political struggle of Aboriginal people.(29) The listing recognised the significance of the site, not only for the political struggle of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, but also through its occupation by the Ngunnawal people and the protest by Aboriginal elder, Jimmy Clements, at the opening of Parliament House in 1927.(30) Senator Macdonald, said he found the listing 'incredible ….nothing should be done to make permanent that collection of ramshackle and illegal buildings'.(31)

Considering the failure in achieving a treaty, dissension over Native Title and debate on the Preamble, devolution of ATSIC's responsibilities and a lessening government emphasis on self-determination, it would seem unlikely that demands for recognition of sovereignty will be easily achieved. Consequently the Aboriginal Tent Embassy is likely to remain a feature of the Parliamentary Triangle's landscape and opinion will remain divided over whether the Aboriginal Tent Embassy should be regarded as a national 'icon' or an 'eyesore.'



  1. With the exception of Scott Robinson's work, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy has received scant scholarly attention. Consequently this chronology has been compiled primarily from media sources. As an aid to further reading the bibliography includes some press reports with a more analytical emphasis and the few published journal articles.
  2. Mum Sh irl an autobiography. 2nd edn. Mammoth Publishing. Port Melbourne, 1992, p. 110.
  3. Koori Mail , 8 September 1999.
  4. A group of Aboriginal people from Arnhem Land challenged bauxite mining leases over their traditional lands by seeking recognition of their land rights under the doctrine of communal native title. Justice Blackburn of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory rejected their claim. See Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd . (1971) 17 FLR 141.
  5. Transcript of ' First in line ' programme, 22 August 1989.
  6. Press reports at the time listed Kevin Johnston, Michael Anderson and Billy Craigie as the three who set up the Embassy. Later interviews seem to agree that the four were Anderson, Craigie, Williams and Coorey. (See interviews conducted by Scott Robinson in 'The Aboriginal Embassy: an account of the Protests of 1972.' Aboriginal History , Vol. 18 (1): 1994, pp. 49-63 ; also John Newfong in Sunday Telegraph , 31 January 1999; Chicka Dixon ' First in line ' programme 22 August 1989).
  7. Gary Foley in The Age , 14 April 1995; see also The Australian , 10 February 1972.
  8. Canberra News , 31 January 1972.
  9. Sydney Morning Herald , 16 May 1972.
  10. Canberra Times , 27 January 1999.
  11. Canberra Times , 14 August 1999.
  12. See Peter Howson's account of events in The Howson diaries: the life of politics. Ringwood, Vic.: Viking, 1984.
  13. The Austral ian , 28 March 1974; Canberra News , 29 March 1974.
  14. Canberra Times , 12 August and 14 August 1999.
  15. Scott Robinson. 'The Aboriginal Embassy: an account of the Protests of 1972.' Aboriginal History , Vol. 18 (1): 1994, pp. 49-63.
  16. The Age , 31 July 1972.
  17. Canberra News , 11 August 1972.
  18. Canberra Times , 11 August 1972.
  19. Canberra Times , 11 and 12 August 1972; The Age , 15 August 1972.
  20. The Bulletin , 5 August 1972.
  21. The Bulletin , 5 August 1972.
  22. Canberra Times , 12 August 1999.
  23. Canberra Times , 26 July 1997.
  24. The Age , 3 April 1993; Canberra Times , 12 August 1998.
  25. Sydney Morning Herald , 11 February and 16 February 1999.
  26. Canberra Times , 2 February 1972
  27. The Australian , 29 April 1972; Sydney Morning Herald , 16 May 1972; Chicka Dixon in The Age , 14 April 1995; John Newfong, Sunday Te legraph , 31 January 1999. A photograph of the latter flag appeared in the Sun , 13 September 1972.  It is now kept at the Cowra Cultural Centre.
  28. Harold Thomas in Land Rights News , July 1995, p. 3. See also: 'Aboriginal flag is twenty years old,' ATSIC News , Spring 1991, pp. 8-9.; Ian Anderson, 'Flag of convenience,' The Independent Monthly , February 1995.
  29. Australian Heritage Commission Chairperson, Wendy McCarthy. Quoted in Canberra Times, 10 April 1995.
  30. See Australian Heritage Commission, Aboriginal Embassy Site , 2p. AHC Canberra, [1995] and National Estate Place Report: Aboriginal Embassy Site:
  32. Canberra Times , 10 April 1995; The Age , 14 April 1995.



