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Friday 25 November 2005, 6 pm ABC1

The Future of the Tent Embassy

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It was set up in 1972 and it’s been the focal point for many important protests over the years… but what does the future hold for the tent embassy site? We follow the community consultation process and focus on two stakeholders; longtime resident activist, Isabell Coe and her cousin, Matilda House, a Ngamberri/Canberra Elder, who wants the protesters evicted.

Transcript

Transcript of program

RACHAEL MAZA: Hi, I'm Rachael Maza and welcome to Message Stick. In 1972, four men sat under a beach umbrella on the lawns of the old Parliament House in Canberra and declared it an embassy, in protest of the fact that Aboriginal people were aliens in their own country. During the past 33 years, this make shift embassy has been the focal point of many protests. For some, it's considered an icon, a monument to that struggle. And they travel from all over the country to visit the site and camp. But did you know that the future of the Tent Embassy is being being brought into question by the Government? Will the site remain? Or will the protestors be kicked out and the site dismantled? We're gonna meet two strong, proud women who are at the centre of this debate. Isabell Coe is fighting for the right to continue camping at the Tent Embassy, while on the other side, her cousin, Matilda House, considers the site an eyesore and wants the resident protestors evicted.

MATILDA HOUSE: This is the country where my ancestors are.

MATILDA HOUSE, TALKING TO CHILDREN: And, of course, when we're talking about camping around there, Black Mountain was actually what was Black's Camp. And, of course, it was a woman's business camp around there. And that's where babies were born.

MATILDA HOUSE: I'm Matilda. My connection to this country is through my father's people. I call myself a 'Canberry' woman. That's the name of the people that came and are from here. I guess, to me, it means an identity. And I feel that by having my identity being the, you know, the matriarch of my family, it helps to establish, you know, the generations that are going to be coming up. So, it gives them that foothold. You know, that footprint. And footprint's what's country's all about and what your identity's all about. And that's what the Tent Embassy means to me. It means that people must learn to respect each other's country and their identity, as well as my identity.

ISABELL COE: My name is Isabell Coe. I'm a Wiradjuri Ngunnawal woman. I'm a mother and I'm a grandmother. Well, when I'm in Canberra, that's the only place I stay. It's always at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Of course, it's a part of my traditional country. I've got a special obligation to keep the Aboriginal Tent Embassy going. And I'll be keeping it going until I die. Until our Aboriginal sovereignty is recognised in our country. This country is our birth right. Always was and always will be Aboriginal land.

MATILDA HOUSE: I love Isabell, she knows that. We're cousins. My mother and her mother are first cousins. We share the grandparents. And we share the great-grandparents. Well, Isabell, I suppose, more of a hardliner than what I am. I think I, we do things, both, quite differently but we achieve what we want at the end of the day. But at the end of the day, we have this affinity of not wanting to stand is the same line with the Tent Embassy.

NARRATOR: Matilda and Isabell were both raised on a mission in Cowra, almost 200km away from Canberra. Matilda is a respected elder of the Ngamberri nation which sits inside the Ngunnawal country border. Matilda believes her people have the strongest claim to country, giving them the greatest influence over the future of the tent embassy. But her cousin Isabell disputes the claim, saying the Ngunnawal is a just a small family clan of the Wiradjuri nation where SHE is a respected elder.

In 1972 the creation of the Aboriginal tent embassy shocked mainstream Australia out of its paternalism. Suddenly Aboriginal people gave up negotiating. They were demanding their rights. Matilda and Isabell were both a part of the struggle.

ISABELL COE ON TV: Well, there's blacks going through violence every day of their lives.

ISABELL COE, PRESENT TIME: Well, it was very frustrating, because there was no recognition of any real issues for Aboriginal people. Before then, there wasn't any international recognition that there were any Aboriginal people left in Australia until the embassy went up. We weren't recognised as being the legal owners of this country. We're still not recognised. And that was the idea of putting up the embassy, because we were refugees, aliens in our own country.

MICHAEL ANDERSON, TENT EMBASSY FOUNDER: Quite honestly we had no idea. We didn't know whether we'd last five minutes or five days. We had no idea. We didn't know what the laws were in terms of sitting here in Canberra and doing things. We didn't know how the police would react, we didn't know how the pollies would react.

