This photo is from the Sydney Morning Herald.
The sight of the Australian PM and opposition leader being hustled away by the PM's security people in the face of an angry Aboriginal group have gone around the world.
Now Tony Hodges, one of Ms Gillard's press secretaries, has resigned after admitting he told a third party the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, was at The Lobby restaurant. The information was passed on to Aboriginal tent embassy protesters, who believed Mr Abbott had earlier called for the closure of the embassy.
I was astonished when I first saw the coverage and am still bemused. While the affray has been well covered in the Australian media, I thought that I should make a brief comment providing some context.
I need to set the scene first.
Australia's Old Parliament House overlooks Lake Burley Griffin. This is a much loved building that I knew very well when it functioned as Parliament. Now look at the following photo. It's not the best, but it will give you a feel.
You can see old parliament house with the lawns stretching up from the lake. The Lobby restaurant is In the trees on the right. Again, I knew it very well for it was a favourite Canberra hang out for politicians, staffers, journos and public servants.
You need to get this simple picture in your mind to understand what happened. Further comments follow the photo.
I now want to introduce the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. If you look at the photo, the original tent embassy was on the lawns directly in front of parliament house in line with the flag pole.
The full story of Aboriginal Tent Embassy is well covered in the wikipedia article (link above).
In summary, at 1am on 27 January 1972 four Aboriginal men (Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey and Bertie Williams) arrived in Canberra from Sydney to establish the Aboriginal Embassy by planting a beach umbrella on the lawn in front of the then Parliament House (now Old Parliament House). The Embassy was established in response to the McMahon Coalition Government's refusal to recognise Aboriginal land rights. McMahon instead favoured 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 beach umbrella was soon replaced by several tents and Aboriginal people and non-indigenous supporters came from all parts of Australia to join the protest. The Embassy opened and closed, but finally became a national site because of its significance to the Aboriginal protest movement.
I used to walk past it a dozen times a week. I was a bit bemused. I knew a lot about traditional Aboriginal life, but had very little knowledge of Aboriginal history in the late nineteenth or twentieth centuries. That came later. To me, it was just part of the colour of Canberra life.
The date of Australia Day, 26 January, was originally set to mark the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788. For some obscure reason, many Australian Aborigines do not regard this date as one to celebrate. Instead, they call it Invasion Day.
Many Aboriginal groups use Australia Day as a protest device, a day to try to highlight the concerns they have. Oddly, perhaps not, the official use of the 26 January date is quite useful from an Aboriginal protest perspective.
The significance of the Tent Embassy makes it a natural site for demonstrations and protests. Now Here I need to factor something else in.
I said that The Lobby Restaurant was in the trees just to the right of old parliament house. In fact, it's just next door to the current Tent Embassy site. This photo comes from the Australian.
Now here I asked a very basic question. Just which idiot decided to organise a major official Australia Day function involving PM and Opposition Leader within metres of a major Aboriginal protest site?
In response to a question at the function, Opposition Leader Abbott reportedly said:
Look, I can understand why the tent embassy was established all those years ago. I think a lot has changed for the better since then. We had the historic apology just a few years ago, one of the genuine achievements of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister. We had the proposal which is currently for national consideration to recognise indigenous people in the Constitution. I think the indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian and yes, I think a lot has changed since then and I think it probably is time to move on from that.
These are quite cautious words. Sadly, it appears that Gillard staffer Hodge leaked the fact that Mr Abbott would be at the function. Someone, I do not know who, told the Aboriginal protestors that Mr Abbott had called for the closure of the Embassy.
The stupidity of ministerial staff and the ministers who employ them is hard to over-estimate.
Ministerial staff are meant to be minders, people who protect their boss and help those bosses pursue their policy and political interests. This requires discretion and judgement. It also requires a degree of objectivity. Once staff become involved as players in short term political games, disaster usually follows.
The news that Mr Abbott had reportedly advocated the closure of the Tent Embassy inflamed the Aboriginal protestors. There are, in fact, two very separate issues here.
One is the role of the Embassy as a site of national significance. I think that the majority of Australians would agree with this. The second is the role of the site as a current symbolic camping place. Here views are more divided.
I now want to introduce yet another variable. This photo taken from The Lobby web site shows a function as the restaurant.
Please look closely at the photo. Note the plate glass windows. These pretty much surround the the building. The Tent Embassy and the original demonstration are straight through the windows shown in the photo.
Now we have an angry crowd surrounding a building with ground level plate glass windows so that the demonstrators can see the guests, the guests and security people can see the demonstrators.
We now introduce a new factor, protocols. In our modern world where we try to define every eventuality, we need protocols that dictate what must be done. These actually hold independent of circumstance.
Not all that many years ago, people would have gone out and talked to the crowd to find out what was happening. Now, protocols drawing from international experience dictate responses. This lead to delay and the nationally humiliating experience of seeing the PM and Opposition Leader, hustled even dragged away. This is quite a disproportionate response.
I am out of time now and will write a fuller response on the implications later. For the moment, I just wanted to get the story down.
Commenters are good!
Evan wrote: Why didn't they just go out the back? Evan, the Lobby doesn't have a back entrance in the way you are talking about. It's surrounded by parkland.
Not to detract from where you might be going with this Jim, but a couple of points:
The quote from Mr Abbott was from a press briefing earlier in the day, not at the Canberra function.
The Canberra function was hardly a secret affair; it was to acknowledge emergency workers as I understand it, and TV cameras were in attendance.
Now, quite why the guy resigned is yet to come out, but one would hardly think 'alerting' a third party to Mr Abbott's presence at a public event is sackable.
None of which is to say anything more than there are a few facts missing from the public commentary at this stage, and that the thing is unedifying for all concerned.
Another commenter was actually present in The Lobby:
I was there, inside the lobby, it was a frightening experience. Especially when protestors started banging on the glass walls with sticks and then began picking up rocks. My wife and myself were unsure at what point we may have had to defend our selves. Luckily with the departure of the PM and Mr Abbott the riot began to dissipate.
If you look again at the above photo of The Lobby and imagine demonstrators banging on those windows, you will get a feel for what the commenter felt.
To give a perspective from the other side, see It is right to be angry; it is right to protest – land rights now!
For a further perspective, my thanks to kvd for this, see http://mike-stuchbery.com/2012/01/27/australia-day/.