Aboriginal Tent Embassy
Some reflections for Reconciliation Week 2012
It galvanised for me two of the things that are most core to my being:
1. My favourite word in the English language (and several others I either speak or have some capacity with) is ‘diversity’.
We can identify, celebrate, and understand our differences.
The more we can resist saying, ‘I don’t understand’, and the more we can say, ‘Help me to understand’ when it comes to differences, the better off we can be.
In my very humble opinion.
2. Never assume. I offer this as a serving suggestion. You can do whatever the hell you like. I suggest that to assume anything is to cut off so many fruitful opportunities.
The older I get, the more I have grown to dislike the word ‘assume’ 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, Billy; you’ll break your leg’.
On Sunday evening 20 May 2012, I was walking back from Manuka qnd Forrest, after catching up with some friends. It was one of those 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 1950s pattern) and an over-sized beanie, you’re sound as a pound.
As I walked through Parkes (the Parliamentary Triangle) and passed the statues of former Prime Minsiters Chifley and Curtin, I got to thinking about reconciliation, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, and the coming Sorry Day.
Earlier, while walking from the city out to Manuka, I’d happened upon 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 streetlights and headed off towards Commonwealth Avenue, but something drew me towards the ceremonial fire and I’d just descended 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 trespassing on my residence in the dark, especially while wearing an alarming jacket and a hat that made them look 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 had come.
I started to talk quickly.
It’s a service I provide.
I told him my name, said 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.
All the while making it abundantly clear I was there that night as Bill Quinn from Overheard Productions, and 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, the man’s interest was piqued and he pulled up next to some old office chairs next to 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 the coffin nails away 12 years ago.
Straightening up the lawns (flora)
His name is Bruthan.
There’s a story to that name; ask him sometime.
Bruthan 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 (i.e. people) have been at the embassy in the past who 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 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 he’s keen to say it. The more he talks, the more Bruthan’s passion 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 there are no residents for a kilometre or two.
Bruthan 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 walks, 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 tell him of 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 I do from most people,’ I tell him.
‘Yeah, you’re not wrong there, brother,” Bruthan agrees. “Hey, d’ya know what the blue on those wrens is all about?’ he asks.
‘It’s the males,’ I reply. ‘They’re 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 their children, recognisable from their lighter, downy plumage.
‘They come pretty close, but the young one doesn’t have as much fear and he 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 our fear of ‘the other’ 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 to turn towards Old Parliament House, lit up at night in glaring, dazzling white.
‘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 take them in the full daylight.
I’m only with Bruthan for about 20 minutes and for about the same time again three days later when I return to see how things were going and if Bruthan had found the hardcopy of this story I had left for him.
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.
We talk of many things. Of the history of hegemony throughout the world, of how Britain came to colonise Australia though France, and the sorties of the Netherlands to come here and make some assessments.
Bruthan has some views on all of those, but mostly lots of questions.
And he’s keen to look deeper 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!’
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 perspective of “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.
‘But it starts with this,’ Bruthan 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.’
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.
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 placed my leaf in the flames, and prayed* 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 wished. I’m atheist.
Afterwards, 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 above had guided me to that place and 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.
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.