Speech to the Parliamentary Library of Australia

Oct 20, 2021

By Geraldine Atkinson & Marcus Stewart, Co-Chairs, First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria

Aunty Geraldine:

Hello everyone, my name is Geraldine Atkinson. I would like acknowledge Country, and acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded in this land, and pay my respects to the Traditional Owners of the Country we are each meeting from today. I also want to specifically acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which Parliament House sits in Canberra – the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people.

I am a proud Bangerang and Wiradjuri woman, I am incredibly fortunate to have a cultural history tracing back many thousands of years. I’m from the north-east of what is now known as Victoria. Country which flanks the Goulburn and Murray rivers. My ancestors are known as ‘the people of the tall trees’. I want to thank the Parliamentary Library for its invitation for Marcus and I to be here with you today. I’ll hand over for Marcus to introduce himself.

Marcus Stewart:

Thank you, Aunt. Hello or Wa Wa Gee is what my people, the Taungurung, would say. I’m speaking to you today from Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Country. I’d also like to acknowledge and pay respects to all the Elders and Traditional Owners of the lands we’re meeting from, including the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, the Traditional Owners of the land around Parliament House.

We are looking forward to sharing our story with you. The acknowledgements we give and the language we use recognises the simple truth that there were a society of people here before invasion. And we are still here. It’s a truth that many settler generations have found difficult to recognise, and governments of all levels are still grappling with, but in Victoria we are developing a process that aims to come to terms with our shared history. It’s a story that involves loss of land, confinement to a mission, escape and fear of child removal. But it’s also a story of resilience, perseverance, celebration, and self-determination.

Aunty Geraldine:

Marcus and I would like to begin today with some background about our organisation.

The First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria is the elected voice for Aboriginal people and communities on the journey to Treaties.

The Assembly is a representative political organisation. Our 31 Members were elected in 2019 from Aboriginal communities from every corner of Victoria and convene in formal meetings which, are known for us, as Chamber meetings. Every Member of our Chamber is a proud Traditional Owner of Country in Victoria. Twenty-one of our Members were elected from five regions by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living in Victoria. Ten of our Members represent recognised Traditional Owner Groups from around the state. Given the young population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities –16-year-olds were eligible to vote in this historic election. And, given our high imprisonment rates – prisoners also cast ballots.

Very importantly – We’ve also been sure to provide for a gender balance within the Assembly’s broad representation, and also amongst its Co-Chairs. This is important in our culture, and to our community. The elections were conducted across five regions, to make sure that results were not dominated by a large metropolitan population. And our electoral roll is exactly that – ours. It was made by Aboriginal people, for Aboriginal people. It is not connected to government. The model for the Assembly reflects the world that we live in today. It is strong. It is practical. And most importantly, it does not leave anyone behind.

The Assembly is working hard to lay the groundwork for Treaties. This is our mandate, and we are giving it everything we’ve got. We are constantly communicating with community members, community leaders, community organisations, to ensure representativeness in our decisions and strong and sound policy decisions. Currently, the First Peoples’ Assembly is progressing three key streams of work:

(1) A statewide Treaty, and solidifying political power through that process
(2) Nation-building and local rights through localised Traditional Owner Treaties; and
(3) Economic self-determination.

Each of these streams requires a constant process of engaging with Aboriginal and Traditional Owner communities, having robust dialogue, and refining our thinking.

Treaty negotiations themselves are still a few years off. So the Assembly, in its current term, is not negotiating Treaties. But we are responsible for laying important foundations for the Treaty process, and listening to the communities’ priorities, aspirations and feedback. The Assembly is Community’s voice in the Treaty process – and is accountable. In the course of our work, our communities and our Chamber have decided that we should pursue both a state-wide Treaty and local Traditional Owner Treaties. The goals behind that approach are – that the state-wide Treaty will help balance out the power deficit by giving us the right to determine our own priorities and implement institutional reform while leading to economic self-determination. And along the way, the Elders’ Voice we are establishing will provide cultural guidance to the Assembly and our decision-making processes to ensure what we do is inclusive and consistent with our cultural values. I want to add that – by Self-determination – what we mean is control over our own cultural, social and economic futures, as set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The Assembly’s work is underpinned by UNDRIP. And as a political representative organisation, the Assembly is self-determination in action.

With community’s guidance, the Assembly has agreed to pursue a statewide Treaty for statewide matters; and Traditional Owner Treaties for local matters. We are pleased to share with you the broad outline of what this could potentially look like.

