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Truth and Treaty: Victoria continues progress towards reconciliation

Natalie Hutchins -

Victoria has come a long way since the Federal Court declared in 1998 that the native title of Victoria's Yorta Yorta people had been "washed away by the tide of history." The tide has turned.

On Thursday the Federal Court ruled that Victoria's Traditional Owners in the Eastern Maar remain firmly anchored to the land they have cared for over tens of thousands of years, across South-West Victoria.

In his judgment, Justice Murphy noted that "this determination of native title says to the world that despite the terrible history of oppression, the Eastern Maar law and culture is strong and is here to stay".

The ruling by the Federal Court is a historic occasion that will mean an important part of Victoria will now have formal recognition of its Traditional Owners.

I pay tribute to the many Eastern Maar Elders and leaders who fought for this outcome over many years, including Aunty Janice Austin, a loved and respected Elder of the Eastern Maar community who sadly passed away before Thursday's judgment.

Despite the devastating impacts of European colonisation in the south-west region of Victoria, the Eastern Maar people have fought to maintain their enduring connection to Country, culture and people.

This fight, encouraged by the Eastern Maar people's strength, determination and courage has resulted in their successful outcome.

Premier Jeff Kennett claimed in the 1990s that people would lose their backyards to native title rulings. This scaremongering has been proven time and time again to be wrong.

Native title outcomes have been successfully negotiated between Eastern Maar people and local, State and Commonwealth governments, land users and other Traditional Owner groups.

However, it's important to recognise that native title has limitations. It recognises Traditional Owners' right to access, use and protect public land in line with traditional laws and customs.

But native title recognition provides limited scope for Traditional Owners to leverage modern social and economic opportunities that would allow Aboriginal people to improve their health, education and life outcomes. Recognition of traditional laws and customs is important. But so is thriving in modern Australia.

This is why the Victorian Government introduced its own form of Traditional Owner recognition and rights in 2010, through the Traditional Owner Settlement Act.

Settlements under the Victorian Act can include a much broader range of agreements than recognition of native title. Agreements can include support for economic development opportunities, grants of freehold title over Crown land for cultural or economic purposes, and joint management of national parks. All of these are carefully negotiated by the State in the interests of Victorians.

Currently, the Eastern Maar people and the State are negotiating an agreement that will outline economic opportunities, land management processes and community benefits for this important part of Victoria without the need for costly, lengthy court cases. This process shows the importance of the State's approach to supporting Traditional Owners to have a say and control over the activities and decision making that impact their traditional lands and waters – through negotiation rather than litigation.

Since 2010, four Victorian Recognition and Settlement Agreements have been signed, covering about 45 per cent of Crown land in Victoria. Two of the agreements have been in place for over a decade.

But while native title and Recognition and Settlement Agreements give Traditional Owners some say and control over activities on their traditional lands, far too many other decisions impacting Aboriginal people's lives continue to be made without them.

Closing the Gap data reminds us annually that Aboriginal people do not have the same educational outcomes, employment opportunities, or health outcomes as other Australians.

Most alarmingly, on average Aboriginal Victorians don't live nearly as long as other Australians.

This is simply not good enough. It's why Victoria will continue to support Aboriginal people to be front and centre of decision making that affects them.

It's why we are pursuing Treaty in Victoria.

The democratically elected First Peoples' Assembly of Victoria – the body representing Aboriginal Victorians in the Treaty process – has worked closely with the Victorian Government since 2019 to establish the playing field for negotiations. We have the 'independent umpire' of Treaty negotiations set up in the Treaty Authority, a Self-determination Fund to put Aboriginal people on a more equal financial footing in negotiations, and a Treaty Negotiation Framework to set the rules for how talks will work.

We look forward to Treaty negotiations starting this year. It won't be easy. It will take time. There will be disagreements along the way.

But the outcome will be a better Victoria. It will be a Victoria where Aboriginal communities are enabled to take control of their own lives. Which means better outcomes for Aboriginal people in education, justice and health.

That means better outcomes for all Victorians.

Natalie Hutchins is Victoria's Minister for Treaty and First Peoples

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