Aunty Geraldine Atkinson Speech to the World Indigenous Peoples’ Conference on Education

Sep 30, 2022

Hello, my name is Geraldine Atkinson. I am a proud Bangarang woman and the Co-Chair of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria. You can call me Aunty Geri.

I would like to begin by acknowledging that we are on the lands of the Kaurna people, and I pay my deep respects to their Elders and past and present, and respect to all Traditional Owners and First Nations people both here and around the world.

To any Kaurna mob here today: thank you for having us on your Country.

The acknowledgements we give and the language we use recognises that Aboriginal peoples were here before colonisers invaded these lands – and we are still here.

It is wonderful to be here at the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education.

Education is one of my passions.

I have spent most of my life working in the education sector – starting in 1976 as an Aboriginal teacher’s aide.

I am proud to say that I have been the President of the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association since 1999.

Over the past 40 years, I have seen much change in the education sector, but I hope to see much more.

And the way we want to achieve that, in Victoria, is through Treaty.

As I mentioned, I am the Co-Chair of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria. My fellow Co-Chair is Marcus Stewart. He is a Nira illim bulluk man of the Taungurung Nation.

Together, we lead the elected group of Traditional Owners who are working hard to make Treaties a reality in Victoria.

Treaty is our chance to put Aboriginal people in the driver’s seat. To make sure we always have the freedom and power to make the decisions that affect our Communities, or culture and our Country.

It’s also an opportunity to bring everyone on the journey. Everyone has the potential to benefit from First Nations perspectives, history and knowledge.

Introduction to the Assembly and Truth-telling

I’ll begin by saying that it’s deadly to see the growing momentum for Treaty-making at a national level here in Australia with the Uluru Statement from the Heart, with the key three elements being Voice, Treaty and Truth.

In Victoria we are getting on with all three.

We have a Voice in the First Peoples’ Assembly, our truth-telling process is underway – which I’ll explain more on shortly – and you will see that Treaty is very much within our reach.

Firstly, let me tell you some more about the Assembly.

The Assembly and its role

The Assembly is the independent and democratic voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Victorian Treaty process.

We have 31 Members who sit on our Assembly. Every one of these people is a Traditional Owner of Country in Victoria, and our Communities have elected us to represent their interests and aspirations.

The elections were conducted across five regions, to make sure that results were not dominated by a large metropolitan population.

To participate in these elections, you must be enrolled with the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria.

To be eligible for to enrol, people must be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders living in Victoria or Traditional Owners of Country in Victoria living here or elsewhere.

And you must be over 16 years old.

Our electoral roll is exactly that – ours. It was made by Aboriginal people, for Aboriginal people.

So that is our ‘Voice’. And we also have truth-telling underway with the Yoorrook Justice Commission.


In our early conversations and consultations with Community, it became very clear that there could be no Treaty without Truth.

So, we set to work and negotiated with the Government the creation of a powerful Truth-telling body: the Yoorrook Justice Commission.

Yoorrook means ‘truth’ in Wemba Wemba / Wamba Wamba language, which is spoken in the north-west of Victoria.

The Commission’s role is to hear stories of Aboriginal peoples through a truth-telling process that aims to:

  • Give a voice to the survivors and help healing.
  • Enable mob to draw strength from our collective experiences and pass on our resilience.
  • To pierce the wilful amnesia that the wider society and colonial system wraps itself in.
  • And, crucially, we hope the volume of evidence will expose the consistent patterns of oppression and therefore highlight ideas for structural reforms that will deliver justice, facilitate the healing, and improve things going forward.

You see, the problems we face a structural. Therefore, the solutions also need to be structural – and that’s what Treaty can deliver.

As the Commissioners at Yoorrook explain their work, it’s about “Truth, Understanding and Transformation.”

Though disrupted by colonisation, First Peoples’ connections to lands and waters, our language, spirituality, ethics and philosophies remain and are steadily being restored and relayed to new generations.

The sad truth is there are not many indicators that show a positive outcome of government involvement in Aboriginal peoples’ lives.

However, there is overwhelming evidence that shows when Aboriginal people are in charge of the programs and policies that affect our lives, they succeed.

