For the Crime of Genocide: An Interview With the Aboriginal Tent Embassy’s Robert Corowa

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Robert Corowa

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy has announced that it plans to take the Commonwealth of Australia and the British Crown to the High Court of Australia for the crime of genocide against the First Nations peoples of this continent.

Situated on the lawn opposite Old Parliament House in Canberra, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy is putting the call out to those in the legal profession who might be interested in providing it with pro bono assistance in this matter.

Crimes relating to genocide are contained in the Criminal Code (Cth). Although, genocide was not a crime under local laws until more recently. Despite having ratified the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1949, the government didn’t enact such laws.

The International Criminal Court has the jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for the international crime of genocide. Australia is a signatory to the treaty that governs the court, so the nation finally adopted similar laws domestically around the time it came into force in September 2002.

The destruction of estates

The embassy will argue this genocide includes the destruction of First Nations estates. A recent example of the destruction of the sovereign people’s estates is the up to one million fish that died due to water mismanagement along a stretch of the Darling River in far west NSW in January.

In response to the Murray-Darling water crisis, the Water for Life event – a gathering of over 200 Aboriginal activists – was held at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Those present called for Indigenous people to have greater input in protecting the country’s natural resources.

And on 13 February, around 100 of the Water for Life attendees took over the foyer of Parliament House to demand greater protection of their waterways, along with an end to fracking and coal mining. Parliament was actually forced to close as the sit-in took place.

The greatest coup

Professor Gary Foley has described the Aboriginal Tent Embassy as “the most significant and successful Aboriginal political action of the entire 20th century”. It was established by four young men – Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey and Bertie Williams – on 26 January 1972.

On the day prior, then Australian prime minister Billy McMahon stated that his government refused to grant Aboriginal land rights. And soon-to-be new PM Gough Whitlam later acknowledged the embassy’s role in the toppling of the conservative McMahon government.

Aboriginal Tent Embassy spokesperson Robert Corowa has been involved with the embassy for over two decades. The Bundjalung elder’s older brother is the late Denis Walker, who was a cofounder of the Australian Black Panther Party.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Mr Corowa about the planned High Court action, the dispute between the embassy and government over the Lobby Restaurant and what the significance of the 47-year-old permanent protest has been.

Firstly, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy plans on mounting a case against the federal government and the Crown in the High Court for the crime of genocide against First Nations peoples.

Mr Corowa, how would you describe the actions that constitute this genocide?

Coming over here and not having a treaty with the Aboriginal people, when the English landed in Sydney. Not coming in the right way. Not having a treaty or paying for the land in some sort of way to the tribal elders.

That never happened. Once they got a foothold into Sydney, they set out across the Blue Mountains into the Wiradjuri nation and further afield. But, the people of Sydney and the Wiradjuri have really felt the full brunt of English invasion.

The case you’ll be putting before the court will include a charge against the government for the destruction of First Nations estates. Can you expand on this?

As you well know, the whole of Australia has been colonised by the English. Places like Sydney Cove and La Perouse took the first brunt.

All the sacred sites, the land, the fish, the tank stream, all the watering holes, the food supply, the grasses, the kangaroos: all these things, we really took as a given. Now, we can’t even walk on private land and grab those foods.

So, this is devastating. We came from being a rich Aboriginal nation to a poor Aboriginal nation.

Two weeks ago, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy held the Water is Life rally. Protesters held a sit-in in Parliament House, which caused it to close for a period.

How would you describe what’s happened in the Murray-Darling? And how it’s impacting Indigenous people?

Under the Native Title Act – which not a lot of black people have faith in – the waters and waterways are supposedly deemed to be native title.

The different tribes that are along those rivers have to be informed under the Act of any encroachment on those waterways. Now, that hasn’t happened.

There are people drawing water out of the Murray-Darling River and no Aboriginal people have been consulted.

Also, the damming of the Darling River up in Queensland. It has been massively dammed by cotton growers, who sucked the water out illegally as well. No Aboriginal elders have been consulted about the removal of water that flows in the Darling.

Following the protest, Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio sent out photos of the Parliament House sit-in on his Instagram account in support of the action.

Although, not much attention has been given to the protest by the mainstream media in Australia, and there’s hardly been any mention of the support it got from DiCaprio.

In your opinion, when it comes to issues relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait people, how would you say the mainstream media in this country responds?

Rupert Murdoch just about owns all the newspapers and TV stations. So, it’s understandable as he backs the Liberal Party.

