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One man has been charged over the burning of Old Parliament House’s doors – but it is still not clear whether the protest was for Indigenous sovereignty or directed by right-wing groups. By Toni Hassan.

Who burnt the doors of Old Parliament House?

Firefighters at the entrance to Old Parliament House in Canberra last week.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, people began to arrive in Canberra from elsewhere. They came from New South Wales and Victoria and other states, anticipating a big gathering for the 50th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

On the weekend of December 18, a fire pit was established in a circle of sand in the central car park of Old Parliament House, the gleaming white building that sits opposite the embassy and houses the Museum of Australian Democracy. It was some distance away from – and unrelated to – the sacred fire at the embassy maintained by volunteer Albert Hartnett. But Hartnett was comfortable with developments.

After the fire was built, protesters stuck a “cease and desist” sign on the large brass, glass and jarrah doors of Old Parliament House. They handed “eviction notices” to people entering other nearby buildings. They tried to serve papers on the High Court contesting “Commonwealth occupation”.

On December 21, protesters put chains around the door handles in the hope of wrenching the 100-year-old front doors away with a van. Later the same day flames somehow scorched the doors of the museum, then still open to the public, but marked with handprints and the word “lore”. Someone posted images on Instagram with the caption: “These Doors are Coming Down Either Way.” The hashtag #takeoldparliament appeared across social media platforms.

The building was closed to visitors for safety. The museum’s director, Daryl Karp, spoke cautiously: “I don’t believe it was their intention to do any damage; however, we had to ask them to move on.” Police began to monitor the precinct. A man was arrested for breach of the peace.

On December 30, the roofed entrance was destroyed after a smoking ceremony became something else. As plumes of smoke rose above the old building towards the new Parliament House, a woman’s voice was heard repeating over a loudspeaker “First Nations People have finally risen”.

In a Facebook video, Hartnett said two police officers started the fire from inside the building – accelerated by the use of capsicum spray. Others in the precinct told The Saturday Paper the same thing. Police say this is impossible: the spray is water-based and not flammable.

Another video, filmed by a participant, shows a man stoking a fire of burning sticks placed at the base of the doors. People are seen covering CCTV cameras. A group calling itself Millions March Against Mandatory Vaccination live-streamed the event. That video shows dozens of people watching, some thumping the air and clapping as the building burned. Others are shown harassing members of the media.

There is significant conjecture now over who was responsible. Was this an act of Indigenous protest or of anti-vaccination groups and so-called sovereign citizens? Was it both; a marriage of convenience?

Karp told The Saturday Paper she was “heartbroken” by what happened. “We were trying to work with them throughout, hoping to come up with a set of parameters we could all follow. The issue for me is always the heritage of the building and the safety of staff … People were banging on the doors. It got ugly.”

Local Ngambri and Ngunnawal custodians rejected the tactics used. A statement signed in the name of a caretaker or caretakers of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy also condemned what happened.

“This is not the fault of the Tent Embassy,” Hartnett wrote on Facebook. “All we do here is provide action space where we can take these actions to the front door of these parliament houses. Our aim is to get through these doors and create the foundation for our own sovereign governments.” He later told me: “The House represents our pain. We are still waiting for a response to our trespass notice.”

A key figure to emerge is Danny Searle, a non-Indigenous man who identifies with the sovereign citizen movement in Australia. In an hour-long post on Instagram he claimed he orchestrated a battle plan over months with unnamed Elders to storm the old parliament in early January. He now says there was too little discipline. People “jumped the gun – everyone involved, we put our heart and soul into this. The one and true way of finally taking Indigenous people out of their bondage and also releasing Australians away from this corporate entity.”

The sovereign citizen movement is opaque but originates in the United States and dates back to a 1970s recession, which caused numerous farm foreclosures and repossessions. The movement has ties to several racist and armed militia groups as well as anti-tax protesters. It has been listed as a domestic terrorist threat by the FBI.

University of Technology Sydney legal expert Harry Hobbs says the movement is unquestionably of the far-right and has been trying to connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for some time, hoping to gain the credibility that comes from assertions of Indigenous sovereignty.  At first glance this might seem strange but Hobbs says there are “potential areas of intersection”.

“Essentially,” he says, “they argue that Australian law does not apply without individual consent.”

These arguments have been rejected repeatedly in Australian courts, as well as in Canada, the US and Germany.  “Sovereign citizens are not interested in restoring Aboriginal sovereignty,” Hobbs says. “Nevertheless, some Indigenous peoples have been drawn into the orbit, including a group called the Original Sovereign Tribal Federation. Every person will have their own reason why, but it might be because the position is attractive: Australia is illegitimate.”

Ghillar Michael Anderson, the only surviving member of the 1972 tent embassy, is not linked to the sovereign citizen movement but identifies as the head of state of the Euahlayi People’s Republic, a nation that declares independence and asserts pre-existing and continuing statehood covering the upper-western region of NSW and southern Queensland. For many years Anderson has sought to unite the continent’s Indigenous nations under what’s called the Sovereign Union.

He has invited foreign ambassadors resident in Canberra to be part of a three-day program to mark the 50th anniversary of the embassy later this month, to “work out how to put Aboriginal law on top of Australian law”.

Although his mission is dialogue rather than street activism, he sympathises with “young resisters who are frustrated … caught in a game of snakes and ladders”. He acknowledges that “white people cherish the building” but says “now people know what it feels like to have miners destroy ancient Aboriginal sacred sites”. He adds, “Let’s remember the building maintained a regime that oppressed us.”

Asked whether his efforts were being hijacked by far-right groups, he quoted another Elder: “As Bruce Shillingsworth says, we have a way of expressing ourselves. There is no necessity that requires uniformity of opinion.”

Shillingsworth, a Muruwari and Budjiti Elder, distances himself from the embassy. He told The Saturday Paper: “The fire woke people up. We are taking back our governments. We are a grassroots movement of First Nations coming together with people from around the world.”

His son, Bruce Shillingsworth jnr, who was outside the ACT Magistrates Court to support others arrested for offences related to the fire was unambiguous: “The Commonwealth is a fiction.”

Both father and son question the relevance of the tent embassy after 50 years. “How have things improved for us? We have been patient but we can’t wait another 50 years.” Still, their tone is upbeat. As Shillingsworth snr says: “There is a shift. It’s coming.” He rejects any far-right US connection or influence. “We are First Nations. We don’t have to create a false identity or connection.”

This week Nicholas Malcolm Reed was charged with arson and damage to Commonwealth property in relation to the fire. The 30-year-old, from Gippsland in Victoria, appeared in court via video link from Canberra’s jail on Tuesday. A woman purporting to be from the United Sovereign Nations of Terra Australis sought permission to be involved in the case and represent Reed. Special Magistrate Jane Campbell denied the request. Reed is being represented by Legal Aid.

The Saturday Paper was in the court and heard both the prosecution and Campbell reference the man’s “sovereign citizenship-style beliefs”. Reed wore a grey polo shirt, as neutral as his face, relaxed and solemn.

Prosecutor Angus Brown said Reed’s actions “were calculated”. He urged Campbell to refuse him bail based on his alleged prior role in a protest in Victoria and a fear he would abscond. The magistrate granted bail on the condition that he stay away from the ACT until he had to appear in court again in early February.

Reed was rearrested a short time later after returning to Old Parliament House, in breach of his bail conditions. He argued he didn’t understand the conditions and was granted bail a second time.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 8, 2022 as "Burning parliament".

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Toni Hassan is a Walkley Award-winning freelance writer.