Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Moving on from Tent Embassy tussle


Aboriginal Tent EmbassyWhen Tony Abbott said of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy that 'a lot has changed since [its establishment in 1972] ... it is probably time to move on from that', he wouldn't have expected the violent repercussions, nor would he have been aware — it seems safe to say — of their Australian provenance. The phrase 'moving on' is fraught with ambiguities and distracting baggage.

On 19 March 2003, President George W. Bush launched 'Operation Iraqi Freedom', an attack justified by the conviction that Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a repository of a vast cache of what came to be known as 'Weapons of Mass Destruction', or WMD. Later, when the idea of the existence of large scale WMD became untenable, the rationale for the war subtly altered to 'regime change'.

In the US and Britain opposition to the war was fierce. Amid widespread protests and demonstrations, British Ministry of Defence biological warfare expert, David Kelly, cast doubt on the government's 'sexed up' WMD dossier in interviews with BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan. He attracted vigorous official and unofficial objections, the strain and ignominy of which, it seems, drove him to suicide.

Meanwhile, in the US opposition to the war was widespread, vocal and occasionally violent.

From Australians, however, Prime Minister Howard encountered no such reaction. In London, a British journalist asked Howard to explain how Australia had escaped pretty well unscathed by the tumult and outrage that had erupted in America and Britain about non-existent WMDs, when he was as deeply engaged in and totally supportive of the views of his northern hemisphere colleagues.

Howard's answer was: 'Because Australians have moved on.'

I remember the journalist's bewilderment — and my own. What did 'move on' mean? When you moved on were you simply ducking the issue, leaving it behind unresolved? On what ethical or philosophical grounds could one move on from a question as serious and as deadly (remember poor David Kelly for one thing) as WMD without having come to any resolution one way or the other?

I didn't feel as if I'd moved on, nor did many other Australians. What signs was Howard detecting that told him about our moving on?

Yet the phrase is ubiquitous. When Teresa Gambaro, the Coalition citizenship spokeswoman, recently urged that immigrants should be taught to wear deodorant, learn how to queue and be brought into line with 'what is an acceptable [hygienic] norm in this country', Warren Truss, standing in for holidaying Tony Abbott, said Gambaro's views were 'out of step with modern Australian attitudes'.

Gambaro claimed she had been taken out of context, though God knows what contemporary context would provide a happy home for such views. But Truss wrapped it up: she should 'move on' he said.

About the same time as all that was making news, Australian Test cricket wicketkeeper Brad Haddin taunted the Indian opposition in a press conference, saying that Australia had broken their spirit. Indian captain M. S. Dhoni, invited to respond, said the Indian team would 'move on'. He didn't mean they'd pack up and go home, but he didn't mean they would play better either. They didn't.

After his tangle with a cyclist became news, Shane Warne advised the cyclist to 'move on', and when Thomas Berdych's on-court snubbing of Nicolas Almagro in the Australian Open tennis championships grew into headline material Berdych, without taking a step back, suggested Almagro should move on.

He didn't mean Almagro should go away, any more than Warne meant the cyclist should: he meant the problem should go away, disappear into some limbo of the unresolved and unfaced-up-to.

I'm not one of Abbott's fans, but I don't think for one minute that he meant the Tent Embassy should be ripped down. He meant let's just forget it, stop thinking about it, and somehow it will all just fade away and be replaced by other problems.

The riot that ensued occurred because, even if not misinterpreted, 'moving on' is an imponderable phrase, a synonym for sticking one's head in the sand and hoping that up in the real world, everything will somehow blow over. 

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple Down the Road. He was awarded the 2010 National Biography Award for Manning Clark — A Life

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, tent embassy, Tony Abbott



submit a comment

Existing comments

Riot? Really? Seems you've also used a word here fraught with ambiguities and distracting baggage. I'm surprised you've bought into reporting it in the same manner as the commercial press.

Naomi | 03 February 2012  

It is not so much the words, it's Tony's timing that let the Aboriginal people down!

Kay Bushnell | 03 February 2012  

"Moved on" is not a phrase."Moved" is a verb. A phrase has no verb. The Australian Bishops and certain Vatican bureaucrats some very close to the top, would love Australian Catholics to move on and conveniently forget about the disgrace that is the Bishop Morris affair. Eureka Street, to its credit, and The Tablet will make sure no moving on takes place. Well done.

grebo | 03 February 2012  

Abbott has learned much by sitting at the feet of John Howard. In fact a lot of his comments and phrases are direct lifts from the Howard Lexicon of Loaded Words. I don't say he does it deliberately. He just does, sure in the knowledge that no journalist hearing his words or phrases will bother to ask (or be too embarrassed to ask)just exactly what meaning he wants to convey by the particular words or phrases. George Orwell would know exactly what socio-political message he wanted to convey. Now I can add Brian Matthews would know.

