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Traditional owners: Talking treaty

Traditional owners: Talking treaty

By Karin Derkley



As the Black Lives Matter movement gains momentum, an historic meeting between the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria and government takes place.

Traditional owners representing Victoria’s Aboriginal community will meet with the state government for the first time this month to “talk Treaty”.

At the historic meeting between the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria and the Department of Premier and Cabinet, foundation elements of the Treaty will be identified.

“This is the first opportunity we have had to understand from an Aboriginal Victorian perspective what the detail is that we need to move this forward,” says Department of Premier and Cabinet executive director for Treaty Elly Patira. 

“We’re at the point now we are sitting at the table as partners to design the Treaty and to work together to find mutually agreeable Treaty elements.”

The start of the Treaty process has been a long time coming. In early 2016 the state government agreed to discussions with Victoria’s Aboriginal community about a Treaty, but calls for the agreement go back decades, says co-chair of the First Peoples’ Assembly and Taungurung traditional owner Marcus Stewart. 

That made him initially sceptical of the promise. “Growing up within the Aboriginal community our inheritance from government has been broken promises. We had calls for a Treaty in the ’80s that just disappeared.” 

He now believes the government is genuine in its commitment. “To their credit the government has backed it all the way, and we’ve been on a journey since then.”

The pivotal meeting coincides with the global Black Lives Matter movement, which has brought systematic injustice against Aboriginal Australians into sharp focus, and will help reshape the relationship between traditional owners and their fellow Victorians, Mr Stewart says. “Victorians are ready to move forward with traditional owners in a more reconciled way.”

Victoria is currently furthest along the path to Treaty, although Treaty processes have also commenced in South Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland. 

The Victorian Treaty Advancement Commission was set up in December 2017, with Gunditjmara woman and longtime head of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation Jill Gallagher appointed as its commissioner. She announced a model for an Aboriginal representative body, now known as the First People’s Assembly of Victoria. 

The First Peoples’ Assembly was set up to make sure the Aboriginal community would be represented in a fair way, Ms Patira says. “During the course of those community sessions, what became very clear was that this shouldn’t be seen by community as a government-led process.”

The Assembly of Victoria is the first democratically elected body for Aboriginal Victorians in the state’s history says Mr Stewart. It is made up of 31 representative seats, including 20 elected general member seats determined across five voting regions based on population, and 11 reserved member seats for recognised traditional owner groups. Every member on the assembly is a Victorian traditional owner.

After two years of consultation with community, the Assembly is now ready to work with the state to agree on the elements of Treaty, Mr Stewart says. “We've been working through some key pillars: to develop a Treaty negotiation framework, to develop a Treaty authority, which will be the independent umpire between both parties negotiating, and to develop a self-determination fund, which will be an independent source of funding to support that process.”

An important part of that will be a “truth-telling” process, along the lines of a royal commission that aims to uncover and acknowledge past injustices that have happened to Aboriginal Victorians over the past 200 years, Mr Stewart says. “Truth is imperative to any Treaty process. We can’t change history. But we can change how history is viewed and that’s why we see truth and Treaty as a major vehicle to addressing the structural inequalities that we see in Victoria.” 

“It is an opportunity to start the conversation with our fellow Victorians around our history of the frontier wars, the massacres, enslavements, policies of assimilation, our stolen generation and removal of children.”

Ms Patira says there are no pre-determined ideas on what the Treaty should look like. “What we’ve long held is that nothing is off the table.” 

But certain things have to be included under the legislation, she says. “The legislation requires that any Treaty in Victoria deal with issues around reconciliation, recognition of first people’s ongoing laws, customs, culture and rights, elements of truth-telling, healing and reparation.

“Importantly, it’s not a benefactor/beneficiary relationship – there’s definitely a moral element to Treaty and an acknowledgement Victoria was colonised without the consent of Aboriginal Victorians who were and continue to be distinct political entities.”

A number of substantial legal issues still need to be worked through as Victoria moves along the pathway to Treaty, she says. “Sovereignty is certainly something that is very much at the fore of that . . . Another is around the relationship to native title and cultural heritage frameworks. 

“Obviously, we can't displace federal legislation, so the question is really one of how they'll work together and another is around that devolution of decision-making power both in terms of whether there are avenues for Aboriginal lawmaking authority, but also in terms of decision-making powers.”

From his initial scepticism, Mr Stewart is now optimistic about the prospects for achieving a Treaty in the near future. “We’ve been able to grow and mobilise as we’ve gone through this journey over the last four years. That’s been critical because we’re responsible for bringing everyone along and keeping the door open including for our fellow Victorians. We’re confident that we’ll deliver something amazing at the end of this journey.” ■

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