There is perhaps no event in the last few decades that better sums up the divide between black and white Australia than the debacle that engulfed the Embassy celebrations. It had everything: media misreporting; white political mischief; black political disunity; police violence; frustrated activists. And it had the odd rat-bag, black and white.
If nothing else, the debacle that engulfed the Tent Embassy celebration has once again exposed to the rest of the world the racist underbelly of a very ignorant nation. But first the facts, because a lot of people have formed opinions on the Embassy based on media reporting. And that is almost always a bad idea.
The Embassy celebrations kicked off with a large march through the streets of Canberra. It was loud and proud – by some margin the most inspiring march I’ve been to. It was a festival atmosphere and a celebration in every sense of the word. There was virtually no mainstream media present, certainly nothing comparable to the pack that would descend on the Aboriginal Tent Embassy a few hours later.
The rot began to set in shortly after lunch on January 26, when one of Julia Gillard’s senior media advisers, Tony Hodges, phoned Kim Sattler, a union official – and an Aboriginal woman — who was visiting the Tent Embassy.
According to the official version of events Hodges told Sattler that Tony Abbott had just been interviewed by media about the Embassy, and he expressed the view that it was time to move on. But what Sattler passed on to Embassy activists was something else altogether.
Audio of the exchange between Sattler and young Central Australian Aboriginal leader Barbara Shaw, reveals that Sattler says Tony Abbott has just told the press the Tent Embassy should be “pulled down”, not that it’s time to move on.
It’s a pretty subtle difference, but Shaw relays that message – pulled down — to the crowd, word for word.
Shaw then directs people to The Lobby Restaurant, a few hundred metres from the stage. The rest, as they say, is history. Or in this case, the whitewashed version of history.
Several hundred protestors descended on the restaurant. A small handful of them began banging on the glass walls on two sides of the building. The crowd was chanting ‘Shame’ and ‘Racist’. The object of their anger was Tony Abbott.
Anyone who has seen the footage can understand that Abbott, Gillard and in particular their security minders had reason to be concerned. Protestors were furious at what they’d been told Abbott had said.
After half an hour, Gillard’s security detail is captured by a Channel 9 news crew informing the Prime Minister that they’re becoming increasingly concerned for her safety, and have decided it’s time to go.
The subsequent images of Gillard being bundled out of the restaurant are startling. Gillard looks terrified as she’s rushed to her vehicle, surrounded by her personal security team and police, including one with a riot shield. Not surprisingly, the story made headlines around the world. The fact that Gillard stumbled and lost her blue suede shoe in the process only added to the colour.
Also not surprisingly, the vision sparked widespread outrage among average Australians – news sites that offered the opportunity for comment on the issue were inundated. Overwhelmingly the responses from readers were negative.
The coverage from the ABC – supposedly the moderate national broadcaster – best sums up the unfolding media circus: ‘Gillard puts on brave face after riot rescue’.
It’s a pretty compelling headline. It’s also complete bunkum.
The ‘riot’ – at a glass-walled restaurant, mind you – saw not one pane of glass cracked, let alone broken. There were no arrests and no injuries. It was a loud, angry protest. Nothing more. Of course, it did have the potential to get out of hand, but all protests do. It’s worth noting, the only damage to the Lobby restaurant was to a door – the one which Gillard is rushed through as she exits the building. And who caused the damage?
The National Capital Authority, which owns the building, inspected the Lobby the day after the protest, and confirmed to Embassy organisers that the AFP had broken the door in its haste to leave. Not only was there no riot, but there was never any actual threat to Gillard’s safety, nor that of Abbott.
As footage that emerged after the media had already written the script clearly showed, the only people pursuing Gillard and Abbott when they were rushed from the building were police, journalists and photographers. There were no protestors within coo-ee, and certainly none chasing down a terrified Prime Minister nor an Opposition Leader, who can be clearly seen smirking and smiling as he’s rushed to the car.
But that’s not such a newsworthy story.
So instead, we got this, from Channel 9:
“They made for the safety of a getaway car. The only thing between them and an angry, raging mob were police with shields.
“The Prime Minister, cradled by an officer, lost her shoe, stumbled slightly in the mayhem, the moment of terror, captured here on Julia Gillard’s face.
“Tony Abbott was pushed to the waiting car.
“When she got to the vehicle you can see Julia Gillard shoved inside.
“And in a sign of the danger, the rare sight of Mr Abbott bustled in beside her.”
