The Guardian • Issue #2021

Treaty authority established in Victoria

Photo: John Englart – (CC BY-SA 2.0)

On 16th August, the Victorian Parliament passed legislation creating an independent body to oversee treaty negotiations between the Victorian government and the state’s Traditional Owners. It marks a decades-long struggle by First Nations activists to establish a treaty framework in the state.

Marcus Stewart, a Nira illim bulluk man of the Taungurung Nation and co-chair of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, hailed the Treaty Authority as a “huge step” and “one that mob all around the Country can take inspiration from. With the Assembly our people have a voice. We already have Truth-telling underway and now Treaty is very much within reach […].”

One important aspect of the Treaty Authority is that it will be independent. This means that it will be funded in a way that does not allow governments to arbitrarily withdraw funding based on the election cycle. Unlike most statutory authorities, it will not be headed by a Minister from the Victorian Cabinet, but will be entirely led by Indigenous people.

The work of the Authority will be informed by Treaty negotiations in New Zealand and Canada, as well as findings from the Yoorrook justice commission. The next step is for the Victorian government, in collaboration with the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, to establish the Treaty Negotiation Framework.

In carrying out this work, the Authority will aim to avoid being too “adversarial”, says Stewart

“It’ll be a process of how we bring our community, our nations together who might disagree on whether it be boundaries, whether it’ll be who’s negotiating treaty. But an opportunity, rather than people lawyering up, coming in the room, having the conversations our way […].”

Meanwhile, the Federal government has pledged to ask the Australian people at a referendum whether to amend the constitution to enable the establishment of an Indigenous Voice to the Federal Parliament. The preferred wording of the referendum would be “simple and clear” and would ask the Australian people:

“Do you support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?”

Victoria is the first state to establish a Treaty Authority, but strides are also being made in other states. The Queensland government recently announced its intention to set up a treaty negotiation framework and a truth-telling inquiry in that state. Meanwhile, the Northern Territory Treaty Commission wrapped up four years of consultation in March when it submitted its final report to the NT government.

Tasmania has hinted at taking steps towards a treaty, while efforts in South Australia have stalled. The New South Wales government has made no specific commitments, but nevertheless claims that it generally supports the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Aunty Geraldine Atkinson, co-chair of the First Peoples’ Assembly and Bangerang and Wiradjuri Elder, emphasised that treaty should focus both on protecting culture and rectifying the socio-economic injustice faced by Indigenous Victorians as a result of the state’s colonial history:

“This generation has the opportunity to right past wrongs by making sure the future is one we can be proud of. We have here in this place we all call home, the oldest living Culture in the world. It’s beautiful and we want to share and celebrate it with everyone. All we ask in return is that we regain the freedom and power to make the decisions that affect our lives and our land.”

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