Public Debate to Mark the International Significance of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy

Monday 23 September 2013

A public debate will take place at the Human Rights Consortium of the School of Advanced Study, University of London on 25 September to discuss the international significance of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which was pitched on the lawns of Australia’s Parliament House by four Aboriginal activists on Australia Day (26 January) 1972.

This event, which is open to the public, will bring together Aboriginal Tent Ambassador Sam Watson, academic and journalist Germaine Greer, and Emeritus Professor Chris Mullard to discuss the significance of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. The symposium will also include presentations from contributors to a new book ‘The Aboriginal Tent Embassy: Sovereignty, Black Power, Land Rights and the State’, the first work to bring together all elements of the demonstration, including rare writings and interviews with key players in the Embassy. The event is co-hosted the by Institute of Commonwealth Studies and Human Rights Consortium at the School of Advanced Study, University of London and SOAS. It is also supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and will include a film screening and photographic exhibition.

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was an ingenious response following a key policy statement in which then-Prime Minister William McMahon rejected Aboriginal land rights. According to the demonstrators, the Prime Minister’s provocative statement effectively made them aliens in their own country. They decided that, just as many overseas countries had their own Embassy in Australia, they should have one too. Over the following months the Embassy swelled into one of the largest and most significant political demonstrations in Australian history. The protest scored a diplomatic coup, captured widespread media attention, and raised international awareness of the struggle for land rights and improvement of living conditions for Aboriginal people across Australia.

This captivating story is the subject of a new book ‘The Aboriginal Tent Embassy: Sovereignty, Black Power, Land Rights and the State’. The editors include Dr Gary Foley, the Aboriginal political activist and historian, a key player in the 1972 Embassy demonstration; Dr Andrew Schaap, a political theorist at the University of Exeter; and Dr Edwina Howell an anthropologist and solicitor, who works with Dr Foley at Victoria University, Melbourne. The book draws together contributions from activists and Aboriginal academics, some of whom were participants in the events they write about and non-Aboriginal scholars, several of whom also have been involved in the land rights struggle in Australia.  It is a genuine collaboration, which examines the social, historical and political significance of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy for Australian society and for the struggle for indigenous rights internationally. 
Dr Foley said: “What began as a simple response to a Prime Ministerial statement on Australia Day 1972, evolved into a six-month political stand-off between radical Aboriginal activists and a conservative Australian government.” He added that “The demonstration increased international awareness of the struggle for Aboriginal justice and brought an end to the national government policy of assimilation and put Aboriginal issues firmly onto the national political agenda.”

Today more than 40 years later the Embassy is still in existence on the Parliamentary lawns, a constant symbol in the Australian democratic landscape.

Michael Anderson, the only surviving man of the four demonstrators who established the Aboriginal Embassy, recently reflected that the Embassy “can be regarded as the longest running political demonstration in the world ... I was invited to address Occupy London, and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was described as one of the first Occupations in the world. Now, with the Occupy movement, there are tent gatherings everywhere'”.

Dr Andrew Schaap said: “Editing the book with legendary Aboriginal activist Dr Gary Foley and Dr Edwina Howell and talking with many other remarkable activists who participated in the project has transformed the way I think about politics. This book is the first of its kind, in drawing together scholarly reflections about the Embassy from key activists, journalists, politicians and officials. By focusing on the Embassy, the book provides a window through which non-Aboriginal readers can more clearly see the politics of race in Australia today.”

The event will take place in room 349, third floor, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU. It is free and open to all to attend.