The media reporting gave the widespread view that Gillard had somehow been attacked, as the comments on news sites consistently showed. But in defence of the Channel 9 journalist, he did get one aspect of his story right: he noted that AFTER the Prime Minister’s vehicle left, the violence began.
One of the most memorable images from the ‘riot’, at least from the Aboriginal perspective, is footage captured by a news crew of a police officer punching an Aboriginal man – dressed in traditional costume and carrying a spear – in the face). It can be seen 15 seconds into this clip.
The images were replayed around the globe – BBC World News, for example, used the footage over and over again during its coverage of the event.
Alternative footage, captured by an embassy activist, sheds new light on this officer’s behaviour, and what led up to the assault. Shortly after Gillard’s vehicle has left, the protestor’s footage shows the officer unleash a barrage of abuse – and blows – at protestors and media.
At 1:05 he comes into the shot screaming “Media f**k off or get out. Get out media, get out”. He turns his attention to a cameraman from SBS and yells, “F**k off c*nt,” before manhandling a sound technician. The exchange clearly shows the officer as the aggressor.
At 1:17 the cop starts yelling, “Move rear, move rear. Move f**king rear,” as he continues to push and swing at protestors, before finally hitting one of them in the head (at 1:28).
At 1:30,a second cop stars in the video, with wild eyes and a huge grin on his face, nodding his head and willing protestors to take him on, all the while pushing and manhandling them.
As soon as one protestor yells “Get him on camera”, the cop seems to realize he’s being filmed, wipes the smile off his face and steps back from the crowd.
The camera pans back to the red-headed officer, who is now in full-swing, literally. He’s screaming “Get back off the road idiots” as he pushes more protestors. You can hear one off camera respond, “Little f**king big man. Little big man, pushing people eh?” It draws the attention of the officer, who responds by pushing him in the chest.
The protestor replies, “Hey, you push me, I’ll spear you brother.”
The cop pushes him again, and you see the protestor push the cop back. The cop looks down at his own chest – an act which people widely interpreted to mean he was spat on (he wasn’t) - then hits the protestor in the head. You can’t actually see the hit – it’s slightly off camera. But it’s of such force that you can certainly hear it. The news footage BBC ran shows it nearly knocked the protestor off his feet.
What follows is one of the more ironic images from the demonstration. Tiga Bayles, an early Embassy activist and a former Queensland Father of the Year, steps into the frame and blocks the cop, saying ‘No, no, no, it’s alright’. Other protestors – including the first man assaulted — also surround the cop to prevent further attacks.
It’s not often you see groups of peaceful protestors having to step in to try and calm a police officer down.
The cop keeps pushing and swinging until a female protestor puts her hand on his shoulder (at 2:04) and says, “You are inciting, you are inciting.” Like his colleague earlier, the cop’s demeanor changes completely – he seems to realise that everything he’s just done has been captured on film. He stops yelling, and starts pleading, “I’m just trying to get you off the road.”
Seconds later, Sergeant Chris Meagher – a community liaison officer who spent the five days working cooperatively with Embassy officials — can be seen walking into the shot, and removing both officers from the front line of the confrontation. A protestor can be heard yelling, “This officer here is way too pumped up. The officer in the middle, this one right here.”
You can hear someone reply, “Yeah, we got him.”
And remember, all of this occurred AFTER Gillard has left the scene. The supposed threat has gone. So why the police violence?
A measure of how pumped up the red haired officer was before confronting protestors is captured in this video.
It shows him mistaking one of Gillard’s personal security team for a protestor, and then elbowing him in the head as Gillard’s car speeds away.
Officially, the Australian Federal Police are happy with the conduct of officers.
Unofficially, the officer’s conduct is under review, with the possibility of ‘retraining’, particularly in relation to his dealings with media.
Hysterical commentary aside, the media reporting before, during and after the event was typically very poor. It was also laced with a thousand missing facts.
One of them is that Michael Anderson, one of the original founders of the Tent Embassy was approached by Kim Sattler and told that the Prime Minister’s office was on the phone, and wanted to speak to him. He didn’t take the call because he was in the middle of a radio interview.
The point being, it wasn’t a simple case of the PM’s office relating Abbott’s whereabouts to a third party, who then passed the information on to the Tent Embassy. Gillard’s office actively sought to provide the information directly to the Tent Embassy.
That puts quite a different complexion on events from those advanced by Gillard – that Hodges had merely passed on the information to a colleague, who then blabbed it to the Embassy.Media commentary has also missed the stark shift in Gillard’s rhetoric before the details of her media minder’s involvement emerged, and her rhetoric after. A few hours following the event, Gillard played the role of ‘no big deal’ in a clear pitch to try and capitalise on widespread outrage against protestors, and sympathy for the way she was supposedly treated.
