Like a giant national inkblot test for the nation, the “meaning” of yesterday’s events at the Lobby restaurant in Canberra is really what the observer brings to them. Few of us will see anything other than whatever fits in with our preconceptions. And yet, there’s something for everyone in what essentially boils down to an incident that made good television.
Labor supporters will see a prime minister calm under pressure inside the restaurant (on fascinating footage caught by the Nine Network) and immediately insisting to her security team that Tony Abbott be looked after.
Racists and reactionaries will use the actions of a limited number of protesters to condemn the entire indigenous rights movement (the subtext to some of the tabloid headlines are pretty uncomfortable — the phrase a “sorry day” is oft repeated).
Some will blame the incident on Abbott and mutter darkly about the mainstream media manipulating coverage.
And let’s not forget the small tabloid grace notes in the coverage, especially the claim about the terror apparently etched on Julia Gillard’s face. Was she terrified? She had just stumbled because her security detail appeared not to have realised that someone in heels can’t run as quickly as security professional. Who knows? Not too many of us look our forthright, confident best when we’ve tripped. The Prime Minister herself has gone out of her way to stress that it wasn’t the protestors which caused her to fall. Then there were the armchair enthusiasts on Twitter speculating over whether Abbott had “smirked”.
In the wash-up, there’s less substance to the incident than at first blush. Had the compelling images of the Prime Minister tripping over and losing a shoe not been taken would we now be reading op-eds arguing for the removal of the Tent Embassy? Possibly not.
Abbott’s comments about “moving on”, while not impeccably timed or particularly sensitive, didn’t necessarily amount to a call for the removal of the Tent Embassy. Anyone who seriously thinks such observations were “racist” should buy a dictionary. Embassy co-founder Michael Anderson seemed to admit this morning the protesters who headed to the restaurant had misinterpreted Abbott. Others argue that there was plenty to be angry about in Abbott’s statement even without taking him literally. The suggestion that the fight for land rights is over, for a start.
As for the actual level of threat — that remains a mystery; there’s no clear danger to Gillard or Abbott in the footage or photos, but it’s easy to second-guess security people, who are paid to be risk-averse and act before a threat manifests itself.
It all says more about our need to impose meaning on even minor political events than about the real issues everyone is pretending were at stake yesterday.