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Victorian Treaty Authority members announced to oversee negotiations

Dechlan Brennan -

The path towards Treaty negotiations in Victoria took another step forward on Tuesday with the announcement of the five inaugural members of the Treaty Authority, an independent umpire in the negotiation process between Indigenous Victorians and the state government.

The appointments of Dr Petah Atkinson; Thelma Austin; Jidah Clark; Andrew Jackomos; and Duean White; all of whom are First Peoples, bring a diverse range of skill sets and experience having been recommended by an independent panel following a detailed selection process.

Mr Jackmos said the Authority would look to facilitate Treaty on behalf of both the ancestors over 65,000 years, and the future generations.

"We will perform our responsibilities with respect, transparency and honesty, upholding Aboriginal Lore and Culture and we trust that all that join us in Treaty negotiations will do the same," he said.

The Authority is legislated through an agreement between the State of Victoria and the First Peoples' Assembly. This legislation ensures the Authority is independent and not subject to the direction of a Minister.

Furthermore, its funding is protected from the otherwise usual budget and electoral cycles.

Ms White said the task was "monumental".

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change our peoples' futures. I am proud to be living in a state that has the courage to do the right thing – that's what reconciliation is all about," she said.

Wamba Wamba woman Karinda Taylor, who along with Aunty Vicki Clark, Marcus Clarke, Eddie Cubillo and Richard Wynne, made up the selection panel, said the Treaty Authority members would oversee the negotiations by helping to "navigate the conversations required to realise Treaty in Victoria".

"These five remarkable people are recommended as people of integrity and on whom the community can rely to be independent and impartial. The appointments come with a high level of responsibility and will require a considerable level of dedication," Ms Taylor said.

"Each of the appointees has extensive skills and experience and are respected members of their communities."

At a press conference in parliament gardens on Tuesday to announce the members, Assembly co-chair and Wamba Wamba, Yorta Yorta, Dhudhuroa and Dja Dja Wurrung woman, Ngarra Murray, said whilst the Authority's role as a "Treaty umpire" would be "vital," it also offered substantially more.

"It's explicitly been created in a way to ensure the work ahead, the conversations that we'll have, the better outcomes will be delivered for our people, will be grounded in our culture and our lore," she said.

"The legislation that brought the Treaty authority into existence was unique; whilst it was an act of Parliament…It enabled the creation of a body outside of the usual political system."

Ms Murray noted that the "usual government way of doing things has not worked for our people" and the Treaty Authority was an opportunity to "do things differently".

Minister for Treaty and First Peoples, Natalie Hutchins, told reporters she was "incredibly proud" to be at the announcement, noting she had been involved since the formation of the Assembly in 2018.

"An independent umpire that will oversee Treaty making in Victoria and the Treaty authority will play a crucial role in ensuring fairness throughout the process," she said.

"Let's get on with it!"

Ms Murray highlighted the bipartisan approach to the initial Assembly and Treaty creation, telling reporters it was unique in that all the major parties broadly supported it.

However, the state opposition has cooled their heels after the voice referendum, going the way of their state counterparts in Queensland and New South Wales.

Ms Hutchins accepted there had "been indications of the change of attitude" in some sections of the state opposition, however reporters the same people that are in Parliament currently, "all supported the legislation on two different occasions".

"I call on them to keep that bipartisan commitment going," she said.

"And quite frankly, if they allow the really extreme right elements within their parties to dominate and they change perspective, they're letting down so many people in Victoria."

Co-chair and Gunditjmara man, Reuben Berg, said no one took bipartisan support for granted.

He said Treaty had the real potential to support all Victorians and there was no reason why anyone wouldn't want to support it when they were given all the facts.

On Tuesday, the Herald Sun reported the Treaty Authority members would earn close to $400,000 per annum, with the federal opposition Indigenous spokesperson, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, labelling it "unbelievable".

Ms Hutchins hit back at the message of these claims, arguing an equal playing field that has been at the heart of Treaty discussions was paramount.

She said the five panellists were experts and deserved to be compensated for the independent work will be doing.

"We couldn't come to the table and have an under-resourced First Nations community and a fully resourced Government presence: that's not equality," she said.

"It's important that the skills and the talent and the experience is acknowledged for the people that have put their hands up for this role."

The wages are being paid out of the $65million self-determination fund allotted by the government to begin negotiations.

Treaty negotiations are expected to begin in 2024.

Treaty Authority members:

Dr Petah Atkinson: a Yorta Yorta woman with family connection to Wurundjeri, Taungurung and Waywurru people. A health practitioner, she has worked for over 25 years in the Aboriginal health sector, including leadership roles in Aboriginal Community Control Health Organisations.

Thelma Austin: a Gunditjmara woman with experience as a cultural advisor and manager in the corporate and legal sectors, she has a comprehensive understanding of the Victorian justice system through her work in various capacities with the Magistrates Court of Victoria – Koori Court Unit. Ms Austin has served as a board member of MAYSAR, Oxfam's National Aboriginal Reference Group, City of Yarra's Aboriginal Advisory

Jidah Clark: a Djab Wurrung man with Kirrae Wurrung, Boon Wurrung, Taungurung, Wemba Wemba, and Palawa ancestry. He is a lawyer with over a decade of work in the private, public and community sectors in both youth justice and community and policy development. He was a member of the Yoorrook Justice Commission's Expert Advisory Committee and played a pivotal role in the 'Our youth, Our way' inquiry.

Andrew Jackomos PSM: a Yorta Yorta man with direct heritage to the Gunditjmara, Taungurung and Boandik nations. He was the innagurarl Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and young people as well as leading the development and implementation of three iterations of the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement between 1999 and 2013.

Duean White: a Biripi woman with corporate, government and not-for-profit experience. She serves as a mediator with the Victorian Small Business Commission, is on the current panel of dispute resolution providers with the Commission for Gender Equality in the Public Sector for Victoria and is an accredited mediator on the Native Title list for the Federal Court.

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