Aboriginal Tent Embassy: Chronology



Sour ce Documents



25 January

Prime Minister William McMahon outlined the Government's long awaited statement on Aboriginal land rights. Freehold land rights are rejected in favour of fifty-year general purpose leases to Aboriginal communities for soci al and economic purposes.

The Australian Aborigines: Commonwealth policy and achievements. Statement by the Prime Minister Rt. Hon. William McMahon, 26 January 1972.

26 January

In response to Mr McMahon's statement, Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Berti e Williams and Tony Coorey set up a protest under a beach umbrella on the lawns of Parliament House, Canberra and proclaimed themselves the 'Aboriginal Embassy'.

Canberra News , 27 January 1972; The Age , 28 January 1972; Sydney Morning Herald, 28 January 1972.

31 January

The Minister for the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts, Mr Peter Howson, said 'there was a disturbing undertone in the use of the term "Aboriginal Embassy". The term implied a sovereign state and cut across the Government's expressed ob jection to separate development and was kindred to apartheid.'

Canberra News , 31 January 1972.

2 February

Aboriginal Tent Embassy prepared to fly own black, green and red flag.

Canberra Times , 2 February 1972.

5-6 February

Aboriginal Tent Embassy dre w up a petition to present to Parliament. It outlined a five point plan for land rights:

Control of the Northern Territory as a State within the Commonwealth of Australia; the parliament in the Northern Territory to be predominantly Aboriginal with title a nd mining rights to all land within the Territory.

Legal title and mining rights to all other presently existing reserve lands and settlements throughout Australia.

The preservation of all sacred sites throughout Australia.

Legal title and mining rights to areas in and around all Australian capital cities.

Compensation monies for lands not returnable to take the form of a down-payment of six billion dollars and an annual percentage of the gross national income.

The Age , 8 February 1972; John Newfong. 'The Aboriginal Embassy: its purpose and aims,' Identity , 1 (5):4-6, July 1972.

8 February

Leader of Opposition, Mr Gough Whitlam, visited the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, discussed the petition and promised that a Labor Government would 'absolutely reverse' the G overnment's policy on land rights, allowing 'ownership of land by tribal communities'. He also promised the introduction of a civil rights bill, overruling State laws that discriminated against Aborigines, a fully elected Legislative Assembly in the Northern Territory with a non-discrimination charter and free legal representation for Aborigines to test their rights in court.

The Australian , 9 February 1972; Sydney Morning Herald, 9 February 1972; The Age, 10 February 1972.

22 February

With Parliament in session, a rally outside Parliament House called for land rights. 60 protestors attended question time. In The Age , Michelle Grattan stated 'the Aborigines were making a symbolic stand against all the injustices they felt at the hands of white society. It was an occasion for stressing "blackness"'.

The Age , 23 February 1972.

23 February

In a ministerial statement on Aboriginal Land Rights, Mr Howson reiterated the Government's policy announced by Prime Minister McMahon on Australia Day and claimed that f reehold ownership of land was 'alien to Aboriginal  thought and custom'.

Hansard. House of Representatives,  
23 February 1972, pp. 122-124.

23 February

The Minister for the Interior, Mr Ralph Hunt, told Parliament the Government was considering the quest ion of ensuring that the area opposite Parliament House was reserved for orderly and peaceful demonstrations, but not one on which people could camp indefinitely.

The Age , 24 February 1972.

9 March

Mr Kep Enderby MHR gave notice of motion 'that this hous e is of the opinion that the lawns in front of Parliament House should always remain available to the people of Australia for the purpose of peaceful assembly to demonstrate political points of view in a manner of their own choice and that no limit should be placed on the duration of such assembly'.

Canberra News , 11 May 1972.

26 April

Three months after its establishment the Aboriginal Tent Embassy consisted of six tents and was staffed by John Newfong, Brian Marshall, Vickie Marshall, Choc Moore, Billy Harrison, Ambrose Brown and Alan Sharpley. Ambrose Brown stated: 'We've achieved recognition, just by being here, that we're part of the country and not just alien. We haven't made the Government change its policy, but we've succeeded in embarrassing it, and we've made people think about the Aboriginal cause'. The embassy flew two flags: the African Congress flag, and a brown and black Aboriginal flag.

The Australian , 29 April 1972.