“I am made of pretty tough stuff and the police did a great job,” Gillard said on the evening of protest. It was a brand of spin that worked – a Herald/Neilsen poll released a week after the Embassy debacle showed a six point rise in Gillard’s popularity, despite the involvement of her office in the leak. There’s a very good analysis of the poll – and the embassy debacle’s affect on it – by Phillip Coorey. It is Gillard’s highest rise in the polls since taking office.
But the morning after the event, Radio 2GB was reporting allegations that Gillard’s adviser had staged the whole event. Realising she was firmly back in the frame – but this time at risk of losing public sympathy – Gillard went on the offensive. The target was the Embassy protestors, who had suddenly become “violent”.
“The people who initiated those violent acts, the people who were involved in those violent acts are responsible for the violence that was there,” Gillard told media (indeed they were, and we all look forward to the police officers responsible being charged).
In the course of her press conference, Gillard referred to violence seven times.
Of course, she never actually saw any (unless you count her tripping over one of her security advisers and losing her shoe as violence), because as Channel 9 accurately reported, it occurred only after Gillard had left, and then, as the footage showed, only at the hands of police.
Gillard’s attempts to fit the blackfellas up when it’s clear her office had set out to orchestrate the entire incident is disgraceful.
It goes not only to her credibility and her fitness to hold office, but it speaks volumes about her ethics, her cowardice, and her willingness to play politics with the nation’s most disadvantaged people.
And then there’s Tony Abbott. It was Abbott’s comments, after all, that sparked the whole debacle. Granted, he did not call for the Tent Embassy to be “torn down”, although that was how media reported his comments.
Australian Associated Press paraphrased his comments, noting that the embassy should be “pulled down”. Like a game of Chinese whispers, media then embellished it further until finally it was reported Abbott wanted the Embassy “torn down”. The AAP story was posted on news websites around the nation. It remained uncorrected for two hours (and is now the subject of an internal AAP investigation).
But having been asked on the very day Aboriginal people were celebrating 40 years of resistance what he thought about it all, Abbott could have elected to say nothing, knowing what an important day it was for Aboriginal people.
Instead, he chose to twist the knife that he has plunged into the back of Aboriginal people on countless previous occasions. Imagine the reaction if Aboriginal people came out on, say, Anzac Day and told Australians it was time to “move on”?
The events that followed his comments have also taken the focus off the full text of what Abbot actually said. Apart from calling for the Embassy to “move on” Abbot said:
“Look, I can understand why the Tent Embassy was set up 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.”
A couple of points Tony.
Firstly, the Tent Embassy was set up “all those years ago” because Aboriginal people were demanding national land rights, a treaty and sovereignty.
Call me a cynic, but last time I checked, there is still no treaty, still no national land rights, and still no recognition of sovereignty. Indeed, the Aboriginal are still demanding precisely those things 40 years later.
Secondly, you and your party opposed the National Apology during your 12 years in office. Thirdly, you’re refusing to offer bi-partisan support on Constitutional Recognition if it involves amending the legislation to remove the power of your parliament to discriminate against Aboriginal people.
As to your comment about “the respect in which they are held by every Australian”, you’re clearly not familiar with the myriad of Australian race-hate pages on Facebook, not to mention the views of the extreme right wing of your own party.
Have you not met Wilson Tuckey, a man whose nickname ‘Ironbar’ came from him flogging an Aboriginal man in a pub? Have you not heard of Pauline Hanson, or David Oldfield?
Abbott’s comments are clearly complete nonsense. Indeed they are Howard-esque in their ignorance (who can forget the former Prime Minister refusing to accept racism was a factor in the Cronulla riots, or predicting that the $2 billion NT intervention would cost “some tens of millions”).
Abbott, however, is rather blessed when it comes to media analysis. Don’t hold your breath for media to revisit and analyse Abbott’s original remarks or Gillard’s deceit. And don’t wait for the media to correct the public record about the riot that never happened.
And don’t expect media to scrutinise the use of the nation’s most disadvantaged people as a political football by both major parties, and as a metaphorical football by overzealous cops.
History has already been written. In the words of Abbott, it’s time to “move on”.
Tomorrow — the tent embassy incident and what it means for grassroot activism v boardroom blackfellas…
* Chris Graham is the Managing Editor of Tracker Magazine. He is a Walkley Award and Walkley High Commendation winner, and has twice won the Human Rights Award for his reporting on Indigenous affairs.