PoliticsSocial issues

Heirisson Island: Crime and Refuge

Heirisson Island is being used as a postcolonial utopia for the benefit of Aboriginal people. According City of Perth council bylaws, this is illegal.


Their aim was to unite all tribal sovereign people in the fight for native title. On the 26th of January 1972, four men planted a beach umbrella on the manicured lawns opposite Old Parliament House in Canberra and named themselves the Canberra Tent Embassy. A campsite that was pegged around it was dismantled by ACT police six months later, following the Supreme Court’s ruling that the camp was an act of trespass. After 23 years of storm damage, several arson attacks and numerous ‘temporary’ removals, the Canberra Tent Embassy was officially added to the Australian Register of the National Estate in 1995.

WA has its own tent embassy that just won’t quit. Since it appeared at Heirisson Island on the 40th anniversary of the Canberra Embassy’s inception, the Nyoongar Tent Embassy has become an increasingly clear symbol of longstanding miscommunication between media, local government, and Aboriginal activists. After four years of routine police raids, negative press and council negotiations, neither party is ready to make headway.

Why is there an Embassy at Heirisson Island? The group has been at the forefront of protest against numerous WA Government decisions for a number of years. In 2012, the group said they were protesting in response to a $1 billion deal between the WA Government and the Aboriginal South West Land and Sea Council to extinguish native title over Perth and the greater South West area. In 2015, this shifted to a response to Premier Colin Barnett’s plan to close over 150 rural Aboriginal communities.

The Premier told ABC North West in April 2015 that school attendance, health, education achievements and opportunities for employment are very limited and sometimes non-existent in many Aboriginal communities. The underlying issue is remains that while the Government pushes for assimilation, many Aboriginal activists are aiming for a period of self-determination.

This is exactly what the Nyoongar Tent Embassy stands for: to unify all Tribal Sovereign people to pursue their inherent, universal and indivisible rights to self-determination for all present and future generations. Heirisson Island is the cultural hub of their movement.

Known to Aboriginal people as Matagarup, the island is listed under the 1977 Heritage Act, and under the care of the Aboriginal Land Trust. The Trust holds approximately 24 million hectares, or 10% of the total land mass of Western Australia. The sites are mostly held under Management Orders for “the use and benefit of Aboriginal inhabitants.”

Currently, the Nyoongar Tent Embassy’s use of land seems to fit the rather broad Management Orders. From some angles, it looks like Heirisson Island is being used as a sort of postcolonial utopia for the benefit of Aboriginal people. Matagarup is envisioned by Aboriginal activists not only as a reclaimed space in which to camp and hunt, but also as a setting for contemporary Aboriginal politics.

But this important cultural heritage site lacks legality according City of Perth council bylaws.

The police have numerous concerns about the Embassy’s presence on the island. They are concerned about the welfare of the children on the island, who are not attending school, and for the women, for whom they have responded to several incidents of domestic violence. They also note the presence of stolen vehicles and solvent abuse- although, for a period of time, the entrance to the Island was ornamented by a large banner reading “no drugs allowed”.

An anonymous police officer said the Nyoongar protestors are not willing to negotiate peacefully.

“They protest with verbal aggression and make demands rather than negotiate and they are willing to break the law by storming buildings, trespassing and causing major disruption to make their point.  I don’t believe this style of protest is going to gain them the support of the wider population.”

The Embassy has in fact attracted considerable support amongst tertiary and left-wing groups. They see violent protest as a long term effect of the WA Government ignoring the Aboriginal people. The ­debate has been characterised in some publications as a war ­between the ‘blind-eye’ of the City of Perth and the downtrodden Indigenous, causing the Nyoongar people to seek alternative avenues for political power.

Attributing the settlement’s illegality to a purported range of antisocial behaviours fails to achieve much purchase given the greater context of colonization and intergenerational trauma. Camp tear-down reports issued almost monthly by mainstream media outlets and WA police simply do not equate to interviews conducted with representatives from the Island itself. Allow me to cross over into first person here- I saw camps of people sitting around a fire, bags of flour and food, children playing by the river. I spoke to Aboriginal elders who reminded our team that this space represents traditional life and connection to country. This is life, pre-colonization.

In contrast, Premier Colin Barnett told 6PR during the March 2015 raids he believed the protesters wanted a violent confrontation to make international headlines, but said he did not care about the bad publicity because it was important local government and police were not made to look “impotent”.

Thor Kerr, a research fellow at Curtin University who has carried out extensive research on the Embassy, said the City’s reputation is already damaged.

Following the March 2012 raids, Kerr and his colleagues conducted a study on how local media reports positioned the Tent Embassy. They concluded most media reports irrefutably framed the Embassy as a lawbreaking, menacing and violent protest camp in order to legitimize repeated police raids against citizens at a legally settled, state-listed Aboriginal heritage site.

Mr Kerr said the City of Perth have found it easier to deal with an issue framed as a criminal issue rather than face up to their responsibilities under the UN Declaration on Indigenous rights, which states very clearly that the City Council should be working with Aboriginal people to ensure that they can practise their culture on their land.

He said the City of Perth is trying to exhaust the Embassy rather than deal with the legality of the issue, and hoping that the Nyoongar Tent Embassy will just go away. Most poignantly, he said that the Government would not be able to get away with ignoring the UN Declaration in Canada, New Zealand, nor the USA.

“The question is how much hardship do they have to endure, and how much hardship do other Aboriginal people staying at Matagarup have to endure, and also for the rangers and police involved, they’re basically involved in breaking the law and it’s very traumatic for them as well.”

It’s clear that our Minister for Aboriginal Affairs is not willing to resolve issue. A media consultant on Minister Collier’s behalf responded that “Minister Collier has not commented on this to any great extent because it’s an illegal camping issue for the City of Perth, rather than an issue of Aboriginal Affairs policy.” Mr Collier’s office declined to comment further upon request.

If this isn’t an Aboriginal or Indigenous issue, then what is? The blind eye effect seems to carry over into operations on the Island itself. Mr Kerr said, “I’ve spoken to people at the Island who have held up maps and things to the police commissioner saying, ‘look, this is Aboriginal Heritage site by state law, do you recognize this?’ and they will either ignore that or just say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Apparently, the same effect is noted on arrests. Despite the Heritage Act and the UN Declaration, the Embassy has struggled in recent years with more frequent raids and arrests. Mr Kerr said that of all the people arrested for being on Matagarup, none of those charges have held up within the Magistrates Court.

“The Magistrate will typically toss those charges out because it is an Aboriginal Site and they are being harassed.”

On the other hand, a police officer who spoke about the raids last week said that police have to arrest campers for disorderly behaviour or obstructing the City of Perth officers on occasion. The officer said this only occurs after the campers have been given ample opportunity to comply with lawful requests. These arrests often turn into physical struggles which is what the media put to air in the news.

The publicly confirmed details are still too scanty for a properly authorized discussion of the Embassy’s lawfulness. Conflicting statements from both parties make it very difficult to determine what can be done to end the conflict, and perhaps to peacefully negotiate the transfer of Aboriginal politics from makeshift camp to Parliament House.

It seems the City of Perth must take the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights into higher regard. Are they abiding their explicit obligation to promote “the inherent rights of indigenous peoples, especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources”? Is the unlawful activity reported by police on Heirisson Island discrediting an otherwise meaningful protest?

The Nyoongar Tent Embassy has generated considerable heat but discussion about it is far from reaching its end. The Embassy shows no sign of leaving any time soon, and the City of Perth remains vigilant.

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