11 May

Minister for the Interior, Mr. Hunt, announced the Government's in tention to bring in an Ordinance which will 'fill a need in relation to the law regarding trespass on Commonwealth lands in Canberra'. The Ordinance would make it an offence to camp on unleased Commonwealth land within the city. Mr Enderby responds: 'The Aborigines are exercising one of the most fundamental ancient rights recognised by British law. This is the right of peaceful assembly for the purpose of communicating a political point of view and informing the Parliament of a grievance they claimed to have'. Seven petitions from ACT residents presented to Parliament calling on the Government not to introduce the ordinance.

Canberra News , 11 May 1972; The Age , 12 May 1972.

12 May

Thirty Federal Labor parliamentarians promised physical action to prevent th e removal of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 1972.

15 May

Aboriginal Tent Embassy spokesperson, John Newfong, announced the possibility of replacing the tents with prefabricated wooden huts: 'If people think this is an eyesore, well it is the way it is on Government settlements. The place is beginning to look as tired as we are…we all wish we were in other places doing other things. But we know we have to stay here until we get what we want. So far we've only had promises. We want to see what happens after the election'.

Sydney Morning Herald , 16 May 1972.

13 July

An embassy established in Adelaide (following a consulate in Perth). The Adelaide embassy flew the red, black and yellow Aboriginal flag designed by Harold Thomas an d first flown in Adelaide in 1971.

Adelaide Advertiser , 14 July 1972.

20 July

During a Parliamentary recess the amended Trespass on Commonwealth Lands Ordinance was gazetted. Following gazettal 60 police removed tents and arrested eight people. 150 people marched from police headquarters to the site of the dismantled embassy. The Labor Party lodged a notice of motion for the disallowance of the ordinance. Senator Neville Bonner predicted an upsurge of Black Power violence in Australia. The Age editor claimed that 'the risk is that in demolishing one symbol, the Government might have established violence as a new symbol of black-white relationships'.

The Age , 21 July 1972.

21 July

Michelle Grattan wrote on the removal of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy: 'The "embassy" with its flags, "chancery" and gay tents, caught the imagination of Australians and focussed attention all over the world on the plight and problems of the Aborigines. The protest united the mass movement techniques used by "sophisticated" demonstrators everywhere during the past decade, with the traditional patient waiting which the Gurindjis showed in their land claims at Wattie Creek in the Northern Territory… thing the embassy protest has done is to make the whole Aboriginal question very much a live political issue'.

The Age , 22 July 1972.

23 July

Meeting between Department of Interior officials and Aboriginal Tent Embassy representatives at which the Dept. refused permission to re-erect tents. Following the meeting 200 demonstrators tr ied to re-establish the embassy and 18 people were arrested. The demonstrators were addressed by Gary Williams, Len Watson, Mike Anderson, Chicka Dixon, Paul Coe, Bobbi Sykes, Shirley Smith and Dennis Walker. 'They spoke thousands of words, on an historic occasion, and none or very few, were reported in the Australian press.' Gary Foley later described the day as 'one of the most violent confrontations in the history of Canberra' and Chicka Dixon as 'the most violent event he had witnessed'.

The Age , 24 July 1972; Stewart Harris (Canberra correspondent to the London Times) , quoted in The Age , 29 July 1972; Scott Robinson. 'The Aboriginal Embassy: an account of the Protests of 1972.' Aboriginal History vol.18 (1) 1994,  
pp. 49-63.

25 July

Mr Justice Fox, in the ACT Supreme Court, dismissed an application for an interim injunction against the Minister for the Interior, Mr Hunt, that he not prevent the re-erection of the embassy tents.

Sydney Morning Herald , 26 July 1972.

27 July

Minister for the Environment , Aborigines and the Arts, Mr Howson, refused to meet a delegation of Aboriginal Tent Embassy representatives, who then sent a telegram to the Prime Minister asking him to meet them and to 'intervene at once to prevent a national black crisis including bloodshed and possible deaths'.

The Age , 28 July 1972.

30 July

2000 people marched to Parliament House and the embassy was re-erected. In contrast to earlier violent confrontations there was a stand-off and the Police allowed peaceful protest before they re moved tents.

The Age , 31 July 1972.


Secretary of FCAATSI, Faith Bandler, claimed the Government's actions and attitudes had 'brought everybody together and strengthened ties between the black people. Now most of them are strongly and violently anti-McMa hon…We've never been involved in party politics before but we've no alternative. Getting rid of the McMahon government is the goal of everyone now—it's a priority even over lands rights'.

