Victoria is set to continue to make Australian history next week when key legislation in its move towards a treaty is expected to reach the Upper House of State Parliament.
The state’s move has made international headlines, with the London-based BBC reporting on its world news service that Australian states had taken their first steps towards treaties with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The bill passed through the state’s lower house last week — the first legislation of its type to come before an Australian Parliament — and will need the support of the Greens in order to become law.
“We’re hopeful it will have the support of the Greens in the Upper House given they supported it in the Lower House,” Victorian Treaty Advancement Commissioner Jill Gallagher, a Gunditjmara woman, said.
The legislation outlines a framework for treaty or treaties negotiations and legally recognises an elected Aboriginal Representative Body that will set the ground rules for treaty talks and help communities negotiate.
Australia is the only Commonwealth country that does not have a treaty or treaties with its Indigenous people.
The Victorian Parliament is due to sit from Tuesday to Thursday next week.
Movement across the country
Meanwhile, as the Victorian legislation makes its way through the state’s Parliament, the Labor governments in the Northern Territory and Western Australia have also said they would move towards treaty talks.
WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt said there was growing interest from Aboriginal people, including in WA, in the idea of a treaty.
“There are many different views in the Aboriginal community around what constitutes a treaty, and I am keen to have those discussion with Aboriginal people across the state,” he said.
Mr Wyatt said a $1.3 billion agreement between the WA Government and the South-West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council — currently before the National Native Title Tribunal for approval — was seen by many as Australia’s first Indigenous treaty.
“The government is committed to progressing agreements based on Native Title recognition or alternative Native Title settlements in Western Australia,” he said.
The NT Government last week signed a historic agreement to begin treaty talks with all four of the Territory’s powerful Aboriginal land councils.
The Barunga Agreement commits the NT Government and the councils to a three-year process that will involve consultation with all Territorians to “develop a process to negotiate a Northern Territory treaty”.
In Victoria, Ms Gallagher will soon begin a new round of regional meetings to discuss the treaty or treaties process with community members.
She will be in Portland on June 15, Ballarat on June 18, Horsham on June 19, Mildura on June 20, Robinvale on June 21 and Swan Hill on June 22.
She said while she hoped the legislation would pass through Parliament; if it did not she would continue with her work to set up the elected Aboriginal Representative Body, which could function under the current government without being enshrined in law.
“I have faith,” she said of next week’s vote. “But I’m also not delusional.
“I know there is some opposition to it in certain political parties.
“But I think generally people do want to do the right thing.”
She said the treaty was not about a land-grab but rather recognition for First Nations peoples.
“When you look at the Uluru Statement and what it is asking for, it’s a modest ask,” she said.
“We’re not saying we want all the land back and all the white fellas should go home, but that the First Peoples of this country should have a voice.”
‘We lack the leadership’
Federal Labor leader Bill Shorten said Australia should not be afraid of talking about treaties and agreement-making between first Australians and governments.
“I believe that Australians have the goodwill to reconcile this country,” he said.
“What they don’t have is the leadership in this country to drive proper and meaningful reconciliation.
“I say to the people who fear the concepts of agreement-making, of a voice, of treaties.
I say to these people who fear this: you have nothing to lose.
“You still will be able to play football on the MCG, your backyard Hills Hoists will not be part of any claim, the chickens will still lay eggs.”
The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples said it encouraged action on treaty negotiations at all levels of government, but a national treaty was still needed.
“We urge the full implementation of the Uluru Statement of the Heart, including the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution as well as a Makarrata Truth and Justice Commission so that we can begin a process of agreement-making with all levels of government,” Congress co-chair Rod Little said.
Victorian Aboriginal Affairs Minister Natalie Hutchins said the state was on the way towards a treaty.
“Through our extensive consultation process Aboriginal Victorians have told us they want a Treaty and we’ve listened,” she said.
“Aboriginal Victorians will continue to be at the centre of this process every step of the way.”
Victorian Greens spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs Lidia Thorpe said she was disappointed with the lack of recognition of the sovereignty of Victoria’s first people in the proposed Victorian legislation.
She said talks between the Greens and the Victorian Government had already strengthened the legislation.
“We will continue to work toward a treaty process where the First Peoples of Victoria, the Clans and First Nations, are central to decision-making and negotiations,” she said.
“The Greens are pleased by Labor’s willingness to negotiate and welcome these important changes, however I’m disappointed that the government will not recognise the sovereignty of the Clans of Victoria in the legislation.
“It’s not just about respect; it’s about protecting our legal and human rights.”