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Canberra Indigenous leaders say protesters who allegedly set fire to Old Parliament House do not represent Aboriginal tent embassy

Multiple local Aboriginal leaders denounce the actions of protesters who allegedly set fire to the doors of Old Parliament House in Canberra and conducted a smoking ceremony without the proper permissions.

Local Aboriginal elders and leaders have denounced the actions of protesters who allegedly set fire to the doors of Old Parliament House in Canberra.

Key points:
  • The doors of Old Parliament House were set alight on Thursday for the second time in two weeks as protesters demonstrated outside
  • The fire is believed to have begun during a smoking ceremony that reportedly was not sanctioned by local elders
  • The Aboriginal tent embassy has condemned the protesters' alleged acts

The front facade of the building was first set alight on December 21, forcing the Museum of Australian Democracy to temporarily close.

Thursday's fire is believed to have begun after protesters performed a smoking ceremony, which had been approved by ACT police.

The fire was put out within 20 minutes of firefighters arriving on the scene, and authorities said the building sustained minimal internal damage.

After the blaze was extinguished, several dozen protesters continued to confront police officers and the media outside the building.

Aboriginal tent embassy condemns protesters' actions


Crowds have been gathering outside the building ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Aboriginal tent embassy, which was established on Australia Day in 1972.

But the tent embassy issued a statement saying it does not condone the protesters' actions, nor the destruction of property.

Further, it said the smoking ceremony was conducted without the  knowledge, consent or mandate of the embassy's council.

Ngambri Ngunnawal elder Matilda House-Williams also condemned the protesters' actions, saying she believed in respectful dialogue as a means to support Australians living on Ngunnawal land.

"As a Ngambri Ngunnawal elder and having been there in 1972 with my brothers, Crow and Arnold, to assist in establishing the Aboriginal tent embassy with Bertie Williams, Billy Craigie and Tony Coorey, I am hurt to see the actions of the protesters on the steps of Old Parliament House," she said.

"As custodians of the ACT and surrounding region, my family are always open for respectful dialogue, to support and take care of the many men, women and their families that find themselves here on our beautiful lands."

A protester waves a flag outside Old Parliament House, surrounded by police.A protester waves a flag outside Old Parliament House, surrounded by police.
Matilda House-Williams has denounced the actions of the protesters, saying they do not represent the Aboriginal community in Canberra.(ABC News: Harry Frost)

Ms House-Williams said the fire at Thursday's protest did not represent the Aboriginal community in Canberra, and was disappointed the protesters allegedly did not communicate with the elders of the tent embassy.

"I am disappointed these protesters chose to disregard cultural protocols and not communicate with myself or other elders of my family," she said.

"These behaviours do not represent the Aboriginal community here and it doesn't reflect the vision and families that have held the space at the Aboriginal tent embassy for almost 50 years."

'The last thing we want'
Police stand outside a building as its door burns.Police stand outside a building as its door burns.
Ngunnawal language custodian Caroline Hughes says the destruction of property takes away from the positive dialogue Aboriginal communities are trying to build.(Supplied: Dave White)

Ngunnawal language custodian Caroline Hughes told ABC Radio Canberra that peaceful protests were important to give the Indigenous community a voice, but she did not support the destruction of property.

Ms Hughes also noted the smoking ceremony that was believed to have started the blaze was not sanctioned by the United Ngunnawal Elders Council.

"I support peaceful protest, we need to have a voice for the Aboriginal community and the Aboriginal tent embassy is one of our voices that is important, however [I] do not support the destruction of public property," she said.

"I'd like to point out is that this is Ngunnawal country, the signs around the ACT are very clear, and to my knowledge, there hasn't been any dialogue with the United Ngunnawal Elders Council.

"[They are] our peak body in having smoking ceremonies, so that's a cultural practice that on our lands is done by the Ngunnawal people, so very disappointed in that."

Ms Hughes emphasised the importance of positive dialogue between First Nations peoples and the wider Australian community.

"I support the tent embassy in distancing themselves from this. Burning public property isn't healthy and sets the wrong scene for our voices out there in the community," she said.

"As Ngunnawal people, we love our people and we are the host of people that come onto our lands here in the ACT, and I'm sure other Ngunnawal people are disappointed [too].

"Destroying property, it sends a dialogue to the Australian community focusing on something negative rather than looking at what changes could happen out there in the community from a positive perspective."

She acknowledged why some Australians might have concerns about the embassy after the alleged acts at the protest, but reminded Australians of the conditions of Indigenous peoples around the country that might have given rise to them.

"I know that people have concerns and would like to see the tent embassy in a different perspective, however it highlights the conditions of our people that are still occurring right across Australia today where there are Aboriginal communities living in third-world conditions," she said.

"You know we work too, we pay our taxes which goes towards supporting our properties across Australia, including our Old Parliament House, and so it is important that a positive dialogue occurs.

"[January 26] is not a good time for our community, and the last thing we want is that we're perceived as people that will deliberately destroy property."

'Appalling and disgraceful': Prime Minister
Firefighters clean the damage from a burnt-out doorway.Firefighters clean the damage from a burnt-out doorway.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he was "appalled" by the alleged actions of protesters, and that Australians should celebrate living in Australia and the freedoms they have.(AAP: Lukas Coch)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison also spoke on the fire at Old Parliament House, calling the alleged acts of the protesters "disgraceful".

"I'm disgusted and appalled by the behaviour that would see Australians come and set fire to such a symbol of democracy in this country," he said.

"I just think it's appalling and I think it's disgraceful, and I think that the authorities should act swiftly and in accordance with the law and people should face the consequences for their actions.

"Their cause doesn't justify that sort of violence. That's not how Australia works. We have a rule of law in this country and people should obey it."

Mr Morrison also said that while he recognised it had been a difficult year for Australians, there was still a great deal to celebrate about being Australian.

"It's been really tough [this year], but you know, we live in one of the greatest countries of the world," he said. 

"We enjoy freedoms here. We enjoy a healthcare system. We enjoy freedoms that few countries enjoy to the same extent that we do and have over such a long period of time.

"So while Australia has had a tough year, there's still a lot to celebrate just by the simple fact that we're Australians and we live in Australia."

While the Prime Minister denounced the alleged actions of protesters, it is unclear whether all federal politicians share his view.

In a now deleted tweet, Greens senator Lidia Thorpe shared a video of the fire taking hold at the entrance to the building, with the words: "Seems like the colonial system is burning down. Happy New Year everyone." 

Labor MP Mark Butler criticised the senator, saying "it is beyond me how a member of the Australian parliament — who receives a salary from taxpayers — can applaud an outrageous act of vandalism on the centrepiece of Australian democracy".

Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie also shared her view on the Greens' response to Senator Thorpe's tweet.

"The Greens' response to this has been outrageous … rather than condemning these shameful acts, they've just stopped short of celebrating it," she said.

Senator Thorpe's office has been contacted for comment.

The Australian Museum of Democracy is currently closed as staff clean up and assess the damage. There is no set date for its reopening. 

The original doors from 1927 were damaged in the fire and it is not yet known whether they can be salvaged.

Any other damage to historic parts of the building or artefacts within is not yet known, however the collection is believed to be mostly unharmed.

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