The Guardian • Issue #1992

Tent Embassy 50th anniversary

Indigenous struggle continues

This Invasion Day, 26th January 2022, marks the 50th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, Ngrambri, Ngunnawal Country. 

On 26th January, 1972, when Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Bertie Williams, and Tony Coorey travelled from Redfern to Canberra, where they planted a beach umbrella and a sign that read “Aboriginal Embassy” opposite (what is now known as) Old Parliament House. So began the world’s longest-running protest for Indigenous land rights, sovereignty, and self-determination.

The establishment of the Tent Embassy came as a retaliation to the McMahon government’s commitment to assimilation policies and refusal to recognise Indigenous land rights.

The Tent Embassy was not only a protest against the government of the time, but an ongoing assertion that no treaty had been signed, sovereignty was never ceded, and Aboriginal people were not aliens in their own land. 

The Tent Embassy was widely supported not only by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their allies, but First Nations people throughout the world. 

The Embassy grew in size, becoming both a hub for activists as well as a place for conversations, public forums, and political meetings from which emerged many great Indigenous activists and leaders. 

Seeking an end to the Embassy, the McMahon government amended the Trespass on Commonwealth Lands Ordinance 1932-1966 (ACT) to ban camping, squatting, and erecting tents on the lawns of Parliament, before ordering the Australian Federal Police to break up and dismantle the camp on the 20th of July 1972.

This led to widespread protesting and the re-erection and dismantling of the camp an additional two times by the 30th of July 1972.

When in September 1972 the ACT Supreme Court ruled against the Ordinance that permitted the eviction of the Tent Embassy, the Embassy was erected and removed by the Embassy staff in demonstration of their rights.

The Tent Embassy was next re-erected in late 1973 after the election of the Whitlam government, who agreed to meet with representatives of the Embassy. The Embassy remained until 1976, when its removal was agreed on after the passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. 

Between 1976 and 1992, the Tent Embassy was erected in various sites around Canberra, before returning to its permanent site on the lawns of Old Parliament House, despite being destroyed by fire in 2003 in a case of suspected arson.

Shortly after its inception, members of the Tent Embassy on the 6th of February, 1972, issued a list of demands to the government. These demands are held to this day. They are:

Control of the Northern territory as a State within the Commonwealth of Australia; the parliament in the NT to be predominantly Aboriginal with title and 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 first win for the Land Rights movement came with the passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. However, this bill, originally drafted by the Whitlam government, granted land rights only in the Northern Territory.

While the states passed their own Land Rights laws at various dates, it was not until the 1992 Mabo case and the subsequent Native Title Act 1993 that Native Title was recognised as a legal concept throughout Australia. 

However, land rights and native title are different systems with the potential of conflict.

Land rights differ from native title in that it does not require a previous connection to country. However, it may only be granted for land deemed unused and not needed for essential public purposes. 

In comparison, native title recognises the pre-existing traditional and customary rights and interests Indigenous peoples have in their lands. However, it does not necessarily grant ownership of these lands. 

Applying for land rights or native title is a costly and time-consuming endeavour. The number of unresolved cases in NSW alone is 37,000.

Currently, the “rights and interests in land” of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are only formally recognised over around forty per cent of Australia’s land mass. 

Of this forty per cent, only about half includes exclusive possession, almost all of which is in isolated, remote regions of Australia, certainly not “in and around all Australian capital cities.”

The recent destruction of a 46,000 year old sacred site at Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto last year has led to renewed calls from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s to protect sacred sites.

Currently, Traditional Owners have no right to appeal the Aboriginal Affairs Minister’s decision on whether a sacred site will be protected.

While the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Draft Bill 2020 gives Traditional Owners a right of appeal, the final decision ultimately remains with the minister.

The draft bill has been flatly rejected by Traditional Owners on the basis that the Government failed to properly consult with them, as well as the bill favouring industry and the government at the expense of Traditional Owners.

Beginning in December 2021, fascist groups have attempted to infiltrate and control the Tent Embassy under the guise of equivocating an anti-vaccination stance with “sovereignty.”

A “smoking ceremony” that recently set fire to the doors of Old Parliament House was linked to the group and has been condemned by the Embassy Council who said it was done “without the knowledge, consent or mandate of the Embassy Council and Traditional Owners responsible for the regulation of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.”

Led by several Indigenous men and women who have been notably involved in the fascist-led “freedom” rallies, the group has participated in a series of virtual meetings with non-Indigenous fascist activists.

The group calls for “sovereign citizens” and Indigenous “Original Sovereigns” to converge on the Old Parliament House, which they believe to be the true seat of power in Australia.

A campsite set up by the group nearby the Tent Embassy has been dismantled after police evicted its leaders.

Many First Nations activists, including founders of the Tent Embassy, have condemned the group and its activities.

Gamilaraay and Kooma woman Ruby Wharton, spokesperson for the Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance, stated in regards to attempts to compare the sovereign citizen movement with Indigenous sovereignty that “it’s delusional for any kind of comparison to be drawn here. It’s absolutely not the same and never will be.”

Gary Foley, a long-time Gumbainggir activist and academic involved in the establishment of the Tent Embassy said that “I think the challenge for the those at the embassy is to come up with something on the occasion of the 50th anniversary that excludes all anti-vaxxers or right-wingers, which in particular, focuses on the people who made the first embassy so effective and especially those who are no longer with us.”

This is not the first attempt to co-opt the Indigenous sovereignty movement.


Last year it was reported that on the 26th of January, an application has been lodged with IP Australia to trademark the words “Always Was Always Will Be.”

According to the Australian Museum, the origins of the phrase “Always Was, Always Will Be, Aboriginal Land” can be traced back to the Aboriginal land rights movement in far-western New South Wales in the 1980s from the late Barkandji activist Uncle William Bates.

While the trademark, if successful, would not give the applicant exclusive rights to the phrase, which could still be used by others in a statement and on clothing. Instead, it would grant the applicant exclusive use of the phrase as a brand name.

John Paul Janke, a Wuthathi and Meriam man and co-chair of the National NAIDOC Committee, said “I think there are certain phrases or political slogans that belong to the wider community, the wider Indigenous community, and should always belong to them.”

The phrase does not belong to the applicant; it belongs to the Indigenous community. This represents a shallow attempt to co-opt the Indigenous sovereignty movement for profit, and should be rejected.

Fifty years on, it is clear that the demands of the Tent Embassy have been continuously ignored and rejected by successive Liberal and Labor governments.

Gary Foley in his history of the Tent Embassy reflected that, “it has endured for [five] decades as a potent symbol rejecting the hypocrisy, deceit and duplicity by successive Australian governments is a testament to the refusal of large numbers of Aboriginal people to concede defeat in a 200-year struggle for justice.”

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy is an impressive achievement that demonstrates the strength, dedication, and commitment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

Allies must assist in this struggle until all of the demands of the Embassy are met. Land rights, political recognition, treaty, and reparations.

Any attempts to co-opt the movement, such as for the advancement of fascism or for personal profit, must be firmly rejected and opposed.

There is no justice without First Nations Justice. Always was, always will be, Aboriginal Land.

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