Australia: Aboriginal protesters occupy Canberra

This Australia Day—Jan. 26, marking the 1788 establishment of the British colony of New South Wales, and derided by Aborigines as "Invasion Day"—saw the establishment of a "Tent Embassy" encampment outside the Old Parliament House (also known as the Museum of Democracy) in Canberra, with hundreds of indigenous protesters and their supporters converging from around the country. The encampment marks the 40th anniversary of the historic first Tent Embassy, established to protest the refusal of then-Prime Minister Billy McMahon to recognize Aboriginal land rights. The new campaign is being led by Michael Anderson, 60, the only survivor among the four Aboriginal leaders who launched the 1971 Tent Embassy. The new protesters vow to wage an international campaign against Australia's bid for a seat on the UN Security Council if the government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard (Labor) does not meet their demands for indigenous sovereignty.

The protest erupted into a scuffle when demonstrators gathered outside a restaurant where Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott (of McMahon's Liberal Party, the more conservative of Australia's two major parties) were attending an awards ceremony. Dozens of police were called to the scene as protesters banged on the glass sides of the restaurant, chanting "shame" and "racist." The leaders were rushed from the function under police guard, with Gillard stumbling and losing a shoe as she was dragged away by security guards. The incident was sparked by reports that Abbott had called for the new Tent Embassy to be cleared. He later said he was misquoted, and had simply said that Australia had "moved on from the issues of 40 years ago" and the new protest was misguided.

The new Tent Embassy movement is seen as an alternative to the recently created indigenous body, the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, which Anderson calls unrepresentative. He is also critical of a new 22-member expert panel which submitted proposals on constitutional recognition of indigenous rights to Gillard last week. The panel proposed officially recognizing the prior occupation of Australia by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and acknowledging their cultures, languages and heritage. But the panel said the issue of sovereignty should be dealt with separately, leading Anderson to dismiss the process as ''rubbish.'' Some 1,500 protesters marched through the capital on Australia Day chanting ''Who owns the land? We do!'' (SMH, Radio Australia, Radio Australia, Jan. 27; Radio Australia, Green Left Weekly, Jan. 26)

See our last posts on Australia and the world indigenous struggle.