The symbolism conveyed by the front entrance of Old Parliament House going up in flames on 30 December is clear: Australia is a democracy in trouble.
Of course, it’s foundations have always been in dispute, as the nation was created on the unceded stolen lands of the continent’s First Peoples.
The door to Old Parliament House was initially scorched on 21 December, as part of a protest consisting of both First Nations and non-Indigenous peoples. And last week’s incident involved an ACT policing-approved smoking ceremony that resulted in the door going up in flames.
There are conflicting versions as to why the ceremonial fire resulted in a larger blaze, one of which suggests that police officers seeking to disperse the crowd used pepper spray, and this fuelled the fire to such a degree that it engulfed the front doors of the old building.
For its part, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy has made clear it has nothing to do with these actions. The Traditional Owners responsible for the embassy have put out a statement stressing that the actions were conducted without their “knowledge, consent or mandate”.
While a non-Indigenous individual, who’s in Canberra to attend the upcoming three day event marking the 50th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, has raised concerns that the true nature of what’s happening in the capital isn’t getting out.
Just who’s reclaiming?
The First Nations group taking part in the protests that have been garnering media attention over recent weeks, are camped out in another area separate to the long-established embassy site on the lawns just across the road from Old Parliament House.
The source describes the scene at the new camp as being overwhelmingly non-Indigenous. They listed a number of key white supremacist figures currently present at the alternate setup, who they described as “dangerous far-right people”.
There are about six non-Indigenous attendees to every one First Nations person on site. And this ties in with much of the social media posting on the recent fire incidents.
The Millions Marching Against Vaccines (MMAV) Facebook page is a key player online, with much of its recent content focusing on the events in Canberra. But, in scrolling down past December, all prior posts are documenting the Freedom movement.
There have also been online posts citing Proud Boys representation at the site, whilst a prominent former member of the United Patriots Front shared footage of the fire at the doorstep, as he sung its praises.
“The white supremacists are trying to split Aboriginal friendships, families and colleagues apart, as part of their overall strategy of causing chaos,” the anonymous individual told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.
And those present are also aiming to get the Informed Medical Options Party candidates voted into the Senate, they added.
So, currently, there is a new camp out the front of Old Parliament House being majority non-Indigenous people that mirrors the crowds at the recent antivaxx and anti-lockdown events that have swept the nation, with key white nationalist figures present on the ground.
The British invaded this continent in 1788, citing the doctrine of terra nullius – “that no one owned the land prior to European assertion of sovereignty” – as justification. This legal fiction was overturned by the High Court of Australia in its 1992 Mabo decision.
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established by four young First Nations men – Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey, Bertie Williams and Michael Anderson – on 26 January 1972. Issues of sovereignty, land rights, self-determination and treaty were and continue to be key to its mission.
Gumbaynggirr elder Professor Gary Foley has described the Aboriginal Tent Embassy as “the most significant and successful Aboriginal political action of the entire 20th century”.
So, its half century anniversary is of deep significance.
The theme of the embassy’s three day event commencing on 25 January is “Fifty Years of Resisting and Still Fighting”. The institution has outlined that the event will “honour and mourn our past, celebrate our survival and strategise for the next 50 years”.
A different kind of sovereignty
At least one non-Indigenous protester present at the recent events in Canberra is a member of the Sovereign Citizen Movement, which has its origin in the US, with adherents choosing to believe they can select which laws apply to them and which don’t.
SCM was established in the early 1970s by William Potter Gale. The group was made up of antigovernment Christian Identity adherents, who considered themselves superior to non-white people, as well as maintaining the antisemitic idea that Jewish people are plotting to take over the world.
So, while statutory laws and paying taxes don’t apply to sovereign citizens, or as they prefer to be called “living people”, they do follow interpretations of common law, as well as consider their rights being protected by the Magna Carter: a 1215 British royal charter of civil liberties.
Since the onset of the pandemic, there has been a spike in the Sovereign Citizen Movement in this country. This is in opposition to the public health measures that have been imposed by government. And there has been an overlap with participation in SCM and the rising Freedom movement.
A rising threat
The ABC reported on Monday that a fourth individual has been arrested in connection to last week’s fire. A photograph shows that at least one prominent white supremacist was arrested on site. And there are further assertions online that two of the initial arrestees were white individuals.
Our source stressed that they are in no way speaking on behalf of First Nations individuals and nor anyone else. They’re merely concerned that the involvement of these far-right figures isn’t making it into the mainstream media version of events, and they consider their presence dangerous.
ASIO director general Mike Burgess stated during an October 2020 senate estimates hearing, that right-wing extremism is an “evolving threat”, which now constitutes about 30 to 40 percent of his domestic intelligence agency’s surveillance work.
And the 2018 Christchurch massacre perpetrated by an Anglo Australian man, who gunned down 51 Muslim worshippers in two mosques, portrays the extremes that some far-right actors are prepared to go in the name of “the cause”.
“The type of racism within these white supremacist groups is antisemitic,” the source concluded, underscoring that it is “because of the far-right element” being there that they felt the need to speak out about some of the less reported aspects of the recent incidents in Canberra.