In the lead up to the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy one of the men involved in the early days of the protest say those fighting for a better future for Aboriginal people need to find creative new ways for their messages to gain traction.

Gary Foley spoke to the National Indigenous Times ahead of the January 26 milestone.

It was Billy Craigie, Bert Williams, Michael Anderson and Tony Coorey who originally took the fight for Aboriginal land rights to Canberra. 

Just the day before, the Prime Minister at the time rejected allowing independent ownership of traditional land to Indigenous people and instead announced a plan for 50-year leases.

The men erected a beach umbrella on the lawn across from Parliament House and dubbed it the Aboriginal Embassy.

Mr Foley (now a History Professor) who was involved in the first few months of the protest said the greatest gains made by the Aboriginal political movement, were those that came out of the Aboriginal embassy. 

“It brought an end to the era of assimilation that had existed ever since Federation for 72 years, it brought an end to 23 consecutive years of Liberal Party government,” he said.

The people manning the embassy, and the location of it has changed over the years and at times so have the issues being focused on but at the heart of it has always been the issue of land rights and self determination.

Mr Foley said there is still much to fight for in terms of Aboriginal rights and equality in Australian society.

“The fact that the majority of the embassy people who were about the same age as me, 19 or 20 years old when the embassy was set up, most of them are dead, that’s an indication yet again of the discrepancy in life expectations still. The majority of Aboriginal people my age today are dead.”

He said land rights and self determination were matters that were still yet to be properly addressed in Australia but he is not sure the Tent Embassy is the best way to progress these matters.

“One of the reasons why we in the Black Power movement developed our own tactics and strategies was because we no longer believed in the tactics and strategies of the older generation, the mob who fought for the (1967) Referendum,” he said.

“We set about to develop our own analysis, and our own tactics and strategies, which resulted in the most effective Aboriginal protest for the entire 20th century. 

“What today’s generation’s got to do is, forget about the tactics that were around in my time and my generation. Today is a different world altogether.”

He suggested social media could play a big role.

“Today you can talk to anyone, anywhere in the world in an instant today. You couldn’t do that in 1972,” Prof Foley said.

“The new generation has to look at the situation that exists today… hopefully, with as sophisticated political analysis as we had back in our day.

“Tomorrow belongs to them, the future is theirs.”

He said the reason the original Tent Embassy was so effective was because at the time it was a very original stunt. 

“It captured the imagination of the Australian public, we got an enormous support in the first three months when the embassy was there, we used to hold huge forums on the lawn, large bus loads of tourists used to come, people were genuinely interested.” 

Prof Foley said the Tent Embassy being there for so long has meant “the original effectiveness and the coherence of the message that’s been put across, has degraded over time.” 

He said the current embassy does not have a fraction of the support it had in the first half of 1972.

As well as the four original founders of the Tent Embassy, there was a large group of men and women who played important roles in the early days and Prof Foley hopes they will be recognised on January 26, 2022 and into the future.

He said he was concerned activists touting different objectives would overshadow the important anniversary.

“I think the challenge for the those at the embassy is to come up with something on the occasion of the 50th anniversary that excludes all anti-vaxxers or right wingers, which in particular, focuses on the people who made the first embassy so effective and especially those who are no longer with us,” Prof Foley said.

He said he wont be in Canberra on the 26th to mark the occasion and will instead (if COVID permits) be in Melbourne for the Invasion Day march.

By Aleisha Orr