The Bulletin , 5 August 1972.

10-11 August

The national conference of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Councillors, convened by the Government, met in Canberra. The 66 councillors were described by the Minister for the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts, Mr Howson, as 'truly representative of all Aborigines'. In an Age editorial it was claimed the conference was 'staged' by Mr Howson to obtain 'views more moderate and less militant than those emanating for the past six months from the black "embassy" and its staff. However the conference voted to give Aboriginal Tent Embassy representatives full speaking and voting rights. Significant resolutions passed by the conference  included 'reserved lands on which Aborigines are now living be returned to the ownership of those people living on reserves and settlements'; a call for the Federal Government to take complete control of Aboriginal affairs and a motion to allow the embassy to be re-established on the lawns of Parliament House.

Canberra Times , 11 and 12 August 1972; The Age , 15 August 1972.

15 August

Parliam ent resumed for the budget session. The Opposition moved a no-confidence motion in the Minister for the Interior over his handling of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy's removal. Replying to the motion, Mr Hunt said the embassy when finally removed had 'degenerated into a squabbling, untidy and insanitary spectacle'.

The Australian , 16 August 1972.

12 September

The full bench of the ACT Supreme Court judged that the Trespass on Commonwealth Lands Ordinance had not been notified in accordance with the Seat of Government (Administration) Act and therefore was not in effect. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was re-erected by Bob McLeod, Tiga Bayles, Bob Bellear and Ambrose Golden-Brown who were due to appear in court on charges arising out of earlier demonstrations. A Bill to restore retrospectively the ordinance, and many other Commonwealth ordinances, was passed in the House of Representatives. Mr Killen (Lib, Qld) crossed the floor to vote with the Opposition and claimed all charges should be dropped. The ordinance was re-gazetted and the tents removed the following morning.

Canberra Times , 13 and 14 September 1972; The Age , 13 September 1972.

2 December

Labor Government elected. Prime Minister Whitlam reaffirmed land rights as part of the Government's legislative pr ogram. Commonwealth Government took more control of Aboriginal Affairs through the creation of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Gordon Bryant appointed Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.




25 January

First anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Emb assy. Government announced all charges arising out of the removal of the embassy in July 1972 would be dropped.

Sydney Morning Herald , 26 January 1973.

8 February

Justice Woodward appointed by Labor Government to conduct a Commission of Inquiry into Abori ginal land rights in the Northern Territory. All applications for mining and exploration leases on Northern Territory Aboriginal reserves frozen.


19 July

First report from Justice Woodward's Commission of Inquiry into Land Rights.


14 August

Gary Fole y and Paul Coe, critical of the way the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) would be elected, claimed that the Aboriginal Tent Embassy might 'soon be re-established on the lawns of Parliament House'.

West Australian , 14 August 1973.

17 Octob er

A sit-in on the steps of Parliament House by 70 Aborigines. They demanded Aboriginal control of the Dept. of Aboriginal Affairs and widening of the terms of reference of the Woodward inquiry on land rights. They also were unhappy with the removal of Go rdon Bryant as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. Embassy re-erected. The sit in ended when the Prime Minister, Mr Whitlam, agreed to meet a delegation. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Senator Cavanagh, assured the protestors that the embassy would not be removed.

Canberra Times , 18 October 1973; Sydney Morning Herald , 18 October 1973.

18 October

Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh attended a parliamentary lunch. Aboriginal Tent Embassy protestors gave Duke of Edinburgh a list of their demands.

W est Australian , 19 October 1973.

24 October

Delegation from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy called on the Government to end 'police brutality of black people, to take action to curb the high infant mortality rate among Aborigines, to improve housing conditi ons and to honour the Aboriginal land rights claim'.

Canberra News , 24 October 1973.

25 October

Gary Foley, Coordinator of the 'Canberra Aboriginal Embassy', stated Aborigines wanted the terms of reference of the Woodward Commission to be widened to incl ude compensation for land alienation, minerals and water rights.

Adelaide Advertiser , 26 October 1973.


41 delegates elected to the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC).




22 February

In an interview with the New Zealand Herald , Aboriginal Tent Embassy spokesperson, Bob McLeod, demanded Aboriginal control of the Northern Territory with title and mining rights, preservation of all sacred sites, legal and mining rights to areas around capital cities, compensation for Aboriginal lands, an end to the assimilation policy, recognition of minority rights and Aboriginal representation in power structures.

