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"This is actually an every day, lived suffering": Treaty Minister questioned over delays in implementing recommendations at truth-telling hearing

Dechlan Brennan -

The Victorian Treaty Minister has told a truth-telling hearing the state will thrive in the future if it can come to terms with the truth of the unfinished business of colonisation. 

Appearing before the Yoorrook Justice Commission on Thursday, Minister Natalie Hutchins faced a series of questions by the commissioners about the rejection and delays of several recommendations from the interim Yoorrook report. 

The commission made 46 recommendations after speaking to 84 witnesses - many of them victims or direct descendants of victims, of the stolen generation. The government took 210 days to respond before accepting only four of the recommendations in full, and a further 24 in principle. 

Three of the recommendations were rejected outright and the government said they were considering another 15 of them, including a stand-alone child protection system. 

Counsel Assisting, Tony McAvoy SC, pressed the Minister on the delays. 

He cited comments she made on April 3rd in the context of the recommendations, where she acknowledged Aboriginal people had been waiting for change for over 200 years since colonisation.

"But we have an obligation as a government to the Victorian people to make sure that we get the laws and the changes and the policy settings right," Ms Hutchins said at the time.

She disagreed with Mr McAvoy’s query that her statement on April 3rd was at odds with her statement before the hearing where she asserted that she was a “champion” of the Treaty process. 

“My comments [from April 3] are about the government being [able] to deliver it in the right way," she said. "Trying to address 200 years' worth of damage and destruction in numerous months is probably not realistic."

Citing the 1991 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in custody, Ms Hutchins said the government didn’t want to rush recommendations, only to see them ignored. 

“I want to give you the confidence…change will happen…that's something I am very committed to,” she told the hearing.

Commissioner Sue-Anne Hunter asked Ms Hutchins if whilst the government was considering the recommendations, would they also consider the high rates of deaths in custody and child removal for First Nations people in Victoria. 

"Because while we're waiting, I can reassure you that a child this morning has probably been taken," Ms Hunter said. "If that can't be taken into consideration, I don't know why we're here."

"We have to face these people - our people - who have been dispossessed…constantly traumatised...These aren't just words on papers, and it shouldn't be a numbers game."

The commissioners asked Ms Hutchins if she realised the severity of the delays, which they argued were in themselves, an injustice to Aboriginal people.

Commissioner Tony North KC said the government and the Minister missed an opportunity to give First Nations people in the state a clear timeline for change.   

"This is actually an every day, lived suffering," Mr North said. 

The Minister said she was committed to producing a full implementation plan by the end of the year, and said her government was working on implementing the recommendations from Yoorrook. 

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, as well as ministers and the co-chairs from the First Peoples’ Assembly.

Ms Hutchins, who has been one of the leading advocates for the Treaty process in her government, told the hearings: “We cannot continue with the status quo because we know that it has produced injustice".

“We must reckon with the harm that colonial violence inflicted on First Peoples, recognise a steadfast presence and persistent contributions of First Peoples in the face of it and address the ongoing legacies that continue today," she said.

Commissioner North asked Ms Hutchins why she had so much confidence in Treaty being able to deliver better outcomes than other processes, arguing: "There is such a sensitivity in the Indigenous community that every time we nearly get to the finishing post there is another committee, another framework, another policy".

In response, the Minister said: “I do feel that we have built a new pathway of trust and a new bond and part of that is the establishment and election of the First Peoples' Assembly".

“There is confidence there, and more people on the government side [are] becoming engaged and educated and wanting to be part of the process,” she said.

“[This] shows me that we are on the right path and yes, this [treaty] can deliver the outcomes that we are looking for."

Asked about power sharing, Minister Hutchins acknowledged it was a long-time view in the department that self-determination was only about “consulting” with First Peoples. She said it was now “about embedding change and handing over power”.

“You can't have part self-determination,” she said. 

“In the flow chart of self-determination, we get through the first five things when it comes to change, but then we get to handing over power and resources that is always the brick wall, that is always the hard part."

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