Self-determination driving Indigenous progress around the world and in Victoria

Aug 9, 2021

Co-chairs of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, Marcus Stewart and Aunty Geraldine Atkinson, have delivered a keynote speech at Melbourne University’s Indigenous Knowledge Institute’s symposium to mark International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on Monday.

Speaking about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Aunty Geri, a proud Bangerang and Wiradjuri woman, said many of the principles embodied in international human rights law boil down to basic sentiments that everyone can understand such as “give back what is not yours”, “sorry means you don’t do it again” and “tell the truth”, and explained how the Victorian Treaty process will put these principles into practice.

“Treaty is about addressing past injustices, but it’s also much more than that – it’s our chance to address the power imbalance that has held many in our community back and to create a better future together on an equal footing. I’m also really excited about the opportunities the journey to Treaty will give us to share our culture and knowledge. I’d love to see our beautiful culture – the oldest living culture in the world, being embraced and celebrated by the whole community,” Aunty Geri said.

Marcus Stewart, a proud Nira Illim Bulluk man of the Taungurung nation, told the online symposium that a need and thirst for self-determination was the common thread that united Indigenous rights movements around the world.

“The formation of the First Peoples’ Assembly is in and of itself a hopeful and bold act of self-determination. It’s living proof that sovereignty was never ceded. Having the ability to make decisions about your own life and have a say in the decisions that affect your community isn’t just a moral issue, it also produces better outcomes. Treaty is about improving lives by securing meaningful structural reforms to give Aboriginal people the power to determine our own affairs,” Mr Stewart said.

The speech explained the Assembly’s structure – a mixture of reserved seating for formally recognised Traditional Owner groups and open seats and the interim “Elders’ Voice” to help inform and guide discussions – and outlined the unfolding journey towards a State-wide Treaty and local Traditional Owner Treaties.

“The Assembly is inclusive and represent the diverse views within Victoria’s Aboriginal community and we want to make sure everyone feels welcome and everyone is heard. At the end of the day, our strength is drawn from our community, our lore, law and culture. Our door is always open, we simply ask that everyone enters with respect for our Elders,” Mr Stewart said.

Assembly members have been working to develop a “Treaty Negotiation Framework”, which sets out the ground rules for future negotiations with the State Government, and are now embarking on another round of community engagement to refine the details.

“We’ve got much yarning to do with community. Some strong foundations have been set, but now it’s time to start getting into the details,” Aunty Geri explained.

The Assembly has already secured the creation of the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission – a formal truth-telling process about injustices experienced by Aboriginal people since colonisation. It is now looking to establish a “Treaty Authority” to act as an independent umpire to help facilitate negotiations and is pushing for the creation of a “Self-determination Fund”, to help Aboriginal Victorians prepare and build capacity so they cane negotiate on a more level playing field.

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