A Nation Within a Nation
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established in 1972 when the Coalition Government failed to recognise the land rights of Indigenous people. From its inception, the Embassy has been interwoven into Canberra’s physical and political landscape, blending black politics, symbolism and theatre that opponents have found difficult to counter.
“I went there not because I was politically inclined,” he says. “I went there because one of our leaders had two good looking daughters and I was pitching for one.”
“This big man got up. He was over six foot. Frightened the hell out of me,” the diminutive Dixon recalls.
Patten was already a well-regarded activist. He had established the New South Wales branch of the Aborigines Progressive Association in 1937 and the following year, alongside William Ferguson, planned a Day of Mourning Conference in Sydney, where the Committee for Aboriginal Citizenship Rights was formed.
Dixon spoke to Patten after the meeting. “I said I might get interested in this sort of thing. The fight. The struggle. He said, if you do, always remember two things. Never join a political party, [which] I never did. Never ever abuse a politician, use a politician. I’m still doing that.”
The veteran Aboriginal activist believes Patten “carved my life out for me.”
“Then he said we should be setting up an Aboriginal mission station in front of this white man’s Parliament House. You’ve got to remember this was ’46. It happened in ’72. It was called the Tent Embassy.”
Dixon has been politically active ever since. Before devoting all his time to Indigenous affairs, he spent over twenty years as a seasonal worker and then a further decade as stevedore and organiser for the Seaman’s Union.
In the 1960s, he became involved in the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, where he formed an everlasting bond with Charles Perkins and joined the campaign for changes to the Constitution.
A decade long struggle ended with a referendum in May 1967, which changed the sections of the Constitution that mentioned Aboriginal people. They would no longer be included in the Flora and Fauna Act, they would have rights to vote and be included in the census. Over ninety percent of the population voted for the changes in the largest majority recorded for constitutional change.
But early optimism was soon replaced with frustration when successive federal governments failed to live up to the spirit of the changes.
Dixon says they “spent seven years lobbying to try and get the change in the Federal Constitution.
We started the campaign in ’60 and got it through on [the] 27th of May 1967. That’s a lot of frustration.”
“We thought wonderful things would happen. But they didn’t.”
Land rights were a particular concern as several court cases had failed to clarify the government’s stance.
The Gurindji tribe of the Northern Territory began a landmark struggle for Aboriginal justice when they staged a strike on the Wave Hill Cattle Station in 1966. Originally an industrial relations dispute, the focus soon shifted to land rights.
Five years later, the Yirrkala tribe took court action against the Commonwealth Government and bauxite miner Nabalco, seeking freedom from occupation of their lands, damages and prevention of further mining activities.
In their verdict, the Northern Territory Supreme Court upheld the doctrine of terra nullius, which is Latin for land of no one. In other words, the court agreed that Australia was uninhabited when the British arrived in 1778.
Aboriginal activists had been anxiously awaiting a government statement on land rights, which had been scheduled for the day before Australia Day in 1972. But Prime Minister William ‘Billy’ McMahon’s announcement was a far stretch from what they had expected.
He proposed general purpose leases rather than land rights. This would be conditional upon the “intention and ability to make reasonable economic and social use of the land” and would “exclude all mineral and forest rights.”
“His statement came out and what it really meant,” says Dixon, “when you cut all the jargon, [is] that Aboriginals could lease their own land.”
Local Kooris met in East Sydney to plan their response.
A generation after the admission of Aboriginals to the public education system, more and more young Aborigines were now educated and politically aware. Both the anti-Vietnam protests and the Freedom Rides had also show the value of direct action.
“That night, I moved that we take over Pinchgut Island in the middle of Sydney Harbour,” says Dixon. “The reason why I wanted to take over Pinchgut Island [is that] the Indians in America had taken over Alcatraz. So I wanted to put it in the eyes of the world.”
Dixon got outvoted in favour of a plan to set up a Tent Embassy on the lawns of Parliament House. “Four little Kooris headed for Canberra that night. Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey, Michael Anderson and Bertie Williams.”
