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First People's Assembly "door is always open", but Treaty will happen even if Vic Opposition don't walk in

Dechlan Brennan -

Treaty negotiations in Victoria will go ahead with or without the support of the state opposition, with the First Peoples' Assembly saying "their door is always open'' for conversations with all political parties in the state.

The negotiations, which are set to start this year between the Assembly and the Victorian government, were rocked when the Liberal-National coalition withdrew their support for the Treaty process last month.

Without informing the Assembly, opposition spokesperson for Indigenous affairs Peter Walsh went on Sky News in the days before January 26 to announce the decision.

Wamba Wamba, Yorta Yorta, Dhudhuroa and Dja Dja Wurrung woman Ngarra Murray, who is the Assembly co-chair, told National Indigenous Times she was surprised neither she, nor fellow co-chair Reuben Berg, received a phone call before the announcement.

"It was a surprise to both myself and Ruben," she said.

"We [the Assembly and Peter Walsh] met before Christmas, and then we found out on Sky News that they've withdrawn their support."

Ms Murray said she was yet to hear from the Opposition - either Mr Walsh or Liberal leader John Pesutto - since the announcement, despite both appearing multiple times in the media.

"I felt, you talk about good faith…we don't actually get a phone call or anything," she said.

"Just before the 26th of January, that was the other sort of red flag I got. It was interesting that was the case. It's very, very disappointing."

Treaty in Victoria has enjoyed bi-partisan support until recently, and will enter negotiations this year with a substantial framework behind it. This includes the Treaty Authority - a five-person Indigenous panel to oversee the negotiations - and a Self-Determination fund to support Traditional Owners in their own treaty negotiations.

Ngarra Murray with her children Koki and Ngalu Thorpe (Image: Ngarra Murray/SBS)

It has also seen wide-ranging support from Indigenous health, legal, housing and human rights, all of whom note the decision to place decisions that impact Indigenous people in the hands of Aboriginal-led bodies is crucial to closing the gap.

Since that dissolution of bipartisan support, a recalibration has taken place from the opposition; pivoting their argument from the cultural heritage laws to criticism of proposals for a First Nations child protection and justice system - recently outlined by the Yoorrook Justice Commission.

The Yoorrook report recommended a transformation of both areas to empathise more Indigenous-led operations, representing the disproportionate number of Indigenous people in the two systems, rather than being governed by people who regularly haven't had First Nations' people's best interest at heart. Ms Murray said this was vital and a key element of Treaty.

"It's just inhumane the way that our people are treated, whether it's via the criminal justice system or the child protection system," she said.

"You know, those systems are broken, but we're waiting on a response from the state government in regard to the critical issues report that Yoorrook put out last year.

"We will emphasise the seriousness - and the implementation - that's required, and how we can do that, through treaty negotiations."

Looking towards the negotiations themselves, no exact timeframe has been set, although the Assembly is adamant it will begin this year. Ms Murray's conversations belied a wariness to get things moving (Assembly terms last three years) whilst simultaneously ensuring every mob state-wide has had their say.

"We're in a really strong position and have a really clear pathway to treaties," Ms Murray said.

"Despite what you see, in the media and the politicisation that happens around this space, we're. getting ready to do Treaty."

Conversations can be convoluted - being a new position in Australian politics - and attempting to forgo colonial structures whilst simultaneously helping First Nations people achieve self-determination can be challenging and time-consuming work. Ms Murray says it's exciting.

"There's a lot to think about, a lot of work to be done, but I think we're in a really good position…It'll take time and at our own pace."

Despite withdrawal of Liberal and National support, the First Peoples' Assembly say their door is always open - to all political parties - even if both Mr Walsh and Mr Pesutto have recently said they don't believe treaties can be made with people in "the same country".

"With Peter Walsh, that'll be up to him whether he comes back and participates in this journey that we're all on towards treaties; because treaties just won't benefit our people, it benefits all Victorian people that live here, and it's all part of our future," Ms Murray said.

It remains to be seen how the Assembly will be able to interact with the Opposition Indigenous spokesperson, whose public stance seems at odds with the goal of elected Indigenous members in the Assembly.

Ms Murray said she believed there remains a significant amount of "fear mongering" surrounding the changing of colonial structures, whether it be criminal justice, or land inequality, but the evidence - and support from Indigenous Victorians - was on the Assembly's side

"One thing we know is that Treaty is the ingredient to closing the gap," she said.

"We're having those conversations with the community-controlled sector and the experts on those subject matters; utilising their expertise on how we can change the narrative and those systems that have been imposed on us for too long."

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