, SYDNEY, Jan 27 – Australian indigenous leaders Friday said they were appalled at the disrespect shown to Prime Minister Julia Gillard after she had to be dragged to safety from furious Aboriginal rights protesters.
Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott were bundled out of a Canberra restaurant by security service agents on Thursday after it was surrounded by activists pounding the windows chanting “shame” and “racist”.
As Gillard was rushed to a waiting car, she dramatically stumbled and lost a shoe in ugly scenes that were beamed around the world.
“I’ve got no troubles with peaceful protests,” Gillard said Friday, but added: “What I utterly condemn is when protests turn violent.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda said the level of disrespect shown to the prime minister was disgraceful.
“An aggressive, divisive and frightening protest such as this has no place in debates about the affairs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples or in any circumstances,” he told ABC radio.
“While we need to acknowledge that there’s a real anger, frustration and hurt that exists in some indigenous communities around Australia, we must not give in to aggressive and disrespectful actions ourselves.”
The protesters had been attending so-called “Invasion Day” commemorations at the nearby Aboriginal tent embassy, a permanent camp of indigenous activists celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
They took offence to comments by Abbott they said suggested the embassy may have reached its sell-by date and besieged the restaurant when they discovered he was inside attending a ceremony with Gillard.
“Invasion Day”, celebrated as Australia Day by most of the nation, marks the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788 and proclamation of British sovereignty over the country.
On Friday, around 200 angry protesters from the tent embassy marched on Parliament House in Canberra before burning an Australian flag on the building’s forecourt.
“Always was, always will be Aboriginal land,” the crowd chanted.
Abbott insisted he never said the tent embassy should be removed.
“I never said that and I don’t think that,” he told reporters.
“Go back, look at what I said… I think what I said was a perfectly appropriate, respectful, sensitive comment about where we are today compared to where we were 40 years ago on this issue.”
Indigenous leader Warren Mundine, a former president of the Australian Labor Party, said those responsible for Thursday’s scenes should be charged.
“No human being, let alone the prime minister of this country, should be treated in such a way,” he said.
Aborigines, whose cultures stretch back tens of thousands of years, are believed to have numbered around one million at the time of British settlement, but there are now just 470,000 out of a total population of 22 million.
They have become Australia’s most disadvantaged minority, with shorter life expectancy and much higher rates of imprisonment and disease than their non-Aboriginal counterparts.
Tent embassy spokesman Mark McMurtrie insisted Gillard was never in any danger and hit out at the police reaction.
“The only violence you can see came from the police, so don’t say it was a violent protest, it was a violent reaction to the protest,” he told the ABC.
“They could’ve left the building safely quite easily, the problem was when the police started attacking the protesters.”