Aboriginal Tent Embassy: are we looking at it the wrong way?

Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Parkes ACT
Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Parkes ACT

Aboriginal Tent Embassy

Some reflections for Reconciliation Week 2012

Last Sunday, about a week out from Sorry Day 2012, I had a not-so-chance interaction at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of Old Parliament House.

It galvanised and resonated with me two of the things that are most core to my being.

1. My favourite word in the English language is ‘diversity’. We should identify, celebrate and understand our differences.

The less we can say, ‘I don’t understand’ and the more we can say, ‘Help me to understand’ when it comes to differences, the better off we’ll be, in my very humble opinion.

2. Never assume.

The older I get, the more I have grown to dislike this word and all the connotations around it and others like it.

‘I assume, I presume, Obviously, As you are aware’: they’re all illegal in my book. It’s like aversion therapy just being on the planet some days, hearing these repeated ad nauseum. Keep some tally marks today as they’re trotted out around you.

I can hear the words of my late father ringing in my ears: ‘Don’t jump to conclusions; you’ll break your leg’.

Intruder

On Sunday evening 20 May 2012, I was walking back from catching up with some people in Manuka and Forrest. It was one of the wonderful, clear, crisp Canberra nights in late Autumn when the air is still and so long as you have a warm jacket on (preferably in an outrageous 50s pattern) and an over-sized beanie, you’re sound as a pound.

Sorry Day Bridge Walk poster. I tried to ressurrect it but couldn't find anything to hammer it into the ground with. Sorry.
Sorry Day Bridge Walk poster. I tried to resurrect it but couldn’t find anything to hammer it into the ground with. Sorry.

As I walked through Parkes (the Parliamentary Triangle) and passed the statues of Messrs Chifley and Curtin, I got to thinking about reconciliation, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, and the coming Sorry Day. Earlier that day, while walking from the city out to Manuka, I’d happened on a sign advertising the Bridge Walk this Friday and had spent some time (ultimately unsuccessfully) trying to re-plant it by the side of the road.

So this was all buzzing around as I approached the tent embassy along King Georges Terrace at about 8pm. I could have stuck to the path and the lights and headed off towards Commonwealth Avenue, but something drew me towards the ceremonial fire and I’d just descended the one or two steps when a resident called out from the shadows, ‘Hey, where are you going? What are you doing?’

I guess I’d do the same if someone was traversing my residence in the dark, especially in an alarming jacket and a head covering looking like they’d just escaped a Moscovite winter.

The Aboriginal man had long straggly hair but was neatly dressed, capped off with a battered and well-worn leather jacket. He didn’t touch me but escorted me back the way I came.

I started to talk quickly. It’s a service I provide.

Aboriginal Tent Embassy HQ
Aboriginal Tent Embassy HQ

I told him my name, mentioned that I had worked in the past with school groups at Old Parliament House, providing learning about democracy, the parliamentary system and our system of voting in Australia while making it abundantly clear I was there that night as Bill Quinn from Overheard Productions, not in any capacity as a public/civil servant.

In the time it took us to make it from the fire to the top of the steps, his interest was piqued and he pulled up next to some old office chairs by a desk. He took a seat, invited me to do likewise and reached into his pocket.

‘Do you smoke?’ he asked, offering me the packet.

‘Not for 12 years,’ I declined.

In the darkness I thought I detected a resigned shrug — maybe he wished he too had given them away 12 years ago.

Straightening up the lawns (flora)

Bruthan — there’s a story to that name; ask him sometime — comes from Victoria and is on something of a mission to help clean up the area around the tent embassy and improve its reputation. He acknowledges that maybe some elements have been at the embassy in the past that haven’t always given it the best name or standing in the community.

But, as we discuss, the site is nationally heritage-listed and has been for 25 years. It’s news — I believe, welcome news — to Bruthan that school groups at Old Parliament House are routinely made aware at the start of schools programs that

King George
King George

the embassy is one of Australia’s oldest protests — it’s been continually operating since 1972 and is currently commemorating 40 years in existence.

Bruthan is a man with a lot to say and keen to say it. The more he talks, the more the passion he has for the site and for the plight of his people becomes evident. He talks of the work he’s been doing to clean and clear up the site. He’s not a big one for long hours of sleep, and he reckons he’ll get back to doing some mowing later that night.

No problems with the EPA when you’ve got no residents for a kilometre or two.

He also talks about working with the National Capital Authority to ensure the maintenance on the site is kept up.

‘We even look after that old bloke,’ he says, pointing to the statue of King George, the eponymous guardian of his Terrace.

‘He’s not ours, but we figure we should look after him a bit’.

