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Victorian Opposition abandons support for Treaty

The Victorian Opposition has abandoned their support for the previously bipartisan Treaty negotiation framework in the state.

Speaking to Sky News Australia on Sunday, Nationals Leader Peter Walsh said the Liberal and Nationals have changed their position, citing supposed secrecy concerns, despite previously telling Indigenous leaders the Coalition was committed to working with Aboriginal communities.

"We're very concerned about the secrecy, we're all about openness and transparency, about all of Victoria being involved in these discussions and that's not the case," Mr Walsh, who is also the Coalition's Indigenous affairs spokesperson, said.

"We have had internal discussions and we don't believe we should proceed with Treaty, until issues around cultural heritage, until issues around the Traditional Owner settlement act are actually resolved."

The First Peoples' Assembly of Victoria said the news was "disappointing, but not surprising," arguing "not much" would tangibly change in regard to Treaty.

"Of course, we would have liked to have kept Treaty above party politics and our door will remain open to politicians of all persuasions, but there is a clear path to Treaty ahead of us," a statement released by the Assembly on Sunday night said.

"It's time to negotiate a Treaty that will provide Aboriginal communities with the power to implement practical solutions at a local level."

In June 2022, the Coalition stared down hardline members of the party room in announcing their support for Treaty, with The Age reporting Mr Walsh saying: "One of the things that we want to do as a coalition ... is actually walk across the land together with our Indigenous community, making sure that we work with them, that their aspirations can be achieved, and particularly that we can work towards improving the Closing the Gap indicators."

"The Liberals and Nationals are committed to advancing the treaty process in Victoria in a way that supports self-determination and reconciliation while strengthening community and connection to Country," he said at the time.

Mr Walsh argued the Coalition wanted to "dispel the myth" that Labor was the only party who cared about Indigenous reconciliation and would work with Aboriginal communities on a path towards Treaty.

Former Assembly co-chair and Nira illim bulluk man of the Taungurung Nation, Marcus Stewart, slammed the Opposition's "backflip".

"It is a shame that they cancelled the 2026 Commonwealth Games, because Peter Walsh and John Pesutto could have led our gymnastics team," he told The Age.

"There's not a chiropractor in this country that will be able to fix their backs."

On Sunday Mr Walsh said his comments in 2022 were made in "good faith" but "things have changed".

"We want to see change around those particular two acts (Cultural Heritage Act and Traditional Owners Settlement Act) and the implementation of them as I mentioned before, so if something's not working, you reassess and you change your mind," Mr Walsh told Sky News Australia.

"I moved in the Parliament last year that we actually have a parliamentary review…an investigation into the Cultural Heritage Act and how it's functioning in Victoria and the concerns around that…crickets from the government…no desire to actually review, even though there is a lot of concerns being expressed by people right across Victoria."

The Nationals front-bencher said Indigenous employment, housing, education and a reduction of incarceration levels were among issues "dear" to the Coalition's heart, with effective policy needing to "deliver real outcomes on the ground".

"At the moment, we don't see what's going on actually making any positive impact on that," Mr Walsh said.

The Assembly have argued decision making for Indigenous people should be made by Indigenous people. The Victorian Opposition currently have no Indigenous members of parliament.

"When it comes to Aboriginal communities, cultures and land, the experts are Aboriginal people," the Assembly said.

"The more this fact is respected and embraced, the more our communities will thrive. When Aboriginal communities are thriving and we're strong and proud in our cultures and languages, everyone benefits."

Liberal Party MP James Newbury told Sky News Australia the Liberals rejected the current Treaty process in Victoria.

"I think most Victorians are saying that they're very concerned about a government that is hiding what they're doing," Mr Newbury said.

"One thing I think that people are very concerned about as well is what financial reparations are a part of the treaty equation."

Mr Walsh has previously come under criticism from Indigenous groups, when in September he authored an article criticising an agreement between the Barengi Gadjin Land Council and the state of Victoria under the Traditional Owner Settlement Act, labelling it a "stealth attack" and an "attack on the rights of all Victorians".

In response, Assembly member Dylan Clarke said Mr Walsh's comments "feel like a bunch of random complaints being lumped together" whilst a native title legal expert said it was "fairly damning for a shadow Aboriginal affairs minister to get this wrong".

Reuben Berg (right) previously urged bipartisan support to continue (Image: Justin McManus)

Treaty negotiations are planned to start this year between the First Peoples' Assembly and the Victorian government, overseen by an independent umpire - the Treaty Authority.

Until Sunday, the negotiations had bipartisan support, with co-chair and Gunditjmara man, Reuben Berg saying in December the Assembly did not take the support for granted but also questioned how anyone could fail to support Treaty when presented with all the facts.

Mr Walsh told Sky he had earlier discussions with Treaty and First Peoples Minister, Natalie Hutchins, but declined to confirm if the Coalition had notified Premier Jacina Allan. In December, Minister Hutchins intimated there were elements of the Opposition which were wavering in their support of Treaty but urged them to continue the bipartisan support.

"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," Minister Hutchins said at the time.

The move to abandon Treaty is the latest by a state Liberal-National Coalition or LNP in the wake of the Voice to Parliament defeat.

Despite no mention of truth-telling or Treaty on the Voice referendum ballot, the Queensland LNP leader David Crisafulli cited the result as a reason for the scuttling bipartisan support in the state, which has been followed by New South Wales, Northern Territory and now Victoria.

On Sunday, the Assembly thanked "friends and allies who are willing to walk with us on this shared journey"

"For those not yet willing to join in, the loss is yours, but if you change your mind you know where to find us."

National Indigenous Times contacted the Victorian government for comment

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