Imagine the Secret Service shoving Barack Obama and John Boehner through an angry crowd on Columbus Day. That was pretty much the scene on Australian TV yesterday.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott were attending an awards ceremony for emergency workers when about 200 protestors interrupted the event. As you’ll see in the video below, the protestors pounded the glass angrily while chanting, “shame,” and, “racist.” January 26 is Australia Day and marks the date in 1788 when the British first proclaimed sovereignty over the Australian continent. While the national holiday is a patriotic celebration, many Australians use it as a day of protest for Aboriginal rights.
The ugly protest followed a remark from Mr. Abbott about the nearby Canberra Tent Embassy. Today marks the 40th anniversary of the embassy (which is not officially recognized), established in 1972 at the doorstep of the federal government. On January 27, 1972, four men planted a beach umbrella on the lawn of the parliament to protest the Australian government’s refusal to recognize aboriginal land rights. Today, the Tent Embassy is considered both an icon and an eyesore.
“I think the Indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian,” Abbott said when asked if the Tent Embassy should be dismantled. “I think a lot has changed since then and I think it probably is time to move on from that.”
It was the “move on” comment that stuck with the protestors. They tracked Abbott down at a nearby restaurant and began bagging on the glass. It took 50 police and security personnel to push the frightened politicians through the crowd.
Gillard lost her shoe when she stumbled and it is now being held by the Tent Embassy as a symbol of her reticence to negotiate. In this video, Paul Coe, of the self-proclaimed Aboriginal Parliament, shifts between mocking and serious tones as he invites the Prime Minister to retrieve her blue suede shoe in order to have a substantive conversation about indigenous issues.
“We are not a nation of thieves,” says Coe to a jocular crowd.
While recognizing the right of the group to protest, several prominent Aborignal leaders condemned the crowd’s behavior.
“It’s a disgrace,” said Warren Mundine, an indigenous leader and former Labor Party president. “No human being, let alone the Prime Minister of the this country, should be treated in such a manner,” said Mundine to the Australian.
The PM shrugged off the incident, saying she was mostly sorry the award ceremony was interrupted.