The Liberal Party backs the destruction of our country, through mining, deforestation and the Northern Territory Intervention with the BasicsCard for the dole recipients. They can’t have cash. They have to go into a certain shop with this card.

All that was brought in by the Liberal Party, which Rupert Murdoch really funds. If Murdoch and John Howard want to keep going down this same track, I don’t think they’re going to get too many votes.

I don’t even believe in Scott Morrison. I think John Howard is still running the show. Scott Morrison is just a puppet for John Howard and all the top brass.

At the end of the day, these people are going to lose all credibility if they don’t stop destroying Australia. Mining has to stop. Uranium and coal have to stop. These things are killing the earth.

The dumping of waste has to stop. If people didn’t use uranium, there would be no waste to dump. So, we’ve got to stop the use of uranium immediately.

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established on 26 January 1972. What would you say has been the significance of the embassy? And what is its importance today?

This is the only place that’s really left out of all the Aboriginal organisations from before.

There was the Department of Aboriginal Affairs with Charlie Perkins. There was ATSIC with Charlie Perkins. There was the National Aboriginal Conference, which was a representative body set up for self-determination. It was destroyed by the Liberal Party.

All of these government organisations have been dismantled. There’s no more government organisation representing Aboriginal people. All health and legal services, everything, has been mainstreamed into the white departments.

We don’t have any Aboriginal departments anymore. They’ve all been linked into the white mainstream. And we don’t have any voice.

The one place that still survives after being non-funded by the government for 47 years is the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. It’s still the only black voice in Australia.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart was released by the Referendum Council in mid-2017. It calls for the establishment of a constitutionally-enshrined Indigenous voice to parliament. Although, other First Nations people believe treaty is the more pressing issue.

What’s the position of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy regarding constitutional reform and treaty?

I don’t believe constitutional reform is really coming forward in the proper manner with the government. It’s manufactured consent that we’re not happy with.

And there’s a lot of people who are disappointed in the treaty aspiration. The American Indian and Maori treaties haven’t really solved too much.

The American Indians have still lost all their land, even though they signed massive amounts of treaties. The Canadians have signed treaties and still lost all their land.

The main thing with the treaty is to stop the war with Aboriginal peoples. There’s been an undeclared war against Aboriginal people for 231 years.

Over that 231 years, nearly all our children have either been gaoled or taken away by FACS. We want that to stop. Stop locking us up. Stop stealing our children.

The child rate of abductions by these government departments, like FACS, has even increased. This is not right.

We’re human beings. We deserve to have our children with us. Not taken away.

In late 2017, the government blocked access to the bathroom facilities at the disused Lobby Restaurant to Aboriginal Tent Embassy members after they’d been using them for quite some time.

What did you think about this development? And was it ever resolved?

The truth of it is, we have rights over the Lobby Restaurant. We’ve been going there for 47 years.

And the Aboriginal Tent Embassy is looking for a lawyer, a researcher and a barrister to dispute the leasing of the Lobby Restaurant to a 24 hour drinking hole right next to where we are.

We want to turn that into a museum for the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. So, if there are any lawyers, barristers and researchers out there that would like to help, I’m hoping they call the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on 0422 257 906. They can call me at any time day or night, I’m ready.

We need to make it clear that the government of Australia does not have any jurisdiction over Aboriginal people or their land. They never have. They never came the right way. And they are here illegally.

We want to dispute the parliament. And we want them to set us up in our own parliament, in the one across the road – the white building. We want a court case for that. So, that the true owners of Australia can start to govern their own land in conjunction with the wider Australian people.

We don’t want to cause anybody alarm. But, what we want to do is have more control. So, we want the white building across the road: the Old Parliament House. And I need a court case to get that for our parliament.

There has to be equal rights. If people want to be living in this country, they’ve got to come the right way. And law and order needs to be restored in the Aboriginal way.

And lastly, Mr Corowa, as we’ve already discussed the embassy is planning on taking the government to the High Court for the crime of genocide. And you’re seeking the pro bono assistance of legal professionals in doing so.

Why are you taking this avenue? And what can lawyers do if they’re interested in providing assistance?

There’s heaps of laws and acts that have been made by the British Crown over here in Canberra through the Australian parliament. And a lot of those laws and regulations give rights to Aboriginal people and one of those is to the waterways and rivers.

Nobody has really acted on that. The lawyers that work for native title are really only good at taking money. They’re not really good at defending the rights of Aboriginal people.

I’m really disappointed in the government, the Native Title Tribunal and native title itself.

So, please ring any lawyer or barrister out there on 0422 257 906 or send an email to

Ring me. I’m ready.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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