The
Howard Government has been quietly working on a plan to remove the
Aboriginal tent embassy complex from the front of the old Parliament
House in Canberra. Their chance of success might appear limited,
considering that the embassy has outlasted every minister who has
sought to terminate it. And that is a lot of ministers, going all the
way back to Whitlam’s inept Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Jim
Cavanagh.

The problem for those who seek to remove the embassy
is that it is a powerfully symbolic site for indigenous people and any
move to close it would be met with a very strong response from the
Aboriginal community. The original tent embassy protest in 1972 is
regarded as the most important and effective moment of Aboriginal
resistance in the latter part of the 20th century, in that it put
Aboriginal land rights firmly on the national political agenda and the
international political arena.

That original protest was
triggered by Prime Minister Billy McMahon’s ill-fated 1972 Australia
Day speech denying Aboriginal people land rights. That night, four
young Aboriginal men from Redfern set up a camp on the lawn in front of
Parliament House and declared they were the “Aboriginal embassy.” The
title was intended to express both the alienation of indigenous
Australians and challenge the legitimacy of Australian sovereignty.
When ACT Police realised that there was no specific law that prohibited
camping on the lawn of Parliament House, the protest gained its first
victory.

To the acute embarrassment of the McMahon Government,
the Aboriginal embassy captured the imagination of both black and white
Australians as it became a popular tourist attraction and political
symbol of Aboriginal resistance. Unlike the Australia of today that is
being fashioned by John Howard, back in 1972 the notion of justice for
indigenous Australians enjoyed significant popular support. Indeed, so
successful was the Aboriginal embassy protest that within three months
McMahon began developing an ordinance to make it illegal to camp on the
parliamentary lawns.

Within ten minutes of the ordinance being
gazetted on 20 July 1972, ACT police moved in and a violent fracas
ensued in which nine people, including the writer, were arrested. This
ill-conceived action provoked two subsequent major demonstrations in
Canberra which in turn generated international television news coverage
and widespread condemnation of the McMahon Government. Six months
later, Gough Whitlam won the 1972 election by a landslide.

Within
less than twelve months the Whitlam Government had alienated the
Aboriginal community to such an extent that the Aboriginal embassy
reappeared on the lawns of Parliament House, and ever since that time a
succession of ministers in all governments have unsuccessfully grappled
with the problem of what to do about it.

Then, on 29 August this
year, the Federal Minister for Local Government, Territories and Roads,
Mr Jim Lloyd, announced the establishment and first meeting in Canberra
of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy Advisory Committee. According to Lloyd’s
press release the Advisory Committee was “established to provide
guidance to the Minister and to Mutual Mediations, the consultant
appointed to facilitate discussions on the future of the site.”