Tell it to the birds (fauna)

Bruthan is keen to show me all facets of the site and we move around from the chairs to the fire a couple of times. It’s on one of these times standing by the fire that he proudly shows me the cut-out images of the kangaroo and the emu.

It’s more or less at this point that I mention my habit of talking with birds. In their own language if I can muster enough of it. Magpies in Garema Place, sulphur-crested cockatoos and galahs in parks, crows everywhere, and possibly my favourites: blue wrens in the courtyards of Old Parliament House.

Bruthan reacts like it’s the most normal practice in the world.

‘I get more sense out of birds than most people,’ I tell him.

‘Yeah, you’re not wrong there, brother. Hey, d’ya know what the blue on those wrens is all about?’ he asks.

‘It’s the males,’ I reply, ‘saying, “Come and get some of this, ladies!”‘

‘That’s the one!’

Before explaining the significance of the animal shapes and their positioning, Bruthan tells the story of the magpies that come and visit him at the site. There’s a mother and father, and young’uns with their lighter downy plumage.

‘They come pretty close, but the young one doesn’t have as much fear and comes a little closer. That’s when his Dad belts him over the head with a wing and squawks at him. He’s teaching him to have some fear for the human.’

It’s a fairly powerful allegory for how much fear is taught, not innate.

The emu and the kangaroo unshackled

Bruthan is very keen to graphically show the meaning behind the two animals. He bids me turn towards Old Parliament House, lit up in glaring, dazzling white.

Emu and kangaroo
Emu and kangaroo

‘What do you see up there?’ he asks, pointing to the roof.

Guessing it has something to do with our animal friends behind us, I offer: ‘The kangaroo and emu’.

‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘but I can’t look at them up there. It’s too painful. What are they shackled to?’

It takes me a few seconds to grasp his meaning.

‘Your native animals are tied to the shield.’

The coat of arms. A representation of the six colonies/six states that kicked off Federation in 1901, and there they are, tethering the kangaroo and emu. Selected for their iconic status and, arguably, as two creatures that are not physically able to take a backward step.

But they’re stuck holding onto that shield and can’t escape.

We turn back to the animal shapes on either side of the fire. ‘Here they are. This is the way I’ve got to face, brother. Away from that and to here where they’re unshackled and free.’

And there they are. On opposite sides and free to move about.

It’s a powerful image. Bruthan is keen for me to take photos, but my battery’s about to gasp its last and I returned the next day to get them in the full daylight.

Messages

I’m only with him for about 20 minutes and about the same again three days later when I return to see how things were going and if Bruthan had found my hardcopy of this story.

Bruthan is no fly-by-night operative. He’s an educated, intelligent man who has been working tirelessly to continue the iconic status of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy as we mark 40 years since it began in the year where we also commemorate 50 years of the Indigenous vote.

Aboriginal Tent Embassy
Aboriginal Tent Embassy

We talk of many things. Of the history of hegemony throughout the world, of how Britain came to colonise Australia though France and the Netherlands had been there and made some assessments.

Bruthan has some views on all of those, but mostly lots of questions, and he’s keen to look more into the antipathy between the French and English at around about this time.

He mentions the name of a poet at one point: Kevin Gilbert. Not trusting a 45-year-old memory, I’m keen to write it down and I fish out a note-taking device.

My host grabs his flashlight to help me, but sees in the dark the rectangular shape of my device.

‘Oh, you’re right. That thing’s got its own light, hey?’

I hold it up into the meagre light from King Georges Terrace: ‘It’s a notebook. I’m old school: analogue’.

I don’t need any light to know there’s a sly grin creeping over Bruthan’s face as he points to the ceremonial fire.

‘I’m still on smoke signals, brother!’

Dialogue

One of the most illuminating chats we have comes a few days later when we talk of race relations and blame and sorry, cause and effect, and futures.

Bruthan’s very strong on the don’t forget but don’t dwell. He’s more focussed on the future and how Indigenous people can improve their lot and their standing. I can’t say too much here as I’m bound by a piece of paper on a government file to be a-political, but we weigh up the various merits of Paul Keating’s speech in Redfern, John Howard’s observations on whether or not we should apologise for past wrongs, and the utility of the Sorry address by Kevin Rudd.

Cockatoos and the emu
Cockatoos and the emu

‘But it starts with this,’ he says, ‘pointing alternately at himself and me. ‘With us sitting down — well, I’m standing up — and having a chat.’

‘A dialogue,’ I concur.

‘Yeah, I mean you seem like you’ve got a bit of a spark, you’ve got a bit of intelligence. Or maybe it’s just because you’re an MC: you talk a lot!!’

He might be onto something there. But then Bruthan, wittingly or unwittingly, nails it.

‘You look and sound like you’ve got a bit of imagination.’

We have a winner. Imagination.