“Canberra awoke the next morning, they had a big blue beach umbrella. It was the coldest winter they’d had in 38 years. They were crouched under this bloody umbrella with plastic over them, shivering. It was very, very bitter.”
Dixon caught a bus down on the following Friday and was surprised that the government had not attempted to remove the Embassy. But on speaking to Keppel Enderby, a Labor MP, Dixon discovered why. “He said, you’ve found a gap in their law. They cannot move you unless they introduce legislation.”
Camping on Crown land was illegal but, considering that most land in the Northern Territory belonged to the state, Aboriginals were exempt. Nobody ever thought they would camp in the nation’s capital.
“So we put eight tents up then,” Dixon continues. “Gave ourselves portfolios. I was the Minister for Defence. We painted the gutter, ‘Aboriginal Tent Embassy staff only, No Parking’.” They also set up a mail box and received overseas mail within three months.
The simple act of hanging the name Embassy on the tent was only possible in the nation’s capital and this symbolic act bothered the government. Peter Howson, Minister for the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts in the McMahon Coalition Government, said the ” & term implied a sovereign state and cut across the Government’s expressed objection to separate development and was kindred to apartheid.”
But many Aboriginals already thought that Australia was separated along the lines of race.
“Australia wouldn’t recognise Aboriginal people,” says Dixon. “We considered we were a nation within a nation. So we were going to be an embassy. And embassies had to have a flag.”
The first flag to fly was black, green and red. Black to represent the people, green the land and red the blood shed by Aborigines. In July, the more common black red and yellow flag designed by Aboriginal artist, Harold Thomas, took pride of place at the Embassy.
That same month, Canberra witnessed some of bloodiest battles ever seen in the nation’s capital. Just under six months after the Tent Embassy was established, the Federal Government introduced the required legislation to prohibit camping on Commonwealth lands in Canberra. Police ripped the tents down and arrested people.
Three days later, on the 23rd of July, Aboriginal people replaced the tents. But they were removed once again. The third time, a week later, the government backed away.
“So we pulled the tent down and considered that a major victory for Aboriginal people,” says Dixon. “We proved the point.”
Subsequently re-established, the embassy remained until February 1975, when Charles Perkins and the Minister for the Australian Capital Territory negotiated its removal.
Physically and symbolically, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy remained a feature of political life for many years. Several other Embassies have been established around the country at various times to campaign for Indigenous rights.
In January 1992, another Tent Embassy was set up in Canberra to draw attention to Aboriginal claims for sovereignty. This embassy attracted widespread interest by briefly occupying the vacant, old Parliament House.
Governments of all persuasions have tried to remove the Embassy through police force, legislation, and negotiation. Others simply turned a blind eye hoping that the embassy would fizzle out.
That never happened and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy’s place in history was officially recognised in 1995 through its listing on the National Estate by the Australian Heritage Commission. The Embassy was the only place recognised nationally for the political struggle of Aboriginal people.
But Dixon believes a new approach is needed. “Street struggle served a purpose. That’s gone now. My lady used to get sick of me getting arrested. So you move on.”
He laments the fact that Aboriginal people have never established a permanent lobby similar to mining companies or farmers. “That’s what’s needed. And a permanent lobby in Geneva. So you can fire all the concerns into the arena in Canberra and if that doesn’t work, you fire them into the arena in the United Nations. That’s the way to go.”
“I can’t do that, I’m an old street corner lobbyist. They might beat me with education but they won’t beat me with lobbying. All I tried to do is nurture the coming politicos. And I’m still trying to doing that.”
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- Aboriginal Australians
- Campaigning - Approaches_Actions_Tactics
- Campaigning - Grassroots
- Civil disobedience
- Civil resistance
- Creative tactics
- Direct action
- Indigenous peoples
- Movements_Campaigns - Self determination
- Movements_Campaigns – Racism_Racial justice