VIVID images of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, visibly frightened, being shepherded away from aggressive protesters in Canberra on Australia Day will hardly do wonders for racial harmony.
In a regrettable confluence of events, protesters marking the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra apparently heard broadcast comments by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott – made earlier in the day in Sydney – that it was probably time for the embassy ‘‘to move on’’.
Those comments were interpreted as a call for the embassy’s removal and, when the protesters became aware of the presence at a nearby Canberra restaurant of Mr Abbott (with Ms Gillard) at an Australia Day awards ceremony, their anger boiled over.
One of the tent embassy’s original founders, Michael Anderson, accused Mr Abbott of ‘‘inciting racial riots’’.
About 500 angry protesters surrounded the restaurant, apparently demanding an explanation from Mr Abbott, but creating fears for the physical safety of the political leaders.
In retrospect, it seems easy to conclude that Mr Abbott might have been well-advised to keep his opinion about the tent embassy to himself.
Not that his opinion is particularly outrageous. His full comments were actually reasonably respectful and considered and would probably find agreement in some quarters.
But their timing was problematic, coming as they did on Australia Day – alternatively known as ‘‘Invasion Day’’ by some indigenous Australians – and on an important anniversary of one of the nation’s key focal points of Aboriginal protest and resistance.
Question over date
Some people might contrast Mr Abbott’s readiness to comment with the approach of Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu who, when invited to respond to inflammatory protest posters in Melbourne, elected to make no comment in order avoid widening Australia Day divisions.
All the same, it is not fair to suggest that Mr Abbott’s comments could have been considered justification for ‘‘racial riots’’. Ill-considered in the wider context of the day they may have been, but his words themselves were not remarkable.
In retrospect, once again, they could have been brushed off by people at the tent embassy with contempt, sadness, derision or disappointment.
Once the decision was made, however, to personally target Mr Abbott and, by association, Ms Gillard, a firm response from law enforcement and security officers was inevitable.
With luck and with goodwill, this incident will be put into its proper perspective as an unfortunate product of misunderstanding, emotion and overreaction.
But even assuming that proves to be the case, the events of the day may draw renewed attention to the question – never far off on Australia Day – of whether the national day should be celebrated on some different date than the anniversary of the arrival of white settlers.