After seven months of meetings and consultation, the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria begun negotiations this week on the process for future Treaty making in Victoria.

Aunty Geraldine Atkinson, Assembly Co-Chair and Bangerang and Wiradjuri woman, told NIT the Aboriginal peoples of Victoria have “arrived at a historic moment”.

“Our ancestors fought for dignity and for us to take an equal place as sovereign,” she said.

Established late last year, the Assembly consists of 31 Traditional Owners in Victoria, democratically elected by their communities.

“It is the aim of Treaty to strengthen our culture, restore our wealth, [and] deal with the structural issues that have impacted on our communities since colonisation,” she said.

The Assembly has elected a board of seven and two co-chairs, Ms Atkinson and Marcus Stewart, a Nira illim bulluk man of the Taungurung nation.

“The first thing we will negotiate with the government is a dispute resolution process, we will look at how we establish a Treaty authority, and establish a negotiation framework and a self-determination fund,” said Ms Atkinson.

“On Monday we had the first meeting—it was a historic meeting, the first formal step towards Treaty negotiations. We discussed how we will work together … [and] set the parameter for future Treaty negotiations.

“The Assembly supports a state-wide Treaty and local Treaties. We have put that to the government, and we are waiting for their response.

“We want tangible things to occur through this, not just symbolic things.”

“Our communities never stopped calling for Treaty. There are other things that have been achieved: a truth telling process, Stolen Generations redress, both put in place.

“We want to work collaboratively, and government has agreed, in a respectful way, one that ensures it is adapted to Aboriginal ways of working. A code of conduct in place which is about building trust, and now we work together.”

Ms Atkinson said the first stage of talks between the Assembly and the Victorian Government would last until “mid-to-late 2022”.

“Beyond that is when we will have all those processes in place, the four elements (dispute resolution, a Treaty authority, a negotiation framework and a self-determination fund). We will have the things in place so our communities can negotiate Treaties,” she said.

“We know the rest of the country is looking at us … We hope to set an example.”

Victorian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Gabrielle Williams, told NIT “there is no denying the disparity that exists between First Peoples of this nation and the broader community”.

“We can’t move forward or reach true Reconciliation without bridging that divide,” Minister Williams said.

“Victoria continues to lead the nation in progressing Treaty and initiating a truth telling process—these will help heal the wounds of the past and build a stronger, more resilient future for us all.”

Assembly Co-Chair Marcus Stewart said the first meeting on Monday was “a historic day”.

“By formally gathering to establish the process for Treaty discussions, this day marks the start of a new relationship between Aboriginal people and the Victorian Government as equal parties,” he said.

“The Assembly feels the gravity and history which comes with this first meeting, and we’re looking forward to building a stronger future for our communities.”

Ngarra Murray, Chair of the Assembly’s Treaty Authority Committee and a proud Wamba Wamba, Yorta Yorta, Dja Dja Wurrung and Dhudhuroa woman said each negotiation process “needs a fair and robust dispute resolution process that holds all parties to account”.

“I’m excited to be a part of the team that is bringing the collective voice and wisdom of the Assembly to this work with the State, so that we can continue meaningful talks about the substantive issues—the Treaty negotiation framework, truth-telling process, and setting up the Treaty Authority,” she said.

Victoria is the first jurisdiction in Australia to commit to a Treaty process in partnership with Aboriginal people in Victoria.

Last month, the Victorian Government also announced the country’s first truth-telling process to recognise historical wrongs and ongoing injustices, with terms of reference to be established in partnership with the First Peoples’ Assembly.

Victoria is now the first and only­ jurisdiction to have actioned both the Treaty and Truth elements of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

By Giovanni Torre