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Wamba Wemba Aboriginal Corporation admitted to First Peoples' Assembly in historic first

Dechlan Brennan -

The First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria has voted this week to create a new reserved seat for Traditional Owners of Country in north-west Victoria, the Wamba Wamba/Wemba Wemba peoples. 

The Wamba Wemba Aboriginal Corporation has become the first Indigenous group to hold a guaranteed seat on the Assembly without recognition from the government; a major step forward in First Nations decision-making powers in Victoria.

National Indigenous Times previously reported on the proposal application, which saw the Assembly argue they wanted to "make sure everyone's voice is heard and that our cultural ways of doing business are front and centre".

The unanimous decision came on Thursday morning, after a vote was put forward to all members during its chamber meeting on Gurnaikurnai Country at Lakes Entrance. 

Wamba Wemba Aboriginal Corporation chairperson, Lowana Moore said it was a historic moment, after the group had worked hard to highlight that they met the criteria needed to sit in the chamber. 

"The decision will give hope and paves the way for other Traditional Owner Groups that are not recognised by the State. It’s due recognition of the hard work of our Elders,” Ms Moore said.

The new seat will bring the number of seats in the Assembly to 33, with 22 seats elected by the Victorian Indigenous community based on their regions, and a further 11 seats elected by traditional owner groups with Recognised Aboriginal Party (RAP) status. 

RAP status is awarded through the Aboriginal Heritage Council after an evaluation, and legislation provides holders with responsibility for implementing various cultural features, including assessing Cultural Heritage Permits and the evaluation of Cultural Heritage Management Plans. 

The Cultural Heritage sphere was cited as a reason by Nationals leader Peter Walsh for the opposition’s abandonment of Treaty earlier this year, despite limited evidence showing it had resulted in delays in developments across the state. 

Assembly Co-chair, Gunditjmara man Rueben Berg, said the journey to Treaty needed to move away from the confines of the colonial system. 

“The Assembly created the additional pathway to recognition so mob can decide who is who and how we organise ourselves,” Mr Berg said. 

“It’s fantastic to see it working and we’re really thrilled to be celebrating Wamba Wemba’s inclusion in the Assembly with a new reserved seat.”

Fellow Co-chair, Wamba Wamba, Yorta Yorta, Dhudhuroa and Dja Dja Wurrung woman Ngarra Murray, said Treaty - which will see negotiations with the state government begin later this year - was about making sure Aboriginal communities have all the tools at their disposal to deliver practical solutions for their communities.  

“All First Peoples from or in Victoria are welcome to be part of this journey, we want to be as inclusive as possible and draw on our diverse strengths and collective wisdom," Ms Murray said.

"Treaty is about empowering our communities from the ground up."

Wamba Wemba Aboriginal Corporation are expected to appoint their representative in time for the next sitting, to be held in June. The Assembly will also host a statewide gathering in Geelong next month to garner further feedback and input for the Treaty negotiations. 

On Thursday, Assembly members also commented on the decision by the Victorian government to backtrack on their promise to give children a presumption of bail, which has been heavily criticised by Indigenous and legal groups - including by Assembly member Nerita Waight, who labelled it a "betrayal".

Mr Berg said the government should be “listening to Aboriginal people” by taking on the ideas from community organisations.

Ms Waight, who is also chief executive of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS), previously said VALS had engaged the government for five years on these reforms, only to be told they weren’t being adopted the evening before the announcement. 

“Instead, they seem to be defaulting back to out-dated and misguided policies that will continue to disproportionately harm our people,” Mr Berg said. 

Noting he shared the concerns of many in the Victorian Aboriginal community, Mr Berg said: “We urge the Victorian Government not to prioritises punitive measures over genuine reform. Don’t walk away from your commitments to listen to First Peoples".

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