New Zealand Herald , 23 February 1974.

27 March

The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Senator Cavanagh, told a meeting of the Natio nal Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) that the Government would build Aborigines a permanent headquarters in Canberra, but only after the removal of the embassy which he described as 'unsightly'. NACC member, Joe McGuinness, said the Aboriginal Tent Embassy should remain as a reminder to white Australians and others that Aborigines had no land rights.

The Australian , 28 March 1974; Canberra News, 29 March 1974.

3 May

Second report of Justice Woodward's Commission of Inquiry into Land Rights. He reco mmended recognising rights to traditional and other lands and the right to veto exploration or mining on traditional land.


30 May

Aboriginal Tent Embassy blown down in storm. Embassy and its contents 'safeguarded' by the Department of the Capital Territ ory.

The Age , 18 June 1974.

2 July

Labor Government accepted in principle the recommendations contained in Justice Woodward's second report.


30 October

The Organisation of Aboriginal Unity re-established the Aboriginal Tent Embassy to protest at the ad ministration of Aboriginal affairs. They staged a sit-in at the Dept. of Aboriginal Affairs and  on the steps of Parliament House. The embassy, renamed the 'Canberra Aboriginal Reserve', accused the Prime Minister, Mr Whitlam, of forgetting promises made to the embassy in 1972.

Herald , 30 October 1974;  The Australian , 31 October 1974; Canberra Times , 7 November 1974.

21 November

The Organisation for Aboriginal Unity said the 'mission' would remain on the Parliament House lawns until: 'The Dept. of Aborig inal Affairs was abolished; all reserves and land on which blacks were now living were handed back to them in full ownership; compensation for land lost was paid plus a percentage of the annual gross income; an Aboriginal commission was formed to handle Aboriginal affairs and distribute all funds; all budget submissions were met and approved in time to enable all black organisations to function at the requirement of the people'.

Canberra Times , 22 November 1974.




13 February

Charles Perkins and Minister for the Capital Territory, Gordon Bryant, negotiated removal of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy for two months in which time the Government would be given a chance 'to do something positive about land rights not only for tribal Aboriginals but also for urban Aboriginals'.

Canberra Times , 14 February 1975.

11 November

Parliament prorogued by Governor-General. Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Bill lapsed.



Liberal-National Party coalition elected as Federal Government.





Embassy re -established by the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) in the home of retired army colonel, Mr John Moloney, 26 Mugga Way, Red Hill, ACT,   to protest Coalition Government cutbacks to Aboriginal organisations and the threat to abolish the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC).

AM (Radio transcript), 19 March 1976; Sydney Morning Herald , 20 March 1976; Direct Action , 29 April 1976.

11 April

The Aboriginal flag was raised at the 'Embassy of the Aboriginal Nation' in Red Hill.

Th e Age , 12 April 1976.


The Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act passed by Parliament.




26 January

Fifth anniversary of tent embassy. Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act , passed by Parliament in 1976, came into effect.


31 August

'Embassy of the Aboriginal Nation' in Mugga Way, Red Hill closed.

Canberra Times , 1 September 1977.


National Aboriginal Congress (NAC) elected. NAC could only advise on issues referred by the Minister.





National Aboriginal Congress chairperson, Lois O'Donoghue, admitted that she had 'to clamp down heavily' on NAC attempts to reconvene the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

Adelaide Advertiser , 17 May 1978.




National Aboriginal Conference proposed a treaty.


7 August

Following a conference of the Organisation for Aboriginal Unity in NSW, the embassy was re-established, under the name of 'National Aboriginal Government', on Capital Hill, site of the proposed new Parliament House. The embassy spokespersons claimed they w ould not move until the Federal Government agreed to introduce a Bill of Aboriginal Rights and recognised Aboriginal sovereignty. Spokesperson Kevin Gilbert said the bill of rights should include cash compensation for loss of land; payment of a fixed percentage of GNP to an elected Aboriginal forum; return of all traditional land and all land where massacres of Aborigines had occurred; handing over to Aborigines of all missions and stations occupied by Aborigines.

The Age , 8 August 1979; Direct Action , 1 November 1979.

21 August

Budget day. A march from embassy on Capital Hill to Parliament House where the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Senator Chaney, invited representatives from the embassy to discuss their claims with him, but stated that he regarded the National Aboriginal Conference as the key group to discuss the Treaty proposal. His invitation was declined by the National Aboriginal Government who claimed he should visit their headquarters on Capital Hill.

