Voice, Treaty, Truth — we’re getting on with all three in Victoria

Aug 25, 2022

Aunty Geraldine Atkinson and Marcus Stewart, First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria Co-chairs

Voice. Treaty. Truth. These are the three elements of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the pillars on which we, in the place now known as Australia, can build a better future together.

In Victoria, we’ve shown you can do them simultaneously and we’re making great progress on all three.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here have a democratic voice in the First Peoples Assembly of Victoria.

A truth-telling process, crafted by Community, with wide-reaching powers is now underway with the Yoorrook Justice Commission.

And this week, we take a leap forward on the journey to Treaty with Parliament passing legislation that will enable the creation of the first permanent piece of Treaty-making architecture: the Treaty Authority.

The Treaty Authority will be the independent umpire to oversee Treaty negotiations between First Peoples and the Government. It will help to resolve disputes that arise with the Government, but also between First Peoples.

Currently when our Nation groups have disagreements – about overlapping claims to ancestral lands, for example, the western system is geared towards an adversarial and costly showdown in the courts. Whereas the Treaty Authority will create a culturally safe place to bring mob together to solve things our way, to draw on the wisdom of the oldest living culture in the world.

Our journey to Treaty mustn’t been constrained by western concepts and colonial systems – it’s about putting Aboriginal people in the driver’s seat and ensuring we have the freedom and power to make the decisions that affect our communities, our culture and our Country.

As such, the Treaty Authority will sit entirely outside of the usual government bureaucracy. It will be independently appointed and led by First Peoples. It will not report to a Minister and its funding will be insulated from political bastardry – a bitter lesson learnt from the abolishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

This is what decolonisation looks like.

The Treaty Authority will be grounded in our culture, lore and law. It will be led by five to seven impartial First Nations people recognised for their cultural knowledge, courage and intergrity and selected by an independent panel through a thorough and transparent process. The panel itself will need to be agreed on by both the Assembly and the Government.

The approach we’ve taken to develop the Treaty Authority was informed after years of yarning with our people. Our elected Members have been out meeting with mob all over the state – having the hard conversations, finding the common threads and weaving them together.

Building consensus takes time, but it’s coming together in Victoria at a Community level and now also at a political level. The Labor, Liberal and Greens parties now all back the journey to Treaty in Victoria and are proud to support this ground-breaking legislation.

It might be 230 years overdue, but the deep conversations and meaningful reform unfolding in Victoria are providing a model the whole country will be able to look to as we seek to right the wrongs of the past and create a better future together.

The key is ensuring First People determine and build the solutions. The journey to Treaty is a shared one, but it must be led by First People.

If we are to truly reconcile as a nation we must understand that unfair problems that disproportionately impact Aboriginal people are issues white institutions created, white institutions maintain and white society currently condones. This is why Aboriginal people need to be in the driver’s seat.

Our peoples’ knowledge of and connection to these lands is profound and unique. There’s so much to be gained by putting it front and centre – not just on the journey to Treaty, but at the heart of what we do as a community, as a society, as a nation.

Despite the deliberate and persistent attempts to eradicate us, First Nations peoples, our history and our beautiful culture have survived. Treaty is an invitation to share in and celebrate with us the oldest living culture in the world. In return, we simply ask for the freedom and power to make decisions that affect us.

First Peoples live in the shadow of colonisation. It follows us wherever we go. Targeted, issue-specific reform may cast discrete beams of light into our lives, but only this type of structural change can eradicate the shadow.

That’s why, with the help of Community, we’ll continue to think big and push hard. In coming months, we’re hoping to reach agreement with the Government about the remaining architecture needed for Treaty making.

We’re sorting out the details for how Traditional Owners across the state will be able to negotiate their own Treaties that best reflect their aspirations. And we’re working on the scope of a state-wide Treaty to cover state-wide matters with a focus on building our peoples’ political power and voice.

We’ll also be pushing for the creation of a Self-Determination Fund. The Fund will be controlled for and by First Peoples and will have two key functions: it will help ensure Traditional Owners can enter Treaty negotiations with Government on a more level playing field and it will help our communities generate wealth and prosperity for future generations

Ultimately, Treaty is about future generations. Yes, it will help us reckon with the injustice of yesterday and it will help us solve the discrimination we still face today, but most importantly it will deliver a better tomorrow for all of us.

Marcus Stewart is a proud Nira illim bulluk man of the Taungurung Nation and Aunty Geraldine Atkinson is a Bangerang and Wiradjuri Elder and both are the Co-chairs of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria.

This opinion piece was first published in the Koori Mail.

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