“While everyone was there and went to push the officers back into the building where they were walking, it then got out of control.”
Original activist Albert Hartnett, who has a long association with the Aboriginal tent embassy, also said it appeared the pepper spray had exacerbated the flames.
Police confirmed that pepper spray was used, but said it was not aimed at the fire and that the product they were using was water-based and did not contain an accelerator.
Witness Cameron Duschka, who was not involved in the protest, said he was walking past the Old Parliament House when he noticed the cluster of protesters.
He saw a small fire and police arrive to remove the protesters.
“I saw a small fire, I guess it looks like a ceremony or something, so in the end it kind of went up in flames, the whole front door,” he said.
“There was a lot of arguing, shouting. I do not remember if the police came before the fire or after, but I think they came to move them on, they [police] was forced back into the building, and not long after, the fire broke out. ”
Sir. Hartnett said the fire damage was not the fault of the Aboriginal tent embassy.
“We will be blamed, they will put all this on the Aboriginal tent embassy and everyone who is there and I am here to put off those concerns,” he said.
“All we are doing here is creating a space for action where we are taking these actions to the front doors of this House of Parliament. Our goal is to get through those doors and ensure that we create the foundation for our own sovereign governments.
“It will always be a goal for us as sovereign nations to deal with a lot of the inconveniences and injustices that we suffer.”
January marks the 50th anniversary of the tent embassy.
Sir. Morton said he had been assured by the Old Parliament House board that management was fully prepared for the protests and accepted advice from security agencies.
“It is the government’s expectation that all illegal activity should be dealt with by the police and the courts to the fullest extent possible,” he said.
»No system of government is perfect. In our democracy, freedom exists [undertake a] peaceful protest is one that we can and should celebrate.
“Today’s actions in the old parliament building were not peaceful. The resulting damage undermines the message that peaceful protesters are seeking to deliver.”
A spokeswoman for the Old Parliament House said the fire caused significant damage to the old doors, porch and facade of the building.
Museum of Australian Democracy director Daryl Karp said it was not possible at this time to estimate the economic value of the damage, but from a hereditary perspective it was unmanageable.
The museum remains closed until the damage is repaired.
Protesters have been occupying the stairs to the Old Parliament House for weeks and include a number of well-known “freedom movement” influencers who oppose vaccine mandates and lockdowns, and who have spoken at major rallies in recent months in Melbourne and Sydney.
Some of the protesters also claim to be sovereign citizens – a movement of people who believe that federal and state governments are invalid and therefore do not have to pay taxes or obey the instructions of the police or the courts.
Protesters this week shared photos of a “violation letter” posted on the door of the building earlier in the week, similar to those posted by protesters at Government House in Melbourne in recent weeks.
Victoria Police Chief Shane Patton last year expressed concern over the rise of sovereign citizens protesting against COVID-19 restrictions during Melbourne’s second shutdown.
The old parliament building protest has been promoted on social media with the hashtag #takebackoldparliament by individuals and groups who also promoted misinformation about vaccines and shutdowns in remote communities in northern territory last month, which was criticized by Aboriginal leaders.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce called the actions “an absolute disgrace”.
Former Nationals leader Michael McCormack said there should be “quick and serious” consequences for those responsible.
“A monstrous attack on our democracy, our history, our sovereignty. This modern penchant for tearing down our past serves no purpose,” he said on Twitter.
With Rachael Dexter
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