“This is something that’s going to right those wrongs that were committed on our communities in the past.”
Those words were spoken by Victorian Treaty Advancement Commissioner, Jill Gallagher at a media conference on 16 September this year at Melbourne Museum’s Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre.
The conference marked the formal commencement of voting by Victorian Aboriginal people for the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria; and the next landmark step forward towards treaty/ies in that State.
During the media conference, the Commissioner cautioned that future treaty negotiations would be hard-fought by the State Government.
“As we speak, Government’s getting ready,” she said.
“Government’s getting their house in order and they’re going to be fierce negotiators. We also have to be fierce negotiators.”
Treaty negotiation, though, is still a long way off.
Assembly role is defined in Act
Despite what some have referred to as a “campaign of confusion”, the Assembly will not, nor have the authority to enter into treaty negotiations. Instead, the Assembly’s purpose is to represent indigenous voices, concerns and priorities in the earliest stages of the treaty process, establishing the framework and environment in which negotiations will take place.
In fact, the Advancing the Treaty Process with Aboriginal Victorians Act 2018 clearly outlines the functions of the Assembly (referred to in the Act as the Aboriginal Representative Body). In brief, those functions are to:
1. Work with the State Government to establish the Treaty Authority, the key functions of which will be: facilitation and overseeing of treaty negotiations, administration of the treaty negotiation framework, dispute resolution and undertaking research to support treaty negotiations.
2. Work with the State Government to establish the Treaty Negotiation Framework, which will include: treaty negotiation process, dispute resolution process, treaty enforcement mechanisms, treaty reporting requirements, a schedule of matters (if any) that cannot be included in a treaty, and minimum standards with which a party must comply in order to enter into treaty negotiations.
3. Work with the State Government to establish the Self-Determination Fund, which has as its primary purpose “supporting traditional owners and Aboriginal Victorians to have equal standing with the State in treaty negotiations.”
Traditional Owners to shoulder critical stages
Responsibility for achieving those next critical stages towards treaty/ies will fall squarely on the shoulders of 32 Victorian Traditional Owners.
Across the State, 72 Traditional Owners are currently campaigning for one of 21 community-elected seats in the 32-seat Assembly. The remaining 11 seats have been reserved – one each – for the State’s Registered Aboriginal Parties.
With voting set to close at 4pm on Sunday the 20th of October, Commissioner Gallagher said that she expects an announcement of the results to be made towards the end of October and then the first meeting of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria on the December 10-11.
That first meeting is set to be held at the Victorian Parliament House, with sections video and audio live-streamed. It is during that meeting that the Assembly will elect its Chair/Co-Chairs and Executive to lead Assembly business.
The Commissioner emphasised that the Assembly will be fully independent of the Government and established as a company limited by guarantee.
“I remember the first statewide forum, and there was a lot of conversation about the legal framework of the body,” the Commissioner said.
“The community said loud and clear that whatever the legal structure of the body, it had to be independent of government.
“So government cannot control it, and government cannot say who goes on it.”
Distrust and dissent
Not surprisingly, there does exist within the community various levels of distrust of government and the process itself.
Well-known activist and, along with his 11 brothers and sisters, member of the Stolen Generations Uncle Talgium “Chocco” Edwards is a long-time advocate for Aboriginal sovereign rights.
“Treaty has to include truth-telling. That has to be on the agenda,” he said. “Truth-telling and reparation for what has happened to us all.”
He points to the planned destruction by government of Djab Wurrung sacred trees as being indicative of government attitude towards Aboriginal rights and culture.
“If they’re not listening to us on this issue, how can we trust them going forward.”
Another point of dissent that has arisen during recent months is the number of people who have enrolled to vote.
According to the Commissioner, there are approximately 30,000 Aboriginal Victorians eligible to enrol to vote in the current elections. Despite that, as at voting period commencement the number of enrollees was just over 2,000.
The Commissioner, though, points to a similar situation that arose during the candidate nomination period which saw a massive influx of nominations at the eleventh hour.
Even with an expected end-of-period enrollments, the Commissioner believes that the heavy emphasis on numbers is uncalled for.
“The expectation placed on us by government that we have to get 30,000 people enrolled in the first elections – I’d like to see them achieve that without compulsory voting,” she said.
“When you look at the situations many of communities find themselves in – we know we’re over represented in the mental health system. We know we’re over represented in the homeless. We know about the entrenched poverty.
“So the expectation that I’m expected to get 30,000 enrollees is [absolute rubbish].”
Confusion over voting process
Despite the efforts of the Commission and Traditional Owner groups to conduct extensive community consultations (extended even to every prison across the State), there has been some confusion as to who is eligible to enrol to vote.
According to the Victorian Treaty Advancement Commission, eligibility extends to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are aged 16 years or older, and either are a Traditional Owner of Country in Victoria or live in Victoria (and have done so for at least three of the last five years).
Joining the Commissioner at the opening of the polls media conference were three generations of the Coombs family. Wotjobaluk man Uncle Kevin Coombs, who was the first Aboriginal paralympian in 1960, was accompanied by his granddaughter Kyeema Coombs and daughter Janine Coombs.
A member of the Victorian Treaty Working Group, Janine is Deputy Chair of Barengi Gadjin Land Council, which represents Traditional Owners from the Wotjobaluk, Jaadwa, Jadawdjali, Wergaia and Jupagulk peoples.
She was one of the first to be appointed to the Treaty Working Group and has been involved in the process since it started in early 2016.
Janine is quick to acknowledge dissent within the community about imperfections within the treaty process so far.
“The process isn’t perfect,” she said. “But show me a process that is!
“What’s most important is that all Aboriginal Victorians be informed about what’s going on and what treaty or treaties can mean for them, all Victorians and the entire country.
“I believe, though, that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and if we are to bring about change, then we have to grab this opportunity and take a seat at the table.”