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Tent embassy versus sandstone institution politics

By Stephen Hagan - posted Wednesday, 26 April 2006

Tracee Hutchison, a Melbourne writer and broadcaster, wrote an interesting article in The Age on April 1. Although wary of the potential to get caught - hook, line and sinker - on April Fools Day, I read cautiously through the story and was pleasantly surprised with her balanced coverage of the significant position taken by our more prominent grass-roots activists. She said:

Robert Corowa is a Fire Man from Bunjalong country in northern NSW. He and I are perched around a healing fire, the centrepiece of Camp Sovereignty in the Alexandra Gardens. It was lit from the embers of the campfire at Canberra's now-dismantled tent embassy and brought to Melbourne by Robert for the Queen's Games. His was a very different kind of torch from the one normally associated with international sporting events.

We've put some gum leaves on the fire and now we are moving around it, gathering up the smoke in our arms, a gesture not unlike something you would do if you were immersed in water to wash yourself clean. It's an ancient and gentle healing ritual and part of the welcome Robert has extended to every visitor to the camp in the past two weeks.


A couple of weeks prior to this incident I too was asked to go through the obligatory smoking ceremony by Robert Corowa before I could settle in for a cuppa around the camp fire with old acquaintances in the Black GST protest camp site at Kings Domain in Melbourne. Robert was at his charming best as he asked visitors, including myself, to gather prepared gum leaves to place on the small fire and proceed slowly through the cleansing smoke.

The Robert Corowa I remembered from my public service days in Canberra throughout the 1980s was an athletic Queenslander who had a partiality to wearing the finest threads to work. Robert also possessed a confident aura to match his extravagant attire. The 2006 version of Robert Corowa, Fire Man extraordinairre, may be minus a couple of his shining pearlers and designer finest, replaced with bright coloured sandles and yellow raincoat, but he certainly hasn’t lost his charisma.

The image that lept out at me when I read the local paper on my first morning in Melbourne on Monday 13 March was a classic photograph of Robert holding hands with a senior member of the Victorian constabulary as he walked him through the fire ceremony. That one image set the scene for how the police and “others” would view the protest campers and day-visitors to Kings Domain for the duration of the Commonwealth Games or Stolenwealth Games as the protesters called them.

Robert, in a remarkably clever political manoeuvre, committed the highly ranked officer to not only walk through the fire but also to affirm strong public words of support of the protest camp at the culturally significant, and highly public, parkland site. Even John Howard’s best spin doctors would not have been able to sell the cause of the protesters, and their alledged “illegal” assembly, as effectively as Robert had done in that prominent newspaper story.

As I prepared myself for the launch of my recent book at the protest camp the following day I was far more relaxed about the reception I would get as a consequence of the Fire Man’s smoothing the way, for amicable coexistence, with the huge contingent of undercover police. It was apparent to all protesters that they were being constantly monitored by law enforcement agents: from behind tinted car windows, and those who were unobtrusively blending in with the protest crowd as well as others from overhead in Black Hawk helicopters, cognisant of the fact that the Queen was sleeping at the Governor’s Mansion less than 600 metres away on the other side of the impressive parklands.

I was honoured to have had Isabel Coe (NSW), Robbie Thorpe (VIC) and Kevin Buzzacott (SA) jointly launch my book on a fresh autumn morning, while cumulus clouds rolled in menacingly from the west, with the Aboriginal flags partially blotting out the imposing city skyline a stone's throw away. Isabel shared her story of her close friendship with Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who I identified as No. 1 in my book of sports racial vilifications: Evonne’s opponent at a White City doubles tennis tournament in the 1970s said, “That’s the first time I’ve been beaten by a nigger”. Robbie and Kevin were passionate in their call for unity in the continued fight against racism in this country.


Two weeks later and I was back in Melbourne at a different venue with different black warriors - albeit more affluent.

On this occasion I was one of many Indigenous academics in attendance at the National Indigenous Higher Education Network (NIHEN) conference at LaTrobe University. At this venue the Robert Corowa spiritual welcome was replaced by a formal greeting by the Pro Vice Chancellor (Equity and Student Services), a non-Indigenous lady, who respectfully acknowledged the traditional custodians in her address.

NIHEN conferences are held quarterly at different universities around the nation and are attended by Heads of Indigenous Units with an assortment of titles: professor, director, co-ordinator and so on.

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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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