Australia Day turned ugly in Canberra yesterday after comments by Tony Abbott incited Aboriginal Tent Embassy activists to protest at an event attended by Abbott and Julia Gillard, resulting in a dramatic exit of the leaders executed by the PM’s security detail. But the ensuing media coverage has been just as sensational.

Earlier in the day, Abbott was questioned by a journalist on whether the Tent Embassy was still relevant or needed to move on. Abbott replied “I think the indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian and, yes, I think a lot has changed since then and I think it probably is time to move on from that.”

Abbott and Gillard were attending an Australia Day function just a few hundred metres away from the Tent Embassy when his comments were aired on television. Around 100-200 people (numbers in media reports vary) who’d been celebrating the Tent Embassy’s 40th anniversary headed over to the glass-walled Lobby restaurant to protest Abbott’s comments.

Protesters banged on the glass walls of the restaurant chanting slogans including “shame Abbott shame” and “always was, always will be, Aboriginal land”. After PM security staff deemed the situation a rising threat, a rather dramatic escape of Gillard and Abbott ensued, where the leaders were shepherded out surrounded by riot police and put into a waiting car. Gillard lost her shoe in the process. Activists promised to sell it on eBay to raise money for the tent embassy, but now say they will return it to Gillard.

A look at the nation’s front pages shows some quite dramatic imagery — and some even more dramatic headlines:

It’s important to note that Gillard tripped over, she wasn’t pushed or attacked by protesters. For a look from another angle — including footage of the security detail warning Gillard of the need to leave The Lobby restaurant and Gillard suggesting Tony Abbott should be escorted out with her — check out this video:

A number of articles have appeared today questioning the legitimacy of the Tent Embassy in light of the protest. This behaviour just illustrates the problems with the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, argues David Penberthy at The Punch:

“The Aboriginal Tent Embassy has never engendered any public respect. It has never done anything to bring black and white Australia together. It is sadly fitting then that the 40th anniversary of this illegal assortment of galvo humpies was celebrated with an unprecedented outburst of violence which saw our Prime Minister being dragged along the ground and our Opposition Leader behind a riot shield.”

Making concessions to Indigenous Australians simply causes this racial divide, declares Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun:

This is not reconciliation. This is instead a warning that the wrong path has been taken, leading us to deeper divisions, entrenched by laws, and with dissent punished in courts or on the streets. It means each concession, no matter how extreme, is feeding a hunger for yet more.

Chairman of the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations, Fred Hooper, explained the angry response by indigenous protesters: “The Opposition Leader on national television made a comment to tear down something that we have built over 40 years which is sacred to us. ‘So what do you expect us to do when we’re 200 yards away from the person that makes that comment? Do you expect us to say, ‘Yeah, Tony, we’re gonna do that now, we’re gonna rip it down’?”

Former ALP President and indigenous leader Warren Mundine said that the protestors had overreacted to Abbott’s comments, adding that the Opposition Leader didn’t say anything about shutting down the embassy: “The words were pretty timid…He echoed words, I would have echoed.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda described the protest as “aggressive, divisive and frightening”, while others have stressed that the majority of the Tent Embassy attendees remained at the Embassy site to continue their celebrations.

A reporter at the Green Left Weekly quoted Sam Castro, who is currently at the Tent Embassy:

“When I spoke to Sam she said that the protesters thought the riot police were arranging to form a sort of guard around the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader so that they could come out and talk to the crowd but, as the rest of the media has shown, the riot police’s real objective was to ‘escort’ the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader to their cars.

“As more protesters made their way to the restaurant, the riot police charged out the doors, practically dragging Ms Gillard along, while the onlookers began to shout “where are you going?” and “why won’t you talk to us?” As the cars drove off, some people threw plastic water bottles and water at the cars.”

The Fin Review reports that co-chairman of Reconciliation Australia Tom Calma said that while he supported the right to protest, it was unacceptable that the Prime Minister had been placed at physical risk and would be disappointing if the actions of a few could be interpreted as reflecting the views of Aboriginal people.

However, he didn’t let Tony Abbott off the hook either — “The other disappointment is that on a day of celebration the Opposition Leader passes a comment about the tent embassy at a time when the embassy is celebrating 40 years of peaceful protest, by and large…This could be interpreted, in an emotional situation, as inciting that sort of behaviour.”

Peter Fray

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