Through truth-telling and Treaty-making, First Peoples are setting out expectations, aspirations and pathways for addressing past injustices and building a more harmonious and prosperous future together.

I’ll tell you now how we’re going about this, at the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria. 

The work of the First Peoples’ Assembly

So, for today’s talk, I thought it might be useful to just go through the details and explain how the journey has unfolded, where we’re at now, and what might come next.

The main job of the Assembly Members and of the organisation – for this first term that we are now in – is to establish the ground rules that will govern future Treaty negotiations with the Victorian Government and to set up the architecture needed for that.

This architecture I’m referring to is the Treaty Authority, the Self Determination Fund and the Treaty Negotiation Framework.

Treaty Authority

The Treaty Authority is the independent ‘umpire’, which will oversee Treaty negotiations between Traditional Owners and the Government.

It will help to resolve disputes that arise with the Government, but also between First Peoples.

The Parliament of Victoria recently passed the Treaty Authority and Other Treaty Elements Bill 2022. This bill will facilitate the establishment of the Treaty Authority.

This is a significant step forward as, in effect, it is the Government giving up some of its power.

The Treaty Authority will be led by First Peoples appointed by an independent panel consisting of some people chosen by the Assembly and some by the State.

It will not report to a Minister and its funding will be insulated from political whims.

The Treaty Authority will be grounded in our culture, lore and law. It will help us mob solve our problems in our ways and strengthen the culture that has been practiced on these lands for countless generations.

To have the Treaty Authority sit completely outside of the usual government system and bound by our culture is really unique – this is decolonisation in action.

Self-Determination Fund

The second addition to the Treaty-making landscape is the Self-Determination Fund.

The Self-Determination Fund has two key purposes:

  1. It will help to resource Traditional Owner groups during the negotiation process – make sure they are “Treaty ready” and can enter negotiations on a more level playing field.
  2. And beyond that, the fund will also empower our communities to build wealth and greater capacity for future generations.

The economic disadvantage caused by invasion has been compounding over generations – with interest.

Think of running a race where not only has your opponent stolen your shoes, but they’ve also constructed a series of obstacles in your path.

Our people were forced off their ancestral lands and faced discrimination and numerous disadvantages.

Of course we couldn’t keep up – we were too busy surviving.

Those that reaped the benefits of that stolen wealth were able to accumulate greater wealth and pass this down to their descendants.

What we were passing down was our intergenerational trauma.

Treaty is our opportunity to clear the obstacle and catch up – on our own terms.

The Assembly will be responsible for managing and administering the Self-Determination Fund for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria now and into the future.

This means that First Peoples are making decisions about First Peoples’ financial resources.

Treaty Negotiation Framework

The last topic I want to share is what we call the Treaty Negotiation Framework.

We’re at the pointy end of negotiations with the Victorian Government on this now.

The Framework will set out the ground-rules and process for how Treaty negotiations can unfold – how Treaties can be made, who is eligible to be a party to the negotiations and so on.

We can confirm that we’ll have multiple Treaties.

There will be a statewide Treaty that will cover statewide matters – and we’re asserting that the Assembly is the representative body that should negotiate that, following our elections next year.

And Traditional Owners will also be able to negotiate a Treaty specific to their area that reflects their specific priorities and aspirations.

To delve a bit more into the detail for you, the Framework will lay the foundation for Treaty negotiations, setting out:

The objectives of the Treaty process, including realizing rights that are recognised in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

  • The sources of authority for Treaty-making.
  • The central principle for Treaty is self-determination and empowerment.
  • Aboriginal Lore, Law and Cultural Authority will be respected and observed in Treaty negotiations.
  • The role and functions of the Treaty Authority in negotiations.

We want the framework to support Traditional Owners to decide how they want to approach negotiations.

This won’t be a one size fits all thing, it’s about empowering groups to choose and shape their own pathway forwards.

The Assembly is still working through how different Traditional Owner groups in the same area will be supported to form single Treaty ‘negotiation delegations’ for the one region – relying on the Treaty Authority if needed to help settle disputes.

It is our ambition that we will see Treaty-making commence next year.

As mentioned, for the state-wide Treaty, that won’t happen until we’ve held our second Assembly elections so our community can choose the people they want negotiating Treaty.

