IPAA Victoria Leadership in the Public Sector Awards: Retrospectives Victorian Treaty Advancement

20 Oct 2020
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There are moments in public life when you are privileged to hear from those who speak with profound moral authority. They are moments of quiet amid the tumult, when truth and wisdom are accorded the respect to which they are entitled but so rarely receive. Should you have been in the audience at the IPAA Victoria 2019 Leadership in the Public Sector Awards Ceremony in February, you would have been privy to such a moment.

In accepting the Robust Governance and Integrity Award for the Establishment of an Aboriginal Representative Body to Establish Treaty Negotiations, both Professor Eleanor Bourke and Jill Gallagher AO spoke with this authority, so much so that the room was stilled. The work for which they and the Office of the Victorian Treaty Advancement Commissioner were being recognised was the establishment of a culturally strong, sustainable and effective state-wide Aboriginal body – the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria; an elected voice for Aboriginal people and communities in future Treaty discussions. This required innovative governance solutions on two fronts: to protect and reinforce the independence of the Commission’s work with Aboriginal communities while within a public sector frame; and to demonstrate the Commission’s integrity and accountability to communities for the way their aspirations were translated into the design of the Assembly.Their journey had been a long and arduous one – historically, the very notion of a treaty had been so spurned that VTAC had to address such fundamental questions of whether or not the state government could even engage in a treaty with the Aboriginal people of Victoria. That this question needed to be answered at all spoke to the necessity – belated though it is – of establishing such a body. This necessity was never more in evidence than when Professor Bourke so poignantly said “we understand loss very much, as Aboriginal people – we have lost so much.” Jill amplified this need when she unequivocally reminded the audience that “we’re on lands that sovereignty was never ceded, and that’s something for past 250-odd years our people have fought very hard for that recognition.” Moreover, for all that the establishment of the First Peoples’ Assembly was cause for celebration, Jill emphasised that while it was indeed a first for Australia, it “is not a world first… this is not. Unfortunately many countries around the world have gone down the road of treaties and recognition of sovereignty.”It was a humbling moment, celebration and sorrow mingling in the stream of history, reminding those assembled that the price of this achievement had been paid for in blood; yet, the indomitable strength of Victoria’s Aboriginal people, personified in Eleanor and Jill, was revealed when Jill quietly but powerfully said, “Treaties are not about money, treaties are about empowerment, treaties are about hope, and they’re about truthtelling.”