Through a state-wide Treaty – We can reform Victoria’s laws, agencies and systems of government so that Aboriginal people are empowered to make the decisions that impact our lives. For example, a future form of the Assembly could:

  • Pass and administer laws on the issues that impact our lives
  • Provide advice and input to the Victorian Parliament and public sector, or –
  • Hold reserved seats in the Victorian Parliament

Separately – Localised treaties, or Traditional Owner Treaties, will allow individual groups to focus in on their own specific aspirations and needs, at their own pace. It’s interesting that in another week or two, the world’s leaders will be meeting in Glasgow for the next United Nations climate change conference. There they’re going to try and figure out how they can fix the environment, ‘save the world’. Well, there’s also a truth to be learnt in our knowledge of the environment.

I want to hand over to Marcus to talk about the kinds of things that Traditional Owner Treaties could contain.

Marcus Stewart:

Thank you, Aunty.

Through local or Traditional Owner Treaties – We can acknowledge that each Traditional Owner group in Victoria has its own inherent rights, attached to unique Country, language, culture, stories, and history. This is leadership at the local level. And management of land and waters. It could encompass issues like:

  • Self-governance through recognition of sovereignty
  • Transfer and buy backs for Country – including returning ownership and care of Country to Traditional Owners
  • Supporting long-term sustainable economic development
  • Reviving and strengthening local languages and cultural practice
  • Enabling us as Traditional Owners to heal and manage the environment

We call this ‘Care for Country’. As Traditional Owners we regard it as a profoundly deep-seated cultural obligation

At the moment, we’re often prevented from healing and managing Country through Cultural practices like Cultural Fire and Cultural land management. But we know that by healing Country we will heal communities. This year’s NAIDOC Theme ‘Heal Country’ was a great way to highlight this. Wiser stewardship, environmental issues and environmental balance is a great example of one of those areas where there’ll be great outcomes from Treaty for all Victorians. And on the global climate, the world has definitely been thrown into chaos around us since COVID broke out. But we were well on the way to setting up the architecture for Treaties before COVID hit. And after more than 200 years calling for truth, treaty and justice, we’re definitely not letting COVID disrupt us now.

Our research, our deliberations and our decision-making continues on all of those factors, but, something which our advocacy has already delivered, which will make up a very significant part of our Treaty negotiations is the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission.

This is something that Australia’s First Peoples have long campaigned for generations – to set the record straight. At this point I note that this event, this lecture, is usually a fixture of National Reconciliation Week, which was postponed. But, it’s definitely appropriate to be speaking about truth in Reconciliation Week, as people who have been in conflict cannot be reconciled without it.

In Australia’s historical narrative, in the lessons we’re taught in schools, in the history books about our places, in the monuments standing in our towns and cities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders play only bit parts. We have been the minor actors. Rarely positioned as the heroes. Rarely even seen, let alone named. That is not truth. That is perpetuating a lie. We were here 60,000 years before. With success, with stories, with resilience, with celebrations. We had communities, complex social structures, we fought with the invaders, the land was never ceded. We struggled for our survival against all the odds, but once again regrouped, and for generations have been fighting for our land, culture, languages, and our lives.

In Victoria, the historical narrative is about to change, our truths are about to be told. The Yoo-rrook Justice Commission was jointly announced by the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria and the State Government at Coranderrk earlier this year. Yoo-rrook means ‘truth’ in the Wemba Wemba/Wamba Wamba language. The brief for its five Commissioners – led by the Chief Commissioner Professor Aunty Eleanor Bourke – is to investigate past and ongoing injustices experienced by Traditional Owners and First Peoples in Victoria, in all areas of life since colonisation. Past and ongoing injustices! That site itself – Coranderrk – where the Commission was launched, played witness to a major injustice in the late 1800s. Forced from their Country, a group of Aboriginal people were sent to the reserve that had been deemed unsuitable for agriculture. When those people made economic successes out of their farming enterprises, including selling their produce into Melbourne, they were again, eventually shut down, evicted and sent to other parts of the state. Protests were led by William Barak, a giant of a figure in our State’s history, whose name I’ll guess many of you here today might not actually know – and if you don’t know the name of William Barak – then I suggest this is some evidence of how the historical narrative of this land is an inaccurate record.

The establishment of the Commission on that day has set in motion the first truth-telling mechanism of its kind in Australia. It will be independent of both the Assembly and government and will have all of the powers of a Royal Commission. The Commission’s examination of systemic injustices is expected to include a wide range of areas including policing, youth and criminal justice, incarceration, detention and broader courts and legal systems. Child protection, family and welfare matters, health and healthcare, economic, social and political life, cultural heritage violations and massacres are also likely to be raised. It will hear how the lack of public or official recognition of this history causes and perpetuates ongoing harm. The Commissioners will have the power to compel government and others, such as schools or churches, to appear or to produce documents and to answer questions.

More than 40 other countries have set up truth-telling processes, including Norway, Finland, Canada and New Zealand. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada ran between 2007 and 2015 and studied the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools system. They have been held after periods of conflict or turmoil. One of the best known is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the end of Apartheid.

