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First Peoples' Assembly, Victorian Premier not notified of Opposition's decision to abandon Treaty

Dechlan Brennan -

The decision by the Victorian opposition to withdraw their support for Treaty has continued to reverberate, with an Assembly co-chair stating he found about the decision from the media, whilst the Victorian Premier argued the Coalition were trying to "crab walk" away from Treaty.

The announcement by Nationals leader and Opposition Indigenous spokesperson Peter Walsh in a Sky News Australia interview on Sunday revolved around supposed secrecy concerns, as well as issues with both the Cultural Heritage Act and Traditional Owners Settlement Act.

Assembly co-chair and Gunditjmara man, Rueben Berg, told reporters on Monday there had been discussions with the Opposition regarding issues in the cultural heritage space, but the decision to abandon Treaty took him by surprise.

"We've had several meetings over the course of the Assembly; about the process that we're going through [and] about some concerns they did raise around local heritage," Mr Berg said.

"But it wasn't until yesterday that we heard that as a result of those concerns at the moment their plan is to not support Treaty."

Asked if he would have preferred to be notified in person, rather than through the media, Mr Berg said: "I think in all these sorts of relationships, whether you're always on the same side or not, I think you always try to respect transparency and so it would have been useful to have that conversation. But we'll move forward, and we'll continue to work out what that relationship looks like moving forward".

Reuben Berg fronted the media on Monday (Image: First Peoples' Assembly)

Consternation has surrounded some land council's, including the Bunurong Land Council - which was placed into administration in 2023. Mr Walsh cited these issues - and any resulting delays around planning - as a reason for the Treaty bipartisanship to be torpedoed.

Addressing the Cultural Heritage Act and the concerns put forward by the Opposition, Mr Berg admitted there were "some flaws to the system", but argued overall it was a "very powerful and innovative" system empowering First Peoples in the state.

"There are concerns that they [the Opposition] have raised, but there are concerns that Traditional Owners would also raise about the cultural heritage process… my view, it's through Treaty that we can have those conversations and make progress through that sort of cultural heritage concerns," he said.

He wouldn't be drawn on the political aspect of the decision, preferring to focus on Treaty, arguing whilst it would be preferable to have bipartisan support "so that our issues sadly don't just become political footballs," he was intent on forging forward.

"It's our job as the Assembly to focus on getting Treaty outcomes that are going to benefit all First Peoples in Victoria and the broader Victorian community; I've got no interest in dabbling into the different political dynamics," he said.

Mr Berg's diplomacy was in stark contrast to Premier Jacinta Allan and Greens leader Samantha Ratnam, both of whom lambasted the Coalition's decision.

Premier Allan told a press conference on Monday the Opposition was using the convenience of cultural heritage issues to "crab walk" away from Treaty.

"People know that you've got to go through a range of third-party approvals, traditional owner groups, water authorities, utility corporations, councils, and depending on what sort of size and style the development is, state and federal government approval processes as well," Ms Allan told reporters.

"This isn't about that … [the Coalition] is using this to crab walk away from Treaty…I can only say this based on what we've heard [and what] has been revealed over the past 24 hours."

Ms Ratnam was withering in her statement, arguing the Opposition had made a "gutless decision" which showed they "don't matter in Victoria anymore, and can't be taken seriously."

"They remain in denial about the history of colonisation and its ongoing impacts on First Nations communities," she said.

She argued Victorians wanted to see Treaty "deliver peace, justice, rights and healing for the First Peoples of this land" and implored Labor to work with the Greens and other progressive parties to "ensure a robust, fair and inclusive Treaty process that delivers justice".

On Monday afternoon, Opposition leader John Pesutto - along with Mr Walsh - told the media he was "concerned about whether it [Treaty process] has the tendency to make people feel divided from one another".

"As an alternative premier, I was very concerned last year to see how traumatic the debate around the voice was for many Victorians; how agonising the decision was for many Victorians. I don't want Victorians to have to go through that again," Mr Pesutto said.

The Opposition leader refused to reveal when the decision to abandon Treaty bipartisanship was made, citing cabinet confidentiality. However, Mr Walsh previously told ABC radio on Monday morning the decision was made sometime in October/November. Mr Berg told National Indigenous Times he had last engaged in discussions with Mr Pesutto in December.

Mr Pesutto said closing the gap was supported by "all fair minded and reasonable Victorians." Having spoken to "thousands of Victorians and communities" across the state, he argued: "I must be clear and upfront with all Victorian's concerns about this process and what it may mean for … whether we can close the gap".

"I believe that reconciliation and more importantly, closing the gap for Victoria's Indigenous people, must be achieved…in a way which unifies us as a people," he said.

First Nations people in Victoria - including through the Assembly, but also in Indigenous-led health and legal organisations - have consistently argued Indigenous-led solutions are the best way to close the gap, citing years of waste and bureaucracy that saw people telling Aboriginal people how to do things, without any consultation.

The Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) said on Monday the decision was a "heartless and callous manoeuvre" designed to "capitalise on anti-Voice sentiment for political gain, to the detriment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities".

"Treaty represents a significant stride towards self-determination, empowerment, and much-needed systemic change," VACCHO said in a statement.

"It is poised to bring about meaningful structural reforms that will equip Aboriginal Communities across Victoria with the tools to enhance their lives."

Despite the unlikeliness of it occurring, they urged the Opposition to "put aside politics, see the bigger picture and return to that position of commitment to Treaty".

Mr Berg implored people to learn more about Treaty and the negotiation process, so that they could learn more about what First Peoples in Victoria were striving for.

"When people actually do understand what Treaty is about, they see it as something that will bring benefits to all Victorians, and something that hopefully everybody will be able to embrace," he said.

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