Senator Chaney, Press release, 21 August 1979; Canberra Times , 22 August 1979; The Australian , 7 September 1987.



26 January

Tenth anniversary. A commemorative meeting was held at Parliament House. Speakers included one of the original four protestors, Michael Anderson, who said they ha d not imagined what momentum they would generate. 'We just knew we were coming here to have a vigil. It was a protest against Billy McMahon's policy, announced on Australia Day, to grant general purpose leases. There was no way in the world they were going to convince us to lease our own land.'

The Age , 27 January 1982.




Labor Government announces its 'Preferred National Land Rights Model.' Effectively a campaign for national land rights legislation, it was rejected by the States and opposed by the mining industry.


30 June

National Aboriginal Congress (NAC) abolished.




5 March

Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced his Government would not proceed with legislation for national land rights.

Australian Financial Review , 6 March 1986.

30 Ap ril

National Coalition of Aboriginal Organisations (NCAO) formed as a 'result of three years of shell shock inflicted by the Hawke Government'.

Australian Financial Review, 30 April 1986.



19-21 June

Members of the Sovereign Aboriginal Coalition met in Alice Springs. Following the meeting a Draft Treaty and Aboriginal Sovereign Position and Legal Entitlement was written by Kevin Gilbert in consultation with the Sovereign Aboriginal Coalition.

Kevin Gilbert. Aboriginal Sovereignty, Justice, the Law and the Land. 3 rd ed. Burrambinga Books, Canberra, 1993.



26 January

Aboriginal protest concentrated on Sydney's Bicentennial celebrations. An Aboriginal Tent Embassy was erected at Mrs Macquarie's Chair on Sydney Harbour foreshore to draw attent ion to the 'Aboriginal struggle for land rights and self-determination'.

Sydney Morning Herald , 18 January 1988.

12 June

At the Burunga sports and cultural festival the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, was presented with a petition framed by bark paintings. No w known as the Barunga Statement, the petition called for recognition of a wide range of Indigenous rights including a negotiated Treaty. The Prime Minister responded with a commitment to a negotiated Treaty with Aboriginal people.

Land Rights news 2:9 (July 1988); Sydney Morning Herald , 13 June 1988.





Embassy set up in Grevillea Park, Canberra by the 'Sovereign Aboriginal Congress'. One hundred delegates met and rejected the reconciliation legislation passed the week before.

Canberra Ti mes , 23 August 1991.



26 January

Twentieth anniversary. Aboriginal Tent Embassy was re-established on lawns of Old Parliament House and vacant Old Parliament House occupied by 60 protestors. Bill Craigie stated  'twenty years down the track we fou nd we had to re-establish the embassy because Aboriginal affairs was starting to stagnate back to the position prior to '72….we're now asking the politicians and the rest of white Australia to recognise us as a race of people and to recognise us as the sovereign owners of this country'.

Sydney Morning Herald , 28 January 1992; Age , 4 February 1992; Canberra Times , 27 January 1992.

28 January

Members of the embassy presented the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Mr Robert Tickner, with the Declaration of Aboriginal Sovereignty which had earlier been sent to the United Nations and foreign embassies. Protestors removed from Old Parliament House and four arrested. The arrests were organised so that claims for sovereignty and land rights could be heard by the courts.

The Australian , 29 January 1992; Canberra Times , 29 January 1992;  The Age , 2 February 1992.

3 February

100 protestors marched from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy to the Magistrates Court, Canberra, in support of four prote stors arrested on 28 January. In court, lawyers Charles Kilduff and Paul Coe unsuccessfully sought a stay of proceedings so the matter of the Aboriginal peoples' quest for ownership and sovereignty of the Australian continent could be heard by the International Court of Justice. Four found guilty of trespassing on Commonwealth property.

Canberra Times , 4 February 1992; Canberra Times , 18 April 1992; Canberra Times , 27 September 1992.

27 May

The 1967 referendum was mourned at a ceremony at the Aboriginal T ent Embassy. Kevin Gilbert claimed that citizenship had not resulted in human rights or equality for Aborigines.

Canberra Times , 28 May 1992.




2 April

Kevin Gilbert died aged 60. A memorial service was held at Aboriginal Tent Embassy on 8 April.

The Age , 3 April 1993.




