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"No amount of money can compensate for the pain and suffering" : Co-chairs say Treaty talks to centre on government negotiations

Dechlan Brennan -

The First People's Assembly has told truth-telling hearings that financial redress will likely be on the table when the democratically elected voice for Indigenous people in Victoria begins negotiating a state-wide treaty with the state government this year.

Appearing at the Yoorrook Justice Commission hearings, the Assembly co-chairs Ngarra Murray and Reuben Berg discussed the upcoming negotiations, as well as the difficulties faced by First Nations people in Victoria when it came to healing.

"No amount of money, and I don't want to tally it up either, can compensate for the pain and suffering that our people have felt. But that will be a discussion for negotiations," Ms Murray, a Wamba Wamba, Yorta Yorta, Dhudhuroa and Dja Dja Wurrung woman, told the hearings.

Ms Murray's co-chair, Gunditjmara man Rueben Berg, said the way the state could potentially deal with this redress was an "ongoing part of considerations," and pushed the benefits of Treaty as a way to create a better path for First Peoples' in Victoria.

"There is a path forward through Treaty and that will lead us to that treaty future that I aspire to, which is where our community and our culture is at the heart of our daily lives," he said.

Mr Berg, who previously worked for the Heritage Council of Victoria, highlighted some of the challenges associated with negotiating with governments ­— even "well-intentioned" ones.

"Oftentimes there is this kind of inertia which can set it," Mr Berg said.

"Where things are undertaken a certain way, where business is undertaken a certain way…[it] can be challenging to shift that mindset and approach.

"Often, we will see at a Minister level, at a Secretary level, there is a strong willingness for commitment. When it gets down to the actual public servants…that's where you can come up against some of the difficulties in changing that mindset and breaking away from 'this is how we always do stuff.'"

Mr Berg reaffirmed the creation of a self-determination fund, enabling different Indigenous groups from across Victoria to enter into separate treaty negotiations with the government.

"The self-determination fund has that broader aspiration around building wealth and prosperity for our communities," he said.

Both co-chairs noted there were plenty that could be done by governments which "shouldn't wait just for treaty to activate," including barriers surrounding specific law reforms, and when a transfer – one of the key demands during the Treaty process – were to take place, they didn't want to "inherit a broken colonial system".

Mr Berg also highlighted that whilst Victorians were proud to be progressive on the Treaty front compared to other Australia jurisdictions, they still lagged behind some of the norms of work Indigenous people seen across the world.

"These conversations have already taken place in other jurisdictions around the globe and there's no need to necessarily reinvent the wheel from scratch," he said.

"Another way of putting that is the bar in Australia is fairly low to start with?" Counsel Assisting, Tony McAvoy SC asked Mr Berg.

"I'd agree,"Mr Berg replied.

Counsel Assisting, Tony McAvoy SC, addressing the co-chairs on Wednesday (Image: Joel Carrett/AAP)

Earlier, Ms Murray detailed her family background, which included some of the most prominent land rights activists throughout Victorian history - including includes fellow Assembly member and long-time land rights activist Gary Murray – arguing it had been "a long fight for us…and we are going to fight all the way".

She said in her witness statement: "My family has been involved in the fight for land justice in this country over seven generations, and the fight for land rights continues today."

"My grandfather, Pastor Sir Doug Nicholls, was involved in advocating for First Peoples' rights his whole life. He participated in the Day of Mourning in 1938 in protest of 150 years of colonisation and the treatment of Aboriginal people," Ms Murray said.

She told the hearing of another of her ancestors, Stewart Murray, who served during the First World War, but was unable to access the Soldiers Settlement Scheme, which gave pieces of land to returning servicemen.

"All he wanted to do was own a piece of his ancestors land that was stolen from his grandfather," Ms Murray said.

"Inevitably, soldiers who were given land as part of the scheme generated wealth from that land and passed it on to their descendants," her statement said.

"While the inheritance of colonial descendants was stolen wealth, the inheritance of our people was the complex, overlapping, harm of dispossession."

Asked if it felt offensive to not be given the land back that was taken, Ms Murray said: "I think a lot of Aboriginal families would feel that way."

Ngarra Murray and Reuben Berg at a smoking ceremony before the hearings on Wednesday (Image: Joel Carrett/AAP)

She told the commissioners the damage to her people's society caused by colonisation was "catastrophic".

"The colonisers' approach to land management pushed our lands to the brink of ruin," Ms Murray said. "The negative effects have rippled down through generations and compounded the unfairness.

"Today we are faced with a divide between those whose wealth was stolen and those whose wealth grew and passed down that stolen wealth…this is why we need to negotiate a better and fairer deal through Treaty."

The truth-telling hearings are examining the historical injustices surrounding land, sky, and waters in Victoria, and have previously heard from experts in the history of Australian colonisation and dispossession.

On Tuesday, the commissioners heard from Victoria Environment Minister Steve Dimopoulos, who acknowledged royalties agreements were intentionally legislated and designed to effectively exclude Aboriginal people from their share of more than $1.5 billion in land use revenue.

The hearings continue Thursday.

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