But we Traditional Owner groups might be able to begin their preparations for Treaties specific to their lands and waters even sooner than that.

Additionally, we are in the process of creating a permanent Elders’ Voice – a council of Elders to guide us on the pathway to Treaty.

Aboriginal community members have been clear that the road to Treaty must benefit from the cultural wisdom, authority, guidance, and oversight of Elders.

Currently we have interim Elders’ Voice with senior Assembly Members as Co-Chairs.

Their job is to consult with Elders across the state to design a permanent, but flexible, model for establishment.  

Treaty and its impacts for education

As I said earlier, you can see that Treaty is very much within our reach.

We just need to dot the i’s and cross the t’s on the framework and make sure the Government meets us in the moment and isn’t stingy when it comes to the Self-Determination Fund.

That would be a great disappointment for our Community and I’d hate to see thing stall or stumble over it.

But you are all experts in the field of education.

It remains as important as ever that all public policy levers, including education systems, are pointed towards addressing discrimination and disadvantage of First Nations people.

I believe that can take many forms.

Education is a driver of opportunity – so taking down barriers to education for mob will help eradicate disadvantage and shame from our Communities.

Additionally, education can help us turn our truths into a shared history that everyone can be proud of.

The ground-breaking work of Victoria’s Yoorrook Justice Commission will provide school curriculums with not just with a more complete history of the colonisation of Australia, but also an intensely valuable window into new ways of perceiving natural landscapes, human rights, and personal and institutional cultural traditions.

As an example, just imagine if local primary schools taught the Language of Traditional Owners? And, importantly, what if this was not just up to the ‘benevolence’ of the individual teacher?

There are already examples of this underway in parts of the country, and I know it’s something that many people are keen for – but it is challenging. Much Language has already been lost. But schools could be a starting point for amending that and helping drive renewal.

I also believe the educational institutions are the perfect environment for planting seeds of change. Learning our languages, our culture and/or our lore comes understanding and respect for these things. This has a ripple effect – with respect comes pride.

One could also imagine what it might be like by Aboriginal-run schools, where can have greater self-determination when it comes to education.

There is overwhelming evidence that shows when Aboriginal people are in charge of the programs and policies that affect our lives, they succeed.

It is going to be really interesting to see what the next formation of the Assembly and Traditional Owner groups decide to negotiate next year. I hope to hear, and will be pushing for, many conversations about education.

It is going to be a really exciting time, so I’d encourage everyone here today who’s interested in coming on this journey with to try stay in touch.

If there are any Victorian mob out there: make sure you enrol with us.

That’s the single easiest but really important thing you can do to show your support and make sure you’re given the opportunities to help choose the next steps on the journey.

To everyone else, our allies, I encourage you to follow us on social media or sign up to our e-newsletters – we’ll keep you updated.

Final Remarks

I’d like to wrap up with some observations and the advice that comes to mind when I think about the lesson for the national journey to Treaty.

The most important thing is making sure that the journey is led by First Peoples. Yes, it’s a shared journey, but our people need to lead it. We need to be in the driver’s seat.

Another really important piece of advice is don’t rush – take the time to make sure the process is designed from the ground up, that Community supports it and is engaged.

It hasn’t been perfect here, but our engagement work is the heart of the Assembly.

It was a real challenge with the pandemic to have the yarns in the ways that we would have like to, but we really had to put the hard yards in, because self-determination isn’t just the destination – it’s how we get there.

The final lesson for me is: let’s lean into the strength of our culture, Lore and Law.

Government’s heavy-handed, top-down approach has consistently attack, betrayed or failed our people since invasion.

There’s so much strength and wisdom to be had from our culture. It’s right here and we have to make the most of it.

It’s the oldest living culture in the world and it’s right here. Who wouldn’t want to deepen their understanding of it and their connection to this beautiful Country?

Let’s invite people in and show them that if we can reckon with the injustices of the past and tackle the problems of today, then yes, by all means we can build a better future together.

Treaty isn’t about guilt, it’s about equality and coming to terms with the past, so we can create a better future together.

Whether your family has been here for five years or 50,000 years Treaty – and the journey to it – will bring us closer together.

It’s a great honour for me to be here today, we hope we’ve given you some good insight into Victoria’s Treaty process.

Thank you for listening.