Here in Australia, the ongoing effects of that violence, dispossession, discrimination and attempted destruction of our Cultures are still evident in our high incarceration rates, leading to deaths in custody – approaching 480 since the Royal Commission 30 years ago. They are in our literacy and numeracy gaps. They are in our poorer health outcomes leading to shorter life expectancy – about 10 years less.

That is why the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission final report – due in June 2024 – will establish an official record of the impact of colonisation on Traditional Owners and First Peoples in Victoria. That in itself will be a great advancement in the recording of this country’s story. We haven’t had that before, had an official record of the impact of colonisation on our people, as told by our people. We’ve often had to rely on anecdotes in reports, often written by the perpetrators of atrocities, for an historical record. I ask you, in what other circumstances, and for what other peoples, would this be acceptable?

I want to hand over to Aunty to share some stories.

Aunty Geraldine:

My own truth is that my Grandfather who died on the Cummeragunja Mission, my Grandmother who was part of the Cummeragunja Walk-Off in 1939, and my mother moved our family six times to protect us from joining the Stolen Generations.

Cummeragunja is a story that will undoubtedly be raised by many families before the Yoo-rrook Commission. It’s often talked about as the first major protest by Aboriginal people in Victoria. It included an estimated 200 people leaving in protest at the cruelty of the mission managers, the banning of our own language and the lack of food. As we followed my mother from place to place as she protected us from being stolen, we would listen to her stories. She would tell us about the hardship and loss, but she would also speak with passion about our culture, our Community. We held onto that pride and the memories as a kind of ballast giving us stability in our lives and I’ve been careful to pass that connection onto my children and grandchildren.

And I have worked in my community, for my community, my entire life. For most First Nations people however, some level of intergenerational trauma is inherited from past injustices inflicted on past generations that creeps into the lives of today’s. Our children are still being removed – at more than 16 times the rate of non-Aboriginal children in Victoria. In some ways our truth has not changed that much.

We’re very much looking forward to receiving that comprehensive report from the Commission, which could path the way towards: criminal and civil law and justice reform; redress for state policies (Stolen wages, the stolen generations); and embedding the histories of our First Peoples in school curriculums.

The recommendations that the Commission make are going to provide a very strong, and undeniable, basis of evidence for the Treaty process. From massacres to disease, stolen children and land loss. We have not only survived, but we are here to exert our sovereignty. And rear our children. There’s truth in our survival, not just in our losses. It’s vital that during and after this process that people listen and learn. We see this as an extraordinary opportunity to bring all Victorians together as one.

If you are a sceptic of the need for a Treaty, whether it be here in Victoria or elsewhere in Australia, we believe the truth-telling process will help build the case for Treaty while also helping communities work out what they might want to include in a Treaty.

We hope that you will walk with us.

I will hand over to Marcus to make concluding remarks.

Marcus Stewart:

My own Elders have fought in World War One – Denied recognition and land parcels which were given with passion and gratitude and celebration to non-Aboriginal diggers who returned.

Many Aboriginal soldiers were purposefully excluded from soldier settlements. So, an Aboriginal veteran not only has no job, no income, no asset to borrow against or pass on to his children, but he is also reminded of his place in society and that’s below the soldiers he fought beside.

But in other ways, we have come so far. And we look forward to going further, because we feel that we genuinely have the support of the broader communities in Victoria to make Treaties a reality.

The Treaty process in Victoria, and others following along in the Northern Territory and Queensland, would not be possible if not for the unyielding determination and courage of our ancestors and Elders, past and present. They have challenged the initial takeovers of their lands, they marched in the streets before they were even counted in the census, they fought on when all of the odds were against them.

I look forward to a bright future for my son and for other Aboriginal children. The Members of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria have all volunteered to continue the struggle, for our children and grandchildren.

We have a real opportunity to make significant progress towards a united, shared future that recognises a true telling of our history, goes a long way towards healing the wrongdoings of the past and creates a more positive future for us all and whether you are Victorian or not, you can all play your part. Explain the process to your friends, family and acquaintances. Take up this responsibility. If you’re in parliament, share the reality of this process and correct the fear mongering. We want a fair recognition of the past and our rightful place in the future. You can play your part by actively supporting an honest telling of Australia’s history.

Our story is your story, too. Our peace will be your peace, too. And through Truth and Treaty we have a huge opportunity to:

  • To reshape our society, reconcile the ills of the past,
  • Celebrate and learn from the wisdom, the knowledge, the diversity and the resilience of Australia’s First Peoples,
  • And ultimately create a future identity for this continent which all of us can be proud of.

The Treaty process will not happen unless we make it happen – both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. It takes all of us, together. I ask that you do walk with us and follow our journey. Please find the First Peoples’ Assembly online, and on social media, to learn more.

Thank you very much for having us here today. Aunty Geraldine and I look forward to answering some questions.