In hearings before the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories, the Australian Federal Police and the National Capital Authority stated they had no power to remove the Aborigi nal Tent Embassy. A member of the Committee, Senator Crichton-Browne, described the embassy as a 'squalid slum that should be removed'.

The Age , 10 April 1994.



9 April

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy site was registered on the National Estate by the Australian Heritage Commission. A ceremony marking the listing was attended by many Aboriginal activists connected with the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, including Chicka Dixon, Gary Foley, Tony Coorey and Denis Walker. Opposition spokesman for Regional Development, Senator Ian Macdonald, said he found the listing 'incredible ….nothing should be done to make permanent that collection of ramshackle and illegal buildings'.

Canberra Times , 10 April 1995; The Age , 14 April 1995.

14 July

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags gazetted as official flags under section 5 of the Flags Act 1953 .




20 August

Government budget reduced ATSIC funding by $400 million. 1000 people gathered at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and marched to Parliament House to protest a t the cuts. Later 150 protestors tried to occupy Old Parliament House where a conference to celebrate twenty years since the passing of the Aboriginal Lands Right Act (NT) was being opened by Senator Herron. Two were arrested.

The Age , 21 August 1996; West The Australian , 20 August 1996.




26 January

Twenty-fifth anniversary marked by a Corroboree for Sovereignty. A demountable shed used in the campaign for self-determination in East Timor was moved to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy site.

Canberra Times , 23 January 1997, Canberra Times, 27 January 1997.


Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories table report on right to protest on national land, particularly the parliamentary zone. It recommended against the re moval of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

Right to protest , Canberra: AGPS, May 1997.

26 July

Arthur and Rose Kirby married at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Arthur Kirby said he and his wife had marched many times from the embassy and the place was sacred to them. In getting married there, they said they were showing their respect for the site.

Canberra Times , 26 July 1997.



26 January

Sacred fire lit as part of a 'Fire Ceremony for Peace'. The fire has since been kept alight at the Aboriginal Tent Em bassy. Spokesman, Kevin Buzzacott, responding to criticism of the fire being allowed to burn during total fire bans responded: 'We will keep this fire burning until the law makers come and talk to us about recognising our sovereignty'.

Daily Telegraph , 28 February 1998; Daily Telegraph , 24 March 1998.

4 February

Constitutional Convention at Old Parliament House. Statement from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy challenged the convention to recognise Aboriginal sovereignty. Smoke from sacred fires was taken into Old Parliament House during the Constitutional Convention.

Courier Mail , 3 February 1998.

5 April

Day of national protest against Jabiluka uranium mine. 200 people gathered at Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

Canberra Times , 6 April 1998.

23 July

ACT Supreme C ourt Justice Ken Crispin visited the Aboriginal Tent Embassy to listen to elders discuss the indigenous system of justice. The visit was part of an application by four representatives of the embassy who were asking for warrants to be issued for the arrest of federal Parliamentarians, including the Prime Minister John Howard, on charges of genocide.

Canberra Times , 24 July 1998

11 August

Memorial service held at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy for Billy Craigie, one of the founders of the embassy, who died in Redfern the previous week.

Canberra Times , 12 August 1998.


Justice Ken Crispin dismissed the case of genocide against federal parliamentarians.




13 January

Land around Old Parliament House gazetted under the Trespass and Commonwealth Land Ordinance 1932 which allows for the removal of trespassers. Press reports that the Government planned to use the Ordinance to remove the Aboriginal Tent Embassy were denied by the Government. The National Capital Authority stated implementation of the Ordinance was to remove unauthorised motor vehicles from the gazetted area.

AAP News Service, 24 January 1999; The Age , 26 January 1999; The Australian , 26 January 1999; Canberra Times , 26 January 1999.

26 January

Twenty-seventh anniversary. 100 people gathered at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy for 'Corroboree for Sovereignty'. National Capital Authority (NCA) chief executive, Annabelle Pegrum, said there was no secret plan to remove the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, but confirmed there had been long-term discussions on its future. NCA chairman, Air Marshal David Evans, described the embassy as an 'eyesore and a blight on the national capital' and said it should be removed.

Canberra Times , 27 January 1999.

8 February

Parliament resumed. A protest from the emba ssy was taken to Parliament House where Aboriginal Tent Embassy members lit a healing fire. The protest aimed to draw attention to Aboriginal issues, in particular the push for Aboriginal sovereignty. The fire was extinguished by security staff.

Sydney Mor ning Herald , 9 February 1999.