One of my favourite performers in the country/world is Martin Pearson, and when he sings a song by Eric Bogle (which I can’t for the life of me put my fingers on right now), he has a preamble in which he talks about the importance of imagination.

It’s the cornerstone of, the foundation of, empathy.

If we want to truly understand — or at least attempt to understand — another person’s experience, we need the powers of imagination. We need the poets, artists, songwriters and story-tellers who can bring these experiences to life. But we need to actively listen and to put ourselves in the place of those people — in this case the disadvantaged, the dispossessed, the stolen, the bereaved.

It’s just one of many epiphanies reached that cold Sunday night, and that mild Wednesday lunch-time.

Peace

On Sunday night I didn’t want to over-stay my welcome so I eventually made my farewells, but Bruthan invited me to join him back in front of the fire before I left. He also invited me to pick up a leaf as we walked, and by and by we reverentially stopped in front of the flickering flames.

‘I’m going to pray for world peace, but you can pray for whatever you want, brother.’

I place my leaf in the flames, and pray for an end to all sorts of hostilities. For the wars that ravage the planet, but also for some bloody battles a good deal closer to home and heart.

I walked off towards the bright glare of Civic and the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, leaving Bruthan on his land to think which section of the lawn best deserved his attentions, and thanked whichever of those stars had guided me to that place at that time.

I look forward to many more meetings with Bruthan and the citizens of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

Dialogue is the way forward.

And I love a chat.

Bill Quinn
Overheard Productions

The views expressed in this article are those of Bill Quinn and Overheard Productions and do not represent nor seek to represent the views of the Australian Electoral Commission, or the Australian Public Service or Australian Government.

Probably my favourite view of Canberra: mountains, tent embassy, lake
Probably my favourite view of Canberra: mountains, tent embassy, lake
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2 thoughts on “Aboriginal Tent Embassy: are we looking at it the wrong way?

  1. Name: Otto Wooduck

    Comment: I love the tent embassy – I mean, I wish it didn’t have to exist – though, I want it to remain until full reconciliation with the first Australians is obtained, and it has served it’s original and contemporary purpose (although even then, it should be redesigned as a memorial/reminder). I have visited it many times over the 30 years I lived in Canberra, and have watched it change. I’ve supported it and cheered for it, as it has fought and survived the attacks and challenges.

    One story I’d like to share about it, which tested the relationship I had with the Aboriginal Tent Embassy (ATE), happened around (I think) the late 1990s/early Noughties? I was living in a group house, and one of my groupies was a Keyan student, studying at UC. He was new to Canberra and one day I took him for a drive to show him around my town. And as it turned out our last stop for the day’s tour was at Old Parliament House, and then across the road to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

    My Kenyan friend had flown directly from Africa to Sydney and then on to Canberra – and in those days there weren’t that many dark skinned people about, bugger all indigenous people, and he had not ventured further than Belconnen suburbia! (It’s another story about how white & racist his experience of Canberra was!)

    By now, I’d sketched him a potted history of the ATE. We had a look around, we chatted to one of the diplomats, and sensing he wasn’t as ‘in to it’ as I was, we jumped back in the car and commenced the drive home.

    He was aghast! And expressed his concerns/opinions openly and passionately. He thought the place looked like a third world shanty town, or refugee camp, and was also distressed about the image the people portrayed. He couldn’t believe that the ATE was ‘allowed’ to exist and thought there should be a more respectable and inspiring representation of our First Nations people.

    He also had trouble with my defending the ATE, and with my arguments for, what it represented!

    I explained to him, that in white washed, planned and manicured Canberra, there needed to be a representation of how Aboriginal peoples lived around this wide brown land. He wasn’t satisfied that the people in the camp, on face value respected themselves let alone garnered respect from visitors. Again I cited, this could be representational of outback, even suburban Aboriginals.

    And he thought that if there must be an embassy, then why shouldn’t it be like the structures we’d visited earlier in the day in the diplomatic precinct, or even equal to the old Parliament House across the road (fair call, I suppose) – he was incredulous! I again explained the ATE might represent camps and accommodation around the nation.

    He was disbelieving and thought my arguments unacceptable – why should they live and present themselves this way. I couldn’t get him to see/accept that the politicians needed a constant and local reminder of the neglect and lack of reconciliation this represented.

    For me, today – I think it’s disgraceful that the issues and problems the ATE represents aren’t tackled and resolved – I appreciate it’s a complex issue – I don’t think we’re trying hard enough. I also think a branch/satellite embassy should be established literally on the hill. One’s gotta wonder why the pollies moved there, and it’s definitely ensured they don’t get the ‘in your face’ reminders they used to get, when back in the old Parliament House, with the ATE in their front yard!

    Anyway … oh, and that’s why we should change the flag! 😉

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