First Peoples’ Assembly Co-Chair Geraldine Atkinson spoke to The Age ahead of the next Chamber Meeting from 18-19 June 2020.
After a thunderous fortnight, First Peoples’ Assembly to advance state treaty was published in The Age by Zach Hope on 13 June 2020.
Aunty Geraldine Atkinson saw nothing imported or contrived in those silent 40 seconds at the MCG on Thursday night.
More than 40 players and umpires, released from usual partisan huddles and bending a collective knee in our greatest arena looked something more like Australian mateship, she says.
In her Barmah living room, the elected co-chair of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, which will convene this week to discuss terms for treaty, saw a fortnight of upheaval coalesce into a simple show of solidarity, and she noticed she was about to cry.
“I really nearly did,” she says. “That’s what we want to see – everybody coming together.
“They did that for the indigenous players – their teammates – and to take a stand against racism and those black deaths in custody.
“We’re a minority. Our Aboriginal players are minorities on our teams. But those footballers know their worth, they respect them and they’re mates with them.”
In these stripped-back terms and symbolism, the moment looked a little something like treaty, she says.
Aunty Geraldine, a “proud Bangerang warrior woman” from the state’s north, describes the treaty agreement, still in its very early stages, as a pact between Victoria’s first nations people and the government: a binding accord, founded on respect, to address Aboriginal grievances instead of business-as-usual “cap in hand begging” to variable governments and attitudes of Spring Street.
“It’s about being able to negotiate,” she says. “Treaty will give us leverage when working with government. We can negotiate what Aboriginal communities need and require for us to have, I think, parity with the wider community.”
The job of the 32-member assembly, comprised of elected community members and traditional owner representatives, is to set out the rules and framework from which a treaty or treaties will emerge.
One of the big ticket items to be decided via Zoom at Thursday’s and Friday’s full chamber meeting, the assembly’s third, will be if Victoria will have a single treaty, many treaties, or a hybrid of both.
Aunty Geraldine has thrown her support behind the latter. This will allow groups to negotiate their own arrangements if they feel it necessary, she says, while still allowing simpler state-wide agreements for two of treaty’s most important pillars.
One is redress, or compensation, for the open wounds of the stolen generations, the violence, racism and forced removal from lands to the missions.
The other, intrinsically linked to redress, is truth telling: an acknowledgement, Aunty Geraldine says, of the traumas of colonisation, passed through generations of white and black and manifest in the year 2020 as thunderous protests in the nation’s capitals at persistent inequities.
Truth telling is a sober reckoning with the past, not its obliteration, Aunty says.
“I’m not saying pull those statues down. They’re there. They’re part of the history of Australia. But what we need to do is ensure we have statues of our fighters – the people that have fought for Aboriginal rights,” she says.
Aboriginal deaths in custody, of which there have been more than 430 since a Royal Commission into the matter nearly three decades ago, has been a central theme of Australia’s Black Lives Matter movement.
While not dying at greater rates than non-indigenous people in custody, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology, there are serious concerns about care and procedure when Aboriginal people are involved.
Ultimately, the risks are greater for Aboriginal people because they are more likely to find themselves arrested. From just three per cent of its population, Australia has drawn close to 30 per cent of its prisoners.
Serious issues sit beneath these statistics, including frightening rates of family violence.
So do disadvantage and the application of powers, Aunty says.
People in custody have shoplifted through hunger, she explains. They may have been drunk in public because they have nowhere to go or nothing to hope for.
Behind many Aboriginal people in prisons, she says, are heartbreaking stories of intergenerational unemployment, health problems and little or no education.
Aunty Geraldine agrees the problem is complex and that a lasting reduction of incarceration rates means addressing entrenched inequities – closing the gaps.
But there can be more immediate solutions, too.
“We’re not saying they should be committing those crimes, but it’s about really understanding, and looking at better processes, about how you can deal with it,” she says.
“I think (treaty) would give us more powers to negotiate with the government about those laws.
“And I know law and order is a big issue and all governments and people out in community want strict law and order enforcement. But it’s about taking into consideration Aboriginal people and why they might offend.”
The recent deaths in custody of Tanya Day and Veronica Walker makes her “heartache” because they were so needless, she says.
“There could have been those processes in place to make sure they didn’t happen. That’s why we’ve had the marches, because, you know, black lives do matter.”