NARRATOR: Initially the police were cool. Students and activists came from all over Australia to lend support. But six months later the laws were changed, and protesters became trespassers. Immediately the police took action. The women surrounded the men, hoping the police would behave like gentlemen. Matilda House was one of them.

MATILDA HOUSE: There was a lot of Aboriginal women like myself there with their kids. You did see people, you know, getting kicked and punched and dragged. Very, very frightening. Very frightening. I just never seen anything like that before in my life. But I seen some of the most hard-headed and the most staunchest Aboriginal people that I've seen in all my life to this day. The determination.

ISABELL COE: Because we were just young kids from the missions. And we lived under the Aboriginal Welfare Board and the Aboriginal Protection Board. So it was really hard. Because we also had to educate ourselves. Educate ourselves politically. Um, and it was really hard when we'd just left the missions to even talk to people, you know? Because we weren't educated enough.

DENNIS WALKER, ON TV: Land rights isn't a word. It's a living. It's people.

GARY FOLEY, ON TV: We'll get our bloody land even if we have to ------- well take it.

ISABELL COE: It took a while for us to understand the difference between land rights and sovereignty. Sovereignty means, you know, you own the land, it's your birthright, and that traditional owners have a connection to that country that goes back to the beginning of time.

BILLY CRAIGI, ISABELL'S LATE HUSBAND, ADRESSING MEDIA: You are now standing in the old parliament house of Australia. This is now a sovereign land claim on behalf of the Indigenous people of this country.

NARRATOR: With the exception of Gough Whitlam, governments of both houses have opposed the site and their call for sovereignty. Over the years there have been many campaigns to evict the protesters.

KEVIN BUZZACOTT, ADDRESSING TENT EMBASSY: The emu and the kangaroo belongs to us. It doesn't belong on that wall.

NARRATOR: But the Embassy remains.

ISABELL COE: Now, we have a fire there. It's been going since 1998, it's called the Fire for Peace and Justice. We've spread this fire right across the country. Right across the world. It's to sing up peace and justice, to end all wars. So, you know... we're promoting peace and justice, we're not promoting violence. And if there's any violence, it's usually the police and the establishment, the government, that's doing it against us. In the last year, we were fire-bombed and petrol-bombed about three times. We're not safe, we don't feel safe from them because they're continually attacking us.

NARRATOR: Attacks have also come from within. Back in 1999, there was a split amongst the Aboriginal community in Canberra. The traditional owners called the site 'embarrassing', and supported a Federal Government push to evict the Embassy residents. Matilda House launched a cleanup campaign, pulling down tents and extinguishing their sacred fire.

MATILDA HOUSE: Everybody knows where I sit. It should be a place where people can come and protest. But, you know, it's a bit hard to know a protest from a caravan park or a camping ground. I don't want people down there just sitting there on your arse day-in and day-out, you know, with so-called "scared fires" and sacred this and sacred that. I mean, how can somebody from another country come in here to my Great-Grandfather's place and say it's sacred down there? Get a life! Move on. Go back to where you come from and fix up some of the problems in your own backyard, deal through your state and territories. Don't come and make it a federal matter when people who are in your communities are really fighting their hardest to get their own things done in their own backyards, while they're up around here sitting on their arses doing nothing, and saying that they're protesting.

PAUL HOUSE, MATILDA'S SON: In the last 10, 20, 30 years, a lot of Indigenous people have come to Canberra trying to stake their claim, and assert themselves as the traditional owners from wherever. But we're here to say that this is our land, our country, and it's only the Ngamberri who can speak for the country here. And Matilda, the family, we identify strongly with all our ancestries, but...that's not a problem. But here in the ACT, we identify as Ngamberri people. And that's the difference, we are a distinct group of people, and we have a distinct group of rights here in the ACT, apart from anyone else.

MICHAEL ANDERSON, TENT EMBASSY FOUNDER: Well, unfortunately, you know... you know, it's sad that he says that, because this is the nation's capital. It's seen as the nation's capital, on Ngunnawal land. When we put the Embassy up, there was no-one here. Right? There was no-one here to get permission off. Right? There was no-one at all. And in fact his Uncles and his Auntys and his Mother and everybody, they came here later. And when they were in the demonstrations, they weren't saying, "this is our land." You know, but I respect their wishes, I respect their view. But they also have to respect that, you know, um... we don't claim this as ownership or "this is mine" or anything like that. We see that as neutral ground. Yeah? We see it as neutral ground. Just like all the other embassies.

