Treaty in Victoria: “Every Branch of the State has to Play its Part”
As Victoria prepares to elect a First Peoples’ Assembly to guide Treaty negotiations, the State’s Treaty Advancement Commissioner, Jill Gallagher AO, urges all public servants to get behind the process.
If you’re a non-Aboriginal public sector employee, I suspect you don’t realise how critical you are to Aboriginal treaties succeeding. I suspect you don’t realise how big a change you could help to deliver.
Treaties between the State and Aboriginal parties are, fundamentally, about resetting a relationship that is more than 200 years old. They are about righting an imbalance that has lasted that long. They are about starting afresh – in the hope of a much better future.
I cannot think of any equivalent that currently exists.
By their very nature, treaties must be a whole-of-government endeavour.
Health. Education. Land use. The justice system. Planning controls. Environmental management. Every branch of the state – from frontline service delivery to high-level strategic planning – simply has to play its part.
This whole-of-government nature means that every public sector worker will need to understand what is changing, and how their actions will affect the Treaty process.
You will make choices that, bit by bit, influence whether this process succeeds. Your actions will incrementally contribute to what outcomes are achieved. Whatever your work, you will have the chance to include the voices and perspectives of Aboriginal people in it.
You will have the chance to work in stronger partnership with Aboriginal communities. You will have the chance to create history.
Treaty is an opportunity for every single non-Indigenous person to strengthen their knowledge of, and appreciation for, Aboriginal cultures. After all, we are the oldest continuing culture on Earth.
Treaty is a chance for us to question the current processes and find ways of doing better. It is, quite simply, one of the best opportunities for change we will all ever get.
In years to come, the current generation could be viewed as one that made meaningful, transformational progress in an area that had previously involved far too little of it.
Every Victorian public servant will have a role to play in this.
Trust, Truth and Treaty
Treaties are an emotionally powerful concept for all Aboriginal people.
It is our ancestors who were treated so appallingly. It is our people who are still being treated appallingly, this very day.
And it is our future generations who we hope for.
Treaty is a powerful statement of rejection of the past. But it will be controversial within our communities – particularly if people feel like it absolves the sins of the past.
After all, Aboriginal Australians have never ceded sovereignty. Never.
Personally, I feel that any treaty that does not account for this should be rejected.
You may notice that I use the word ‘treaties’ as well as ‘treaty’. This is because, in all likelihood, the state will negotiate Treaty with local Aboriginal communities – nations or clans – rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. That is the far more culturally appropriate way of doing business.
In 2019, of course, the state of Victoria runs from Mildura to Mallacoota. In traditional times, the Lajti Latji people of the Mallee would have little or nothing to do with the Bidawal mob of far East Gippsland.
There may also be statewide benefits that fall out of a treaty or treaties.
But it is hard to see a treaty process that excludes the possibility of locally-based treaties.
Two hundred years of betrayal have made it difficult for Aboriginal people to trust government. It is impossible to underestimate this.
Every Aboriginal person has family who have suffered dreadfully at the hands of governments. But many of our people are prepared to give this a go.
It is on all of us to make it happen.
The onus is on governments – through their actions – to demonstrate that they deserve this trust, and respect the context in which it comes.
Let me tell you about one recent conversation.
I was in a prison, speaking with a group of Aboriginal men about Treaty.
“It’s too late for me,” said one senior man. “But it’s not for you, or you, or you,” he said, pointing one by one at the younger men in the room.
Despite being in prison, his only hopes and dreams were for others – rather than for himself.
In my role as Treaty Advancement Commissioner, I have met some incredible people.
I have met young people who have a new appreciation for not just the hurt in Aboriginal communities, but the opportunity to change things forever.
I have met non-Aboriginal people who have seen that, finally, enough is enough. They see that treaties should have happened 230 years ago. They understand that the fact that they did not is no reason to shirk the issue now.
Put simply, I have seen a determination to make treaties happen.
The Meaning of Treaties
I am often asked: what will treaties mean?
It is a question that is asked by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. It is a good question – we don’t know for sure what could be involved.
In this respect, I can only talk for myself.
For me, treaties are about truth. Treaties are quite possibly the biggest opportunity for this nation’s true history to be told.
The atrocities. The murders in cold blood. The deliberate poisoning of women and children.
The crimes against humanity.
The denial of our people being able to practice their culture, or speak their own language.
Most people know a little of what happened – but there is much, much more to learn.
Every day, we as Australians walk on country that carries the brutal history of the past.
Based on what happened in North America, we can foresee that it will be immensely emotional to ask questions in this area, and to seek answers. It will hurt.
But there is no real alternative.
Can you imagine if, in 30 years, the next generations still have no idea about the true history of Australia?
It would be shameful – even more so than the ignorance now.
In 2019, we know more than ever about what happened when Australia was colonised. That alone should prompt us to find out the whole story.
To do otherwise would be a betrayal of this country.
But Treaty is about far more than simply truth-telling.
It is about land – and the prospect of Aboriginal people having genuine control over the use and management of land.
That has happened independently of a treaty. But that concept, that idea, is something that could be codified and guaranteed by treaties.
Treaty is a chance for a total reset of the relationship between the state and its First Peoples.
Stop and think about that for a moment.
The people who, for more than 200 years, have fought efforts to wipe them out, are willing to say “let’s stop and start again”.
The state, which has inflicted so much agony on our families, is prepared to say “enough is enough”.
That is simply breathtaking. It is ambitious. And it will be difficult: 200 years of trauma does not go away easily.
But imagine things continuing the way they are.
Aboriginal people have been saying for a long, long time that treaties need to happen.
Finally, the state is listening.
Treaty in Australia
In 1835, John Batman signed a Treaty on the banks of the Merri River. It was annulled by colonial authorities shortly afterwards.
In 1988, then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke promised a Treaty by 1990. This was subsequently not delivered.
In 2016, the Victorian Government asked local Aboriginal communities for their views on constitutional recognition. Symbolic recognition was rejected.
Instead, Aboriginal communities re-emphasised their demand for Treaty. The Victorian Government agreed to explore the possibilities.
A Treaty Working Group, made up of senior Aboriginal community leaders, was established to guide the process.
In 2018, the Victorian Treaty Advancement Commission was set up to establish an Aboriginal representative body. This body, the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, will support Aboriginal communities during the next phase of the Treaty process. It will be the voice for Aboriginal communities.
In 2018, the Victorian Parliament passed legislation committing the government to work with the Assembly, giving the process more security.
Treaty in Victoria: Where to now?
Elections for the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria will be conducted in July 2019.
There will be 33 elected representatives from five voting areas – four in regional Victoria and the fifth in Melbourne.
The First Peoples’ Assembly will be the voice for Aboriginal communities in Victoria in the future Treaty process.
It will be independent – the Victorian Government will not be able to shut it down.
The Assembly, and the Victorian Government, will jointly establish an independent umpire (the Treaty Authority).
The Assembly and the Victorian Government will then create the Negotiation Framework, which will clarify who can negotiate and what is on the negotiating table. Negotiations can then begin.
It is likely that the Framework will allow for local Traditional Owner groups negotiating their own treaties – as this is more culturally appropriate than a one-size-fits-all approach.
The Assembly will also run the Self-Determination Fund, which will support Aboriginal communities to negotiate on a level playing field.
Treaty: What could it involve?
The scope of any treaty, or treaties, will be made by Aboriginal communities, the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, and the State of Victoria.
Negotiations may involve some or all of:
Reparation or compensation for losses
Truth-telling to shed light on the true history of Victoria
Aboriginal communities having more control or power over their lives (e.g. Aboriginal-controlled service delivery).