News & Current Affairs

By Maeve Ireland-Jones


Who set fire to Old Parliament House, and why?

The actions of those responsible for the damage to Old Parliament House should not be confused with the important message behind the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and it’s history as it celebrates 50 years since it’s inception.

On the 30th of December last year, a group of protesters set fire to the façade of the heritage-protected, Old Parliament House. The people responsible for starting the fire have been identified as members of “sovereign citizen” groups, and significantly, not associated with the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which has been present outside the building since its establishment in 1972. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was quick to condemn this violent act, saying, “This is not how Australia works.”

Since the fire late last year, the AFP established task force, named Operation Pike, has been seeking witnesses to the fire, to locate and arrest perpetrators. Three people have already been arrested and are facing court, charged with a myriad of offences all related to their alleged involvement in the fire. The damaging fire took place a few days after a smaller fire had damaged the portico of the historic building, set alight by the same group of perpetrators.

The tent camp, named Muckadda, interpreted as a “storm coming”, was forcefully dismantled last Friday by Police. The Police attempted to diffuse rumors of the group “storming” the building once again and overshadowing the planned celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Tent Embassy on 26 January.

The group of individuals allegedly responsible for the fire, have been identified as “Original Sovereigns”, and have been quoted saying that they do not recognize authorities and assert that the police have “no jurisdiction” over them.

The Original Sovereigns come out of the “Original Sovereign Tribal Nation Federation”, a federation which appropriates the global “Sovereign Citizens” movement. The “sovereign citizen” movement describes an association of individuals who do not believe in the application of traditional laws and are firm believers that criminal laws do not apply to them.

Original Sovereigns prescribe to a belief system that extends beyond the assertion that Aboriginal sovereignty was never ceded in the country. Rather, Original Sovereigns insist that any authority that the Australian state may hold, is illegitimate. It is unclear how connected Original Sovereign members are to the broader, Sovereign Citizen movement, originating in central America. However, the groups share central tenets of being suspicious of mainstream media, and both choose to target buildings and monuments that are symbolic of political prowess.

The Original Sovereign Tribal Federation was formed by Mark McMurtrie, who claims Indigenous heritage, and establishes clearly on the Federations website that one of their goals is to “expose the fraud being conducted against the tribes on behalf of the Crown Corporation.” The main principle on which the group is based, appears to be correcting the repeated injustices inflicted on Indigenous Australians, particularly with respect to the appropriation of Australian land.

However, the Federation is vocal in its opposition of an established First Nations activists group called the “Sovereign Union”. Members of the group have also been outspoken in their anti-vaccination beliefs, some aligning with “Reignite Democracy Australia”, an organization aligning closely with the United Australia Party. It would clearly be inadequate to suggest that the groups only purpose is to assert the importance of Indigenous Australians reclaiming land that was brutally stolen from them.

In the wake of arrests made during, and after the fires last year, some of those charged came before the ACT Magistrates Court last week. Members of the group were seen to create chaos surrounding the hearings, one such member approaching the magistrate and placing a folder down in front of her. Mr Shillingsworth, a notable member of the group who was charged with trespassing on Commonwealth land, repeatedly yelled over the top of Magistrate Campbell in court on the 20 January. Magistrate Campbell was then confronted with a folder of documents placed on the bench by a woman in the gallery, affiliated with the group. Magistrate Campbell was quoted yelling, “Don’t you dare!” in response to this disrespectful action by the woman in the court. The woman was promptly removed from the courtroom by security.

The actions of group in the last two months have attracted significant media attention and will cost the Government an approximated $4 million to rectify. Daryl Karp, director of the Old Parliament House’ main tenant, the Museum of Australian Democracy, has explained that the building’s iconic façade, “will never be the same”. Karp suggests that there may be fewer freedoms with respects to visitors of the Museum in the future, however she hopes to keep Old Parliament House “as open as possible, representing all that is good about Australian democracy, and at the same time…. Keeping it secure”.

It is evident that the core beliefs of the group are rooted in an important cause, and the rights of Indigenous Australians must be continually recognised, and many issues must still be rectified by the Australian Government. However, the groups damaging and disruptive actions over the last months may have overshadowed their important message, suggesting that in the future, adopting the peaceful protesting style of the members of the Tent Embassy, may in fact, be advantageous to their cause.