MATILDA HOUSE: I will always be there for the Tent Embassy. But I'm not, and I do not respect what's down there now. I respect the name of the Tent Embassy. And the people who are there now, really... they don't have the respect back to country or anybody else.

ISABELL COE: Canberra is a part of my traditional country. I'm not gonna walk away from what I promised to do. To my Grandmother, and even to Matilda's mother. Aunty Pearly. Now, every time I used to come back here to Cowra, Erambie Mission, she would say to me, "Isabell, you make sure that you keep that Aboriginal Tent Embassy going." There you go.

NARRATOR: Regardless of what the protestors do, political jurisdiction over the site is with Federal Minister Jim Lloyd. And he wants the resident protestors out.

JIM LLOYD MP, MIN. LOCAL GOVERNMENT, TERRITORIES AND ROADS: I think the Aboriginal Tent Embassy has reached its used-by date. In its present form, it's not achieving what I see as a role for the Aboriginal people. I don't believe, and I'm sure most people in Australia don't believe, that camping on the site in an unstructured form, as it is at the moment, is acceptable. And that was the one definitive that I said, that I don't believe that people should be able to camp on the site as they do now.

NARRATOR: Minister Lloyd has hired two professional mediators, both specialists in conflict resolution, to consult and report on how best to improve the site. They get their insider information from an advisory committee, a hand-picked group of indigenous people from around Australia, including Matilda House.

RODNEY DILLON, SPEAKING TO ADVISORY COMMITTEE: We want to say, you know, this is our first statement, is that none of us want to get rid of the embassy and there's not a black fella in Australia that wants to get rid of the embassy. But what we do want is a working embassy that will work for us.

CALLUM CAMPBELL, MEDIATOR, SPEAKING TO ADVISORY COMMITTEE: I mean, do you people believe it's realistic, you as the committee members, that if people say, "Well, we're not moving till we get sovereignty", do you think that's a very practical way...

RODNEY DILLON: There's people that do say that. That that's what they're gonna do. And you've just got to accept that, but there's other things that we need before we're gonna get sovereignty. And maybe there may be a government one day that will recognise that but it's not today.

RUTH BELL, NGUNNAWAL ELDER, SPEAKING TO ADVISORY COMMITTEE: I was just going to say, we've had three ministers talking about the Tent Embassy over the last few years. Now, we want to know how serious is the current minister about what he's going to do about the tent embassy. We as Aboriginal people are sick and tired of living on promises. And we want to know how serious he is.

JIM LLOYD MP: Look, I'm very serious about providing something at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy site that really fulfils the aspirations for Aboriginal people, and is acceptable to mainstream Australians as well. Using the consultants and talking as widely as I can, we've been able to establish and meet with people like Matilda House. And it is important. Their views are taken into account because land to them is everything.

ISABELL COE: No one from the tent embassy takes any money from the government. We're not paid by the government. But those Aboriginal people have been paid. Now, Matilda House, I believe is one of them who's on the committee. Now, she's a paid elder I believe, of the government. So, they pay her and she does whatever they want her to do. It's always been our history. We've always had the native police and the Jackie Jackie's. And I believe that these people are, they're another form of the native police. They now hunt us down and do what the government wants them to do. It's been going on for a long time. But I've gotta make the point that Aboriginal sovereignty is about every single one of us. Now, it's not about the select few, like the government want to handpick people all the time.

MATILDA HOUSE: Well, how I'm looking at is that Isabel can pack up and leave and go back to Sydney or Cowra and leave all this behind. But I've gotta live here for the rest of my life, with country. And see the things that aren't done right.

PAUL HOUSE, MATILDA'S SON: The bottom line is, we want acknowledgement. We want to undertake dialogue at the bargaining table. We want to do it on our terms as traditional owners. This is our land, it's our country. We do it on our terms. No one else's.

NARRATOR: visited Isabell at the embassy to get the residents' perspective. Only one member of the advisory committee consulted with the residents - Ruth Bell. Along with Matilda, she's also recognised as a traditional elder of the region.