Uncle Pat | 03 February 2012  

I think the expression 'move on' in this context means 'I haven't got a convincing answer to your pesky question so let's change the subject'.

Frank Golding | 03 February 2012  

Congratulations Brian on identifying this dishonest language. 'Moving on' is about wanting to shift the attention away from historical reality. The PM did the same in her effort to be elected, with never ending use of the words 'Moving forward', as though everyone would simply forget how the previous leader had been dumped. Our historical imagination is impaired when we accept at face value what politicians say of this kind. The Tent Embassy is a magnificent exercise in humility, a brilliant reminder of the central historical fact of this land. By saying we should move on, our leaders only repeat the attitudes of their predecessors to that historical reality: the land was taken from its carers and guardians through the 19th century. Another ghastly expression that shows scant regard for human respect in "He (or she) has passed his use-by date." I invite Brian to write a dismissal of this ugly insensitive putdown.

PHILIP HARVEY | 03 February 2012  

I just kept thinking how insensitive Tony Abbot was to go on about the 'tent embassy folk moving on' - on 'Invasion Day'

Heather McLaren | 03 February 2012  

When Abbott said 'move on' he meant, 'move on', as in pulldown and vanish from sight. Much has changed, since the 1700s, for Indigenous people. They should 'move on'. Well, they did 'move on', and the proof of that can be found in the piles of land title deeds held in each state-territory lands office. Few held by Indigenous peoples. That said, Macklin and Gillard are no better, weaving their toxic solutions to be imposed on those-without-a-voice, as per usual in government actions. Only a gormless ninny (or three gormless ninnies) would send unqualified school teachers to Indigenous schools to supplement the unqualified school chaplains, but that is what DEEWR does, with Macklin and Gillard. It is government, and those who wish to be in government, who need to 'move on' from their discredited policies and actions.

janice wallace | 03 February 2012  

Moving on might mean not becoming attached to things.

miloscz | 03 February 2012  

I did not find this article very satisfying! There has to be a balance in a healthy life between seeking justice for perceived mistreatment and becoming embittered by continuing to fight old battles that everyone else , or the vast majority, have learned to live with, resolved or indeed forgotten. For example, I have seen medico-legal disputes that have dragged on for years destroying people`s lives much more than the original mishap. "Moving on" can be very positive: it can imply forgiveness, resilience, self-efficacy and focusing on life`s positives. Not "moving on" APPROPRIATELY, can be highly destructive to individuals and communities by not allowing wounds to heal. I think that Mr Abbott was intuitively grasping at that.

Eugene | 03 February 2012  

Grebo, there are noun phrases and there are verb phrases. 'Move on' is a verb phrase. I like Frank's definition of it.

Gavan | 03 February 2012  

'I remember the journalist's bewilderment' says the writer. Well may he remember it, but he appears to have forgotten that on this occasion the expression 'move on' was introduced by the ABC reporter who asked the question to which Tony Abbot was responding. Given the choreographed response to the reply I ask: Who briefed the reporter? Was the Prime Minister asked the same question? If so, what was her response? If not, Kay, I wouldn't blame Tony Abbot for the timing.

Reg | 03 February 2012  

There was no riot. You have fallen in line with the general media slander of a legitimate, non-violent protest. See http://indymedia.org.au/

Diet Simon | 03 February 2012  

When anybody uses the phrase 'move on' in either a personal or public way, they are being insensitive and have very little understanding of the situation. In the case of the rally at the Tent Embassy and the Lobby restaurant in Canberra, most of the media reporting was inaccurate and mischievous and the ABC was especially guilty of poor and sloppy journalism. Melbourne radio station 3CR and the new matilda website provided the most accurate coverage of this rally. I believe that Tony Abbott's comments were made to be mischievous.

Mark Doyle | 03 February 2012  

I think that this article has allowed us to recognise that, whether we invite others to move on or to move forward, if we are choosing to call for an end to someone else's unresolved grief and protest over real loss then we are going beyond what we have a right to do. It would be more honest to admit the moral complexity of the situation, or confess our inability to fix it, or recognise our indifference to their concerns.

I suspect that appropriately is another one of those words that indicates that my take on what is appropriate for the situation is to be preferred.

