The Aboriginal Tent Embassy is a controversial semi-permanent assemblage claiming to represent the political rights of Australian Aborigines. It is made of a large group of activists, signs, and tents that reside on the lawn of Old Parliament House in Canberra, the Australian capital. It is not considered an official embassy by the Australian government.
On 27 January 1972 at 1 a.m. four Aborigines, led by Michael Anderson, established the Aboriginal Embassy by ramming a sun umbrella into the lawn outside Old Parliament House in Canberra. The next day Quakers came and helped out by erecting tents. The Tent Embassy was established in response to the McMahon Coalition Government's refusal to recognise Aboriginal land rights and saw a new general purpose lease for Aborigines which would be conditional upon their ‘intention and ability to make reasonable economic and social use of land’ and it would exclude all rights they had to mineral and forest rights. The embassy has existed intermittently since then, and continuously since 1992.
The main people involved in setting up the embassy were the founder and first ambassador, Michael Anderson and three co-founders, Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey and Bertie Williams.
In February 1972 the Aboriginal Tent Embassy presented a list of demands to Parliament:
The demands were rejected, and in July 1972, following an amendment to the relevant ordinance, police moved in, removed the tents, and arrested eight people.
In October 1973, around 70 Aboriginal protesters staged a sit-in on the steps of Parliament House and the Tent Embassy was re-established. The sit-in ended when Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam agreed to meet with protesters.
In May 1974 the embassy was destroyed in a storm, but was re-established in October.
In February 1975 Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins negotiated the "temporary" removal of the embassy with the Government, pending Government action on land rights.
On the twentieth anniversary of its founding, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was re-established on the lawns of Old Parliament House. Despite being a continual source of controversy and many calls for its removal, it has existed on the site since that time.
As well as political pressure, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy has also been under attack from criminal elements, having been fire bombed on a number of occasions.
Despite this, in 1995 the site of the Tent Embassy was added to the Australian Register of the National Estate as the only Aboriginal site in Australia that is recognised nationally as a site representing political struggle for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
A tent embassy has also operated intermittently in Victoria Park, Sydney in recent years.
A symbol at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy is the so-called Sacred fire which represents peace, justice and sovereignty. The Sacred fire is said to have been kept alight since 1998.
The Tent Embassy promotes Australian Aboriginal Sovereignty. Their demands included land rights and mineral rights to Aboriginal lands, legal and political control of certain sacred sites, and compensation for land that they claim was stolen. Their demands have been consistently rebuffed by past and current governments.
It has also been used as a site for protesting against other issues, such as against uranium mining at Jabiluka in the Northern Territory during the 90s. Currently Elders such as Uncle Neville Williams, from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy are working to protect traditional Wiradjuri land in Western N.S.W at Lake Cowal which is in the process of being mined for gold.
The group describes itself as an embassy, a designation the Australian government objects to. The group claims to represent a displaced nation of peoples, unjustly occupied by the Australian government. The subject remains controversial in Australian politics.
There have been a number of suspicious fires at the site, with the most devastating being the loss of 31 years of records when the container burnt down in June 2003. The ABC covered the story.
In August 2005 the Federal Government announced a review into Canberra's Aboriginal tent embassy. They consulted with the Aboriginal communities around Australia to determine what shape the tent embassy should take in future. The group was headed by Minister Jim Lloyd and contained a number of Aboriginal Elders from around Australia. Professional mediators Callum Campbell and Tom Stodulka were called in to facilitate the process and consult with indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, to obtain and represent their views. This organisation was called Mutual Mediations. They reached a decision on the Embassy's future early in December 2005.
Jim Lloyd released a media statement in December 2005 stating that the Embassy will have no residents and shall be replaced with a more permanent structure. A sign stating "No Camping" has been erected at the Embassy, although Minister Lloyd has stated that no residents will be removed against their will.
The Embassy remains intact and plans for the annual Corroboree for Sovereignty are still going ahead. Corroborree for Sovereignty is always held on the 26th of January, which is Australia Day, known to some Indigenous Australians and their supporters as invasion day.