9 February

Fire relit on lawn between Old Parliament House and New Parliament House, on land controlled by the National Capital Authority (NCA) who ordered the fire be extinguished.

The Age , 10 February 1999; Canberra Times , 10 February 1999.

10 February

Police extinguished fire at Parliament House and removed 211 symbolic spears regarded by the NCA as 'unapproved structures'.

Sydney Morning Herald , 11 February 1999.

12 February

Parliamentary Secretary to Cabinet, Senator Bill Heffernan, negotiated return of 211 spears in return for removal of protest back to Old Parliament House and a promise that Reconciliation Minister Philip Ruddock would meet with Aboriginal Tent Embassy members.

Canberra Times , 13 February 1999.

15 February

The Government cancelled a meeting with Aboriginal Tent Embassy members who relit fire and erected 211 spears at Parliament House. After NCA complaints the police again extinguished fire and confiscated spears. Two protestors arrested.

Canberra T imes , 16 February 1999.

17 February

Aboriginal Tent Embassy members speared an Australian flag covered in the ash from the ceremonial flag extinguished by police. One Nation adviser, David Oldfield, described embassy members as 'trespassers and violent c riminals' whose 'drunk filled humpies should be run out of town'.

Canberra Times , 18 February 1999.

18 February

Reconciliation Minister, Philip Ruddock, met Aboriginal Tent Embassy members at the embassy, but they claimed there were no negotiations. The 'Eight Point Declaration for Peace' which the embassy wanted to negotiate with Prime Minister John Howard was not discussed.

Canberra Times , 19 February 1999; Aboriginal Embassy Media Statement, 19 February 1999.

1 March

Aboriginal Tent Embassy members t ook the 'Fire Ceremony for Peace' to the gates of Government House but were refused a meeting with the Governor-General. NCA demanded the protestors apply for a permit for their camp.


3 March

Governor General, Sir William Deane, met at Government House with four embassy members. Following the meeting the spears and fire were moved back to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

AAP News Service, 3 March 1999.

30 May

John Newfong, Aboriginal journalist who was instrumental in writing the 1972 five point for land ri ghts, died aged 55.

The Australian , 15 June 1999.

22 July

Aboriginal Tent Embassy served with a notice from the NCA 'strongly urging' them to remove illegal structures 'pursuant to section 8A (5) of the Trespass on Commonwealth Lands Ordinance '. NCA claimed letter was not an eviction notice.

Adelaide Advertiser , 7 August 1999; Canberra Times , 10 August 1999.

11 August

Minister for Territories, Senator Ian Macdonald, stated that he was looking for alternatives for the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, including a permanent arrangement. Following discussions with the Ngunnawal people he claimed 'The Ngunnawal people don't want it there, they find it embarrassing. They refer to the people who run it as the Redfern mob'.

Canberra Times , 12 August 1999.

12 August

Rep resentatives of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and executives from the National Capital Authority (NCA) ended discussions without agreement on the future of the embassy, or a more permanent monument. Embassy representative, Isabell Coe, said they would not move. 'They reckon we're an eyesore….this country has become an eyesore.'

Canberra Times , 14 August 1999.



26 January

Australian of the Year, Sir Gustav Nossal, supported proposed tent embassy at Olympic Games because it might motivate governments to address issues.

Sydney Morning Herald , 28 January 2000.


National Capital Authority released a review of the Parliamentary Zone. The only reference to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was its inclusion in a list of sites of heritage significance in the P arliamentary Zone. The review recommended the construction of a 'rambling and natural' walking track which would recognise 'our pre-European heritage' and 'would be set out based on Indigenous cultural precepts'.

National Capital Authority. Parliamentary Zone Review: Outcomes. Canberra, NCA, 2000.

15 March

A spokesman for the Minister for Territories, Senator Ian Macdonald, said the advisory committee which produced the Parliamentary Zone considered the Aboriginal Tent Embassy to be a separate issue. Nguna wal elder, Ruth Bell, was reported as welcoming the Parliamentary Zone review and described the Aboriginal Tent Embassy as a 'disgrace'.

Canberra Times , 16 March 2000; The Australian , 16 March 2000.



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Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Website.

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Aubin, Tracey. 'Tent embassy back amid black despair.' Sunday Age , 2 February 1992.

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Australian Aborigines: Commonwealth policy and achievements. Statement by the Prime Minister The Rt. Hon William McMahon. 26 January 1972.

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