Remember when Australia Day was all about having a barbecue, going to the beach or just generally bludging at home? Remember when the pressing issue of the day was whether you’d bought enough ice, or had your radio tuned to Triple J? Oh sure, there was always muttering from boring people who said the day had ‘lost its meaning’. And lately, a lot more people have jumped on the ‘Invasion Day’ bandwagon in an annual display of disapproval for the way indigenous Australians were treated by the first colonists. (Which is not to denigrate those who work tirelessly to redress the situation, or those who have to bear the scars of its heritage.) Mostly, though, Australia Day was an excuse for a long weekend, and nobody gave it much thought beyond that.
This year is different. If no one remembers anything else from Australia Day, they’ll remember the footage of Prime Minister Julia Gillard being dragged to safety from the Lobby restaurant in Canberra by her protective detail, surrounded by angry protesters from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
Regardless of your personal opinion of Gillard, her government or politics in general, it’s a shocking image. And the footage is even more confronting. People banging on the glass windows of the restaurant, screaming. Gillard being rushed down the steps, stumbling and ending up almost being carried after she nearly fell. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott hurrying along, surrounded by the Prime Mister’s detail. Protesters pushing against the police line. A woman triumphantly holding up Gillard’s shoe, lost in the panic, as though it were some kind of trophy. (And that shoe later turned up for sale on eBay.)
It was an ugly display, and it did nothing good for the cause of the Tent Embassy.
So what happened? How did a largely peaceful – albeit angry – protest on the lawn of Parliament House turn into a howling mob?
First reports said it was because Abbott had called for the Tent Embassy to be torn down. Social media erupted in outrage. The milder responses called Abbott irresponsible. The more extreme labelled him ‘racist’ and ‘scum’.
Then the actual footage surfaced. Abbott was asked if he thought the Tent Embassy was still ‘relevant’, or whether it was time to ‘move on’. He gave a long, rambling answer that ended with ‘it’s probably time to move on‘.
At which point the outrage turned on the Tent Embassy. The protesters had ‘deliberately’ twisted Abbott’s words. They’d behaved ‘like animals’. Former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr opined that the Embassy should have been ‘quietly packed up years ago’. And this morning, so-called ‘non-partisan online activist community’ Menzies House (in actuality, a right-wing mouthpiece for Coalition policy founded by Senator Cory Bernardi), announced the launch of its latest website, closethetentembassy.com. Describing the Embassy as racist, illegal and ‘reverse-apartheid’, Menzies House even had the unbelievable cheek to quote Dr Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in support of what is little more than a dogwhistle to racists. Apparently the irony of this was lost on them.
But wait … the saga’s not over.
Last night, one of Gillard’s media staffers, Tony Hodges, resigned. He admitted that he’d spoken to someone about Abbott’s comments, adding that the Opposition Leader was in the Lobby restaurant. That ‘someone’ informed indigenous activist Barbara Shaw at the Tent Embassy, but what subsequently went out over the loudspeaker to the crowd was not Abbott’s actual quote, but something far more inflammatory – that Abbott had said the Embassy should be torn down.
And suddenly – incredibly – Abbott was the victim. It was a conspiracy within the government! Abbott was set up! The media unit incited a riot to get at Abbott, and it backfired!
Never slow to capitalise on any perceived advantage, Abbott and Shadow Education spokesperson Christopher Pyne went on the attack in full spin mode. It was a ‘grubby business,’ said Abbott. (Not the violence, mind you – the ‘grubbiness’ was all the PM’s fault.) It was ‘the most serious security incident to befall our nation’s leaders for quite a few years’. (Notice how he refers to himself as the Prime Minister’s equal?) ‘A member of the Prime Minister’s senior staff was trying to trigger something … potentially dire … for political advantage’. (Point of fact: Hodges was only recently promoted to a junior media position.) Most hilariously hypocritical of all: the Prime Minister needs to ‘stop the spin’ about this issue.
Then came the absolutely unsubstantiated claims – that the information was ‘fed’ to the Tent Embassy, that it was ‘deliberately false’, and that Abbott’s location was ‘classified’. There’s no evidence whatsoever to suggest any deliberate fabrication on Hodges’ part. Equally, there’s no evidence that Hodges in any way intended to create any kind of disturbance, let alone what actually happened.
As for the suggestion that Hodges somehow leaked ‘classified’ information – well, where do I begin? Abbott’s basically suggesting that anyone who spotted him, and picked up the phone to tell their mates, would somehow be guilty of espionage.
Abbott was quick to praise the actions of the Prime Minister’s security detail, who – at Gillard’s request – escorted him safely from the building. They were under no obligation to do so, as the Opposition Leader is not usually afforded the same protections as the Prime Minister. The footage shows that as soon as she was made aware that her security considered the situation to be deteriorating, Gillard moved to make sure Abbott was safe. It was an entirely decent act, and Gillard has in no way tried to capitalise on it. There was little else Abbot could do than be gracious.
Except that on Saturday Agenda, Abbott was asked by Chris Kenny, ‘You’re not suggesting the Prime Minister was aware of this, that she sanctioned this?’ His answer? ‘She has to give a full explanation.’ Abbott’s ‘sure there are decent people in the Prime Minister’s office,’ but nonetheless it’s up to Gillard to explain herself to the Australian people. He’s not suggesting anything, but …
Not to be outdone, Pyne publicly called for a police inquiry into Hodges’ actions, and the extent to which the Prime Minister’s media unit was involved – not that he’s actually asked the police. And he doesn’t have to, really. With News Limited merrily repeating unsubstantiated rumours and printing what amounts to Coalition talking points, a real policy inquiry would just get in the way.
Right now, the news services are reporting that Hodges mentioned Abbott’s location to Kim Sattler, the Secretary of UnionsACT, who passed it on to Barbara Shaw. It doesn’t take a genius to see how the Coalition will use this information, given their persistent stereotyping of union leaders as Labor ‘lackeys’ and ‘thugs’. It’s certainly helped along by the media description of Sattler as a ‘national Labor figure’ and ‘well-connected’. Never mind that Sattler denies saying anything to Shaw.
But let’s back up a bit. What we know is that a junior media staffer admitted he mentioned Abbott’s location to someone, who passed it on to Shaw – and that somewhere along the line the message was distorted to include a false quote about tearing down the Tent Embassy. What we know is that protesters at the Tent Embassy, hearing that distorted message, surrounded the Lobby restaurant, engaged in intimidation and violent tactics, pushed against police lines. What we know is that the Prime Minister’s security detail judged the situation to be unsafe, removed Gillard and escorted Abbott out at her request.
The rest is supposition and spin.
What remains, then, is a shameful display of behaviour that did nothing but harm the cause of indigenous rights, and the Tent Embassy in particular. Footage of Gillard being held up by her bodyguard has turned up all over the world, including on some of the US’ biggest news and current affairs programs. It conveyed an image of Australia that we should all repudiate.
Keep that in mind over the next few days, as Abbott pulls the victim’s mantle over himself, Pyne thunders self-righteous condemnation, and Gillard is pursued by media who are apparently more interested in rumour than reporting.
Because ultimately, that’s what this Australia Day was all about – a Prime Minister forced to flee on the advice of trained security professionals with protesters in pursuit …
… and the display of a trophy gained through mob intimidation.
And it’s inexcusable.