We can't give up on listening to each other's concerns to reach a solution together.

alex | 03 February 2012  

It is disappointing to read the large anti Howard and Abbot correspondence in Eureka Street. Not only against Howard and Abbott, but also against George W Bush and anybody that doesn't agree with left wing ideology.It is important to note that Mr. Tony Abbott has helped and achieved more for the Aboriginal community than any other member of both houses of the Federal Parliament.

Ron Cini | 03 February 2012  

I wonder why the writer asserts that there was "a riot" and "violence" when no such thing happened.

The only "violence" was the cops bashing everyone in sight after being embarrassed by Gillard being dragged around like on old rag because she lost her shoe.

Marilyn Shepherd | 03 February 2012  

It was not a riot. It was not violent. You can read about it in my piece on The Drum 30 Jan, and in various other eyewitness accounts if you look around.

Geoff Davies | 03 February 2012  

Well said Ron Cini. I can never, for the life of me, understand why people and the media can't bring themselves to acknowledge Tony Abbott's work with our aboriginal brothers and sisters. And as Eugene has written, 'moving on' can indicate, something very positive - like forgiveness which is very healing and can promote maturity and the growth of self-esteem.

Millie | 03 February 2012  

Well said Eugene. Moving on implies healing, growth and maturity. Surely we would want this for our aboriginal brothers and sisters. I wonder why those who criticize Abbott so vehemently for his use of the words 'move on' fail to acknowledge the excellent work that Tony Abbott has done with Aboriginal communities.

Millie | 04 February 2012  

Great analysis, Brian. "Moving on" is like John Howard's excruciating characterisation of Australians as "relaxed and comfortable", or our latest governmental slogan, "moving forward". There have been gains for indigenous recognition and respect over the past 40 years, but far from enough. The tent embassy will remain a reminder and a relevant peaceful protest and an inconvenient conscience jolter at the foot of our beautifully luxurious Capital Hill for many years yet - Tony Abbott's casual dismissal of its complex history and symbology proves this point.

Michelle Goldsmith | 04 February 2012  

Even though the violent demonstration was directed to Tony Abbot, Julia Gillard suffered humiliation from angry people who were told wrong information by an official of the Prime Minister Office.

The violent action on Australia Day outside the Lobby restaurant and the burning of and spitting on our National flag the next day is un-Austral, criminal and immoral.We need a full police investigation. Hopefully, next week when Parliament resumes, we will find out who the instigators are that caused the riot.

Ron Cini | 04 February 2012  

Moving On is a polite way or P.C. way of telling somebody to get lost as the problem is not going to be dealt with. Insensitive of Abbott. The whole 2012 Australia Day fiasco in Canberra was a great laugh. It brings into public view the poor leadership Australia has at present. P.M. Gillard was made a fool.

Regarding Dr. Kelly, there seems to be evidence and much high level thought and opinion on the matter that Dr. Kelly did not commit suicide.

Ron Lamont | 04 February 2012  

Thank you for excellent article, unpacking the ambivalence of the term, 'moving on'. It's valuable to have jargon challenged, analysed and, with a bit of luck, dismantled. Too much to hope for ?Thanks to Brian Matthews also for brilliant Manning Clark biog.

Caroline Jones | 07 February 2012  

Someone needs to explain to the 75% of Aboriginals (who are under 25 years) what respect we have gained and forward progess has been made, the intervention, deaths in custody, abolishment of CDEP, forced land aqusition comes to mind but nothing good, keep denying Aboriginal youth a chance by claiming oppression isnt real, you make your bed you sleep in it, internalising pain and frustration and taking it out on the people close to you is no longer an option, we have nothing to loose and everything to gain, remain ignorant at your own risk, we recive plenty of international support and aussie recive internation criticisim, isolation is no longer the aussie protection, all peoples are welcome in Australia except the racists, if you want to be Australian you shoud know its history from qualified historians because their is a lot of propaganda in the murdoch media

S(r)ambo | 15 February 2012  

Similar Articles

Sex addiction shame and sympathy

  • Tim Kroenert
  • 09 February 2012

Brandon's addiction finds several expressions, from excessive pornography use (including on his work computer), to one-night stands, to more deviant behaviours. Shame explores the addict's humanity both frankly and artfully.


If Dickens were alive today

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 08 February 2012

If Dickens wished to address the deprivation and discrimination suffered by Indigenous Australians and asylum seekers today, he would need to turn to the popular media. But even though he was superbly gifted for the genre, his telly series would most likely flop.