Fire deepens government mistrust among Aborigines

Damage to their makeshift 'embassy' in Canberra spurs quest for broader apology.

It may be the world's most unusual "embassy" - a bunch of shabby tents and a couple of empty shipping containers perched on the manicured lawn of Australia's Old Parliament house.

Aborigines have for years called it their "embassy" in Canberra, the capital. But now, this landmark, recently ravaged by a mysterious fire, has come to symbolize the poor relations between Aborigines - who represent less than 2 percent of Australia's 19 million people - and the government of Prime Minister John Howard.

The federal minister for the Territories, Wilson Tuckey - also known as "Iron Bar" Tuckey for attacking an Aborigine at a pub - said the fire was a sign of growing anger over the embassy. It is an illegal structure and an eyesore, but for Aboriginal activists, it is a rare stage from which to air grievances against the conservative government.

"The tents are a part of a mandate to show the appalling conditions that we have to live in today - on the fringes of society," explains Neil Simpson, a spokesman for the Aboriginal embassy who has lived there intermittently since it was formed in 1972 to protest injustices by white settlers.

Currently, there are about 20 families living on the site. These self-proclaimed diplomats have been pushing for an official apology from the government for the assimilation policies of the past.

From the 1880s until the 1960s, Australia took tens of thousands of Aboriginal children from their parents in an effort to assimilate them into "white Australia." Known as the "people of the bleaching," or the "stolen generation," many of these children suffered breakdowns, and never quite recovered from the trauma.

Although Mr. Howard has tendered a personal apology, he says he will not apologize for the actions of previous governments. By contrast, the main opposition Labor Party, has offered to make a national apology if elected.

"The previous Labor government was intensely keen on reconciliation between the Aboriginal community and the rest of white Australia, but this government has so far shown little interest in healing the wounds," says John Bond, secretary of the National Sorry Day committee.

The fire has only deepened distrust of the Howard government among Aboriginal activists. They charge that the government is dragging its heels in the investigation, while investigators say the embassy is being unhelpful.

Successive governments have found the embassy to be an embarrassment, but have been reluctant to get rid of it for fear of public outrage. Some Aboriginal clans oppose the embassy, which was created without consulting them.

But the inhabitants of the embassy - who consider themselves "ambassadors" of the Aboriginal people - refuse to leave.

"There are always people living at the site ... but when the government is seen to be unsympathetic you will find that there are more people here [rather] than less," says Mr. Bond.

The "ambassadors" will talk to anyone with the patience to listen - mostly tourists, children on school trips, United Nations officials, and members of smaller political parties in Australia who visit the site.

Occasionally, they present their demands for better living conditions, Aboriginal land rights, and other grievances to government officials, but rarely do they get a response.

While the Howard government has been focused on foreign affairs for the past two years, lately it has gained plaudits for taking on the issues of excessive drinking and domestic violence that plague the aboriginal community. Those issues, however, have not been addressed through the tent embassy.

"This could be the start of building trust," says the spokesman for the ACT Greens party, Roland Manderson.

Experts say that Australia is 30 years behind the United States, Canada, and New Zealand in the development of its indigenous population.

There is a difference of more than 19 years between the life expectancy of indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, while the gap is 3.5 years in the US, 7 years in Canada, and 5 in New Zealand.

Numerous indigenous communities in North America who were mired in poverty 30 years ago, are now prospering because of jobs in mining, forestry, tourism, and culture,said Harvard professor Stephen Cornell at a conference hosted by Reconciliation Australia last year.The key to self-development was self- determination, he said.

Despite the fire, embassy activists will press on.

"Maybe one day, the tent embassy will wither away, but at this stage, it seems unlikely," says Bond.

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