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Victorian Opposition made no submission to land management inquiry before abandoning Treaty

Dechlan Brennan -

The Victorian Opposition, who cited Cultural Heritage laws as the main reason for abandoning Treaty, made no submission to the Yoorrook Justice Commission inquiry into land management, it emerged on Wednesday.

The revelation comes as some Indigenous groups in Victoria have labelled some of the Coalition's rhetoric a racist dog-whistle.

In abandoning the previously bipartisan approach to Treaty, Nationals leader and Aboriginal affairs opposition spokesperson Peter Walsh said Traditional Owner groups effectively had a monopoly under government legislation - with less accountability than other organisations.

He had previously called for a parliamentary inquiry to review the Aboriginal Heritage Act to "report on its effectiveness" and his concerns were also noted by First Peoples' Assembly co-chair Reuben Berg in a press conference on Monday.

Native title legal expert and former director of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council Matthew Storey slammed Mr Walsh's interpretation of cultural heritage on Tuesday, arguing some of his reasoning was at best "misleading."

However, the Yoorrook Justice Commission, which is examining housing disparity and land inequality for Indigenous Victorians, has received no submission from either the Nationals, the Liberals, or Mr Walsh, on either Traditional Owner groups or Cultural Heritage acts.

When asked why the state Opposition did not submit their concerns, a spokesperson said Mr Walsh was unavailable for comment.

National Indigenous Times has previously reported on submissions from a number of groups, including from the Taungurung Land and Waters Council (TLaWC) and Aboriginal Housing Victoria (AHV). All submissions are available to view on the Yoorrook website.

A Yoorrook spokesperson told National Indigenous Times the commission is "currently inquiring into issues affecting First Peoples relating to land, sky and waters (which) includes considering how cultural heritage, native title and traditional owner settlement laws were drafted and are implemented".

"Yoorrook encourages all Victorians, including the Victorian Liberal and National parties, to make a submission to the commission outlining their concerns relating to these issues and any potential solutions."

Mr Walsh also cited delays - backed up by property developers - in criticising Cultural Heritage laws. However, experts have put many of the delays down to a lack of resources rather than a fault with the legislation.

Data from the government showed 410 planning permits in the last financial year required a management plan, accounting for only 0.91 per cent of all applications. This financial year it is currently sitting at 0.66 per cent.

It is understood there has only been five times since 2006 where a Registered Aboriginal Party (RAP) failed to approve a plan within the statutory time limit of 30 days. If a RAP repeatedly misses time-frames, the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council and First Peoples State Relations can intervene to address the situation.

Experts have argued - both publicly and privately - the system needs better resourcing, rather than abandonment. Mr Berg said on Monday: "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,"

Indigenous groups and experts have also come out and criticised the rhetoric used by the opposition, with First Peoples' Assembly of Victoria member Nerita Waight telling The Age the commentary was similar to Howard-era politics around land rights and heritage protection.

Nerita Waight says Treaty is important to closing the gap (Image: the Wheeler Centre)

The Yorta Yorta and Narrandjeri woman with Taungurung connections told National Indigenous Times it was hard to understand the Coalition's reasoning for abandoning Treaty.

"They certainly did not articulate any reasons that made sense to me," she said. "It's a decision that does not match with the type of leader John Pesutto claimed he wanted to be after the last election."

Chief executive of the Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations Paul Paton told The Age the abandonment of Treaty could only be "interpreted as a display of post-referendum political opportunism."

Mr Pesutto pivoted from Cultural Heritage laws, to blaming an "element of secrecy" during his press conference on Monday, arguing recommendations from Yoorrook last year could create "two systems of law, one for Indigenous Victorians and one for non-Indigenous Victorians".

One lawyer who spoke to National Indigenous Times under anonymity due to their line of work, argued the use of "secrecy" to denounce the Treaty process was a dog whistle and only played into conspiracy theories prevalent during the Voice referendum debate about Aboriginal people wanting to gain power at the behest of non-Indigenous people.

"There have been no negotiations. They've been setting up the structures for the negotiations, but there haven't been any negotiations, so there can't be any secrets," they said.

Mr Pesutto also stated his desire to 'close the gap,' citing Victoria's incarceration rates. However, Ms Waight argued Treaty is the best way to address these concerns.

"What actually works to help children live good lives is making sure they have access to the education, health and community supports they need," she said. "We need to make sure their families have access to secure housing and stable employment."

"Government policy after government policy has failed our communities in these domains and as laid out by Yoorook, Treaty is the answer if we want to close the gap."

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