CALLUM CAMPBELL, MEDIATOR: Our role here today is basically to get your views so that we represent those in the report that we're going to be filing at the end of November.

WADJULARBINNA: The issue they're going on about, like a whole bunch of mad people, they don't want any campers here. So we have got to work something out that'll stop that dead in its tracks. Right...today.

RUTH BELL: We are, as a committee - that's Callum and Tom - we sit up there, we're sitting up there and we don't know exactly what the Aboriginal people want. The main issue of this is that this tent embassy is on Ngunnawal land. And we want the respect to us as Ngunnawal people. White people walk past and they say - I've heard them say it - "What a filthy place! What a dirty place." I don't want it to be left like that. I don't want it to be like that.

ISABELL COE: I object to people calling this a, you know, that we're dirty, lazy blacks. Because look at the eyesore this country has turned into. In 200 years they've poisoned every waterhole, you know? These tents, they represent how we've had to live. And you know, Aboriginal Australia, it's not a pretty picture at the moment. Have a look at what's happening right around this country. Now, all of our communities have turned into eyesores.

JIM LLOYD MP: I know the argument is, "Look, many Aboriginal people live in poor conditions and we want to bring that and showcase that." Well, if you look at every other embassy that is in Canberra, they don't bring the worst of their countries and showcase that. They try to bring the best of their country, the aspirations, what they're achieving, what they're trying to do. If you look at every embassy in Canberra, you know, it's a showcase.

ISABEL COE: And let's get it right. We're protesting. We're not there to look pretty for the government. We're there protesting because this government won't do its job. It won't end this genocidal war against our people. We're dying. We're dying all over the country. We've been locked up in prisons. Men, women and children. It's the only place where we are a majority.

ISABEL COE, TALKING TO RUTH BELL: But your gonna be our voice?

RUTH BELL: Yeah.

ISABELL COE: You're our voice up there.

RUTH BELL: OK.

ISABELL COE: I've got no faith in those other people.

RUTH BELL: You're calling for help and we come there to see what we can do to make it an easier situation to live in this situation.

ISABELL COE: Yeah, but when you got children, you know, it's not just about us anymore. People have got to get over that, you know? It's not about us. Most of us have lived most of our lives. We've got to start thinking about these little ones. And the ones in the future, you know? That's what it's all about. Because Aboriginal anything has just been wiped out. Except this is the only thing Aboriginal. And we're gonna keep it going.

RUTH BELL: Well, be like an old dog with a bone. Hang on!

ISABELL COE: God love you, Ruth. You take care, darling.

NARRATOR: The final recommendations will be delivered to the minister in a few days. We can report one idea is for government to build a combined museum and office.

CALLUM CAMPBELL, MEDIATOR: A lot of the feedback that we received was to build some sort of meeting rooms, open spaces, even lecture theatres, possibly. The concept should be educative. It should be administrative function that provides referral services. It should raise the profile of Indigenous issues, not only on a national level but on an international level. Um, it should be a site of pride, of dignity, that represents Indigenous heroes, um, Indigenous leaders. Um, and it should be all of those things, encompassing culture and heritage, the individuality, you know, the 40,000 years the Indigenous people were the custodians of this land. This is not guaranteed. This obviously goes through Cabinet. And then they make a decision upon that. Our job is to provide a report on the recommendations that we see from the feedback that we've received on the most appropriate way forward for the embassy.

JIM LLOYD MP: I'm not kidding myself. I know that not everyone will be in agreement with whatever is decided. But if we can have a reasonably cohesive view, I can then go back to Cabinet and seek funds to build a permanent building on the site. And that's the next stage, that we need to consult very widely with Aboriginal people as to what that will be.

MATILDA HOUSE: Well, I feel happy as a Ngamberri woman to know and to acknowledge the fact that it all happened there in the country of my ancestors. And that young Aboriginal men and women and Torres Strait Islander people can come there and respect always.... the laws and the customs of the land.

ISABEL COE: While ever there's a need for it to be there, while ever these things are happening to our people, while ever our sovereign rights aren't recognised, I'm not moving anywhere.

RACHAEL MAZA: We've come to the end of another series. But we'll be back again next year with more stories celebrating our people and our culture. Until then, take care of yourself. And we look forward to your company in 2006. See you then.