Australian PM flees Aboriginal rights protesters on national day

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott have escaped from a group of protesters rallying for Aboriginal peoples rights on Australia Day.

Gillard and Abbott had been presenting National Emergency Medals in a restaurant close to the nation’s parliament on Thursday, as part of official Australia Day celebrations.

Some 200 meters away, around 1,000 people had gathered in front of the former parliament house to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal “Tent Embassy”, a protest site symbolizing the Aboriginal people’s struggle for self-determination and sovereignty.

Knowing that the leaders were close by, some 200 protesters marched to the restaurant, chanting “shame” and “racist” in response to Abbott’s remarks, made earlier in the day in Sydney, regarding about the relevance of the Tent Embassy. Abbot was quoted by the AAP news agency as saying that he understood why the Tent Embassy was set up but “a lot has changed since then and I think it probably is time to move on from that”.

Police and security officers rushed the prime minister and the opposition leader out of the restaurant. Gillard reportedly tumbled and lost a shoe as she was dragged away by a bodyguard.

Four Aboriginal men — Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Bertie Williams and Tony Coorey — started the protest under a parasol in front of the then parliamentary building on Jan. 26, 1972, in response to government policy that rejected Aboriginal freehold land rights.

They named the site the “Aboriginal Embassy” as they felt that the policies made them foreigners in their own land. The Tent Embassy has grown to become a symbol of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples’ struggle for self-
determination rights.

The anniversary of the Tent Embassy falls on the Australia Day, a controversial date that some Indigenous Australians have dubbed “Invasion Day” as it marks the arrival of the first British fleet to Sydney.

Supporters of the Tent Embassy encircled a sacred fire and placed eucalyptus leaves to honor Aboriginal ancestors before speeches were conducted.

Aboriginal elder and activist Lyle Munroe told the gathering that when Captain Cook discovered Australia he found 500 different tribes and 800 different dialects.

“The high court has said that Captain Cook lied, virtually lied when he came out here. He said it was terra nullius, it was an empty land, only him and his ship crew were on the land and he came to the island and he claimed the island England.”

The Australian government is currently looking to change the country’s constitution to include recognition of the Indigenous people as the first Australians. An expert panel has submitted their recommendation for the constitutional reform last week. The government has promised a referendum to be held by the next election, which is expected in 2013.

However, some activists at Tent Embassy rejected the idea of constitutional reform and said the panel of experts did not represent the whole Aboriginal community.

Anderson, the only surviving member of the four Tent Embassy founders, said he did not want a constitutional reform.

“We want a treaty. We want to talk on an equal level, because we share sovereignty in this country,” he told The Jakarta Post, adding that activists were looking at lodging court cases with the European Court of Human Rights, the criminal courts and under United States tort law.

The Aboriginal people are the most impoverished minority of Australians, with a gap in life expectancy of 17 years compared to non-Indigenous Australians.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Canberra | World | Fri, January 27 2012

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