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Minister preparing for Treaty negotiations as Victorian government faces heat from Indigenous groups

Dechlan Brennan -

As Victoria prepares for historic Treaty negotiations between First Nations people and the state government this year, there remains issues yet to be resolved on both sides of the table.

For the First Peoples' Assembly, the exact details that will be proposed for negotiation are still being finalised.

Questions from the public at the recent statewide gathering on Wadawurrung Country showed many still have queries about what exactly will be presented during the negotiations.

On the government side, Minister for Treaty Natalie Hutchins, now in her second spell in the portfolio, has been one of the biggest drivers of the treaty process.

In an exclusive interview with National Indigenous Times, she argues that at its core, Treaty will put Indigenous people in Victoria "on an equal footing" around the matters to be negotiated.

"We don't necessarily see just one treaty. We see an opportunity for multiple treaties," she said.

"Of course, we want to start with a statewide one, but that might then extend into different regions, or it might lead to a second statewide one; focusing in on particular issues."

She said Treaty was about "bringing the whole connection to land, and value of culture to the broader Victorian people"

Ms Hutchins' public position is along similar lines to that held by the Assembly, especially when it comes to self-determination and Aboriginal-led responses to closing the gap.

"That's why we've gone down this track, that's why we've made so much investment," she said.

"Because we could keep pouring our focus as a government into…public servant-led programs and services, or we could go down a path of self-determination by committing to a voice and truth-telling, and then of course Treaty as an outcome of that."

Ms Hutchins told National Indigenous Times: "I don't see the outcomes of these kind of agreements and strategic plans that we've put in place already, of which there's about 12 of them across the state, being any different to what could be embedded in treaties."

The minister noted there were bigger aspirations not captured in the agreements, including an ongoing voice and body, but also the repatriation of Aboriginal remains, art and cultural kind of significant artefacts that remain significant to the broader Indigenous community.

"We need to go on a pretty big education process to talk about what is in these agreements now; [how] some of these things have not affected any individuals in the state, and that these [agreements] have actually been beneficial to the state," she said.

When the opposition withdrew from the previously bi-partisan approach to Treaty in January, Ms Hutchins labelled the work of the National Party in particular as "outrageous," and argued they have tried to frame Treaty discussions as "farmers rights versus Indigenous rights."

"Quite frankly the two can coexist. It doesn't have to be one or the other," she said.

"Whipping up negativity and pretty much lies…It's not the behaviour that we've seen from the National Party in the past and I think there is a new extreme right-wing element that is involved and really I guess embedding some of that Trumpism into their party.

"I also see there's a lot of Liberal Members of Parliament that seem very uncomfortable with the decision to not support Treaty."

The day after the Minister spoke with National Indigenous Times, the Victorian government announced that of the 46 recommendations from the Yoorrook Justice Commission, only four would be accepted in full immediately.

This came only a fortnight after the government backflipped on their promise to give the presumption bail to youths.

Whilst Ms Hutchins portfolio was not responsible for many of the law-and-order decisions the government made, she was the minister to front the media. She faced questions about her government's commitment to the First Nations people who shared their stories at the hearings — many of whom are members of the Stolen Generation.

"We [the government] said at the start of this process of truth-telling… that we would not stop our work in closing the gap and working with community to do that, whilst this process was underway," she told the media.

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service labelled the decision a betrayal and asked how Indigenous people could "meaningfully walk down the path of Treaty with a government so willing to walk away from their commitments?"

Ms Hutchins told National Indigenous Times she hoped "there's still ways forward through the Treaty process where we can address some of these issues".

"Treaty is not something to be feared. It's something to be favoured in the long term," she said.

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