Riot police rescued Australian prime minister Julia Gillard after she was surrounded by angry protesters.

Gillard nearly fell and lost a shoe as she scrambled to safety after protesters for the Aboriginal encampment "embassy" - an ad hoc collection of tents similar to those adopted by the Occupy protests - targeted her and opposition leader Tony Abbott in a Canberra restaurant.

Protesters shouted "shame" and "racist" as they followed the pair, who were bundled into waiting cars by their personal security.

The political leaders were officiating at an award ceremony when Abbott sparked anger by allegedly questioning the relevance of the tent embassy on the lawn of Old Parliament House. The camp is celebrating its 40th year.

Protests are regularly held against Australia Day, which celebrates the arrival of British colonialists in 1788 but is often dubbed "Invasion Day" by the Aboriginal community.