Aboriginal Victorians are set to go to the polls early next year to elect a representative body to enter treaty talks with the State Government.

In an election in which the voting age may be dropped to 16,

The State has entered historic, new ground after key legislation towards treaty passed through the Upper House last week.

Victorian Treaty Advancement Commissioner Jill Gallagher, a Gunditjmara woman, is now guiding the State through unchartered territory with the way in which the elections will be run, where electoral boundaries will be placed and how old people will vote.

Ms Gallagher told NIT this week that the Aboriginal electorates hoped to have traditional names, only traditional owners would be eligible to stand as candidates and voting would be voluntary and open to all Aboriginal people living in Victoria.

She would also examine how an “elder’s voice” to oversee the cultural integrity of the representative body would be included in the process.

“We’re on new ground here,” Ms Gallagher said. “Traditionally, what makes it complicated is we’ve never in Victoria had a need to have a State-wide mechanism in a traditional setting.

“We didn’t have a State-wide representative body in traditional times.

“It was all tribe-based activity. Everyone had their boundaries pretty well set out and everyone knew what they were. There were protocols in entering those boundaries. All that’s been impacted by settlement.

“Elders played an important role. They were the decision makers. All that’s been impacted on by settlement. Now, how do I bring back this elders’ voice in a modern-day, European construct?”

Ms Gallagher said one of the decisions that needed to be made was whether the voting age should be 18 or 16.

About 26,000 of Victoria’s 48,000 Aboriginal people are of voting age, but the number eligible to vote would increase if the age was lowered.

“That’s still a decision we haven’t made yet,” she said. “We’re doing a bit of research.

“One of the recommendations from the Aboriginal Community Assembly was that we lower the age because in traditional society young Aboriginal men and young women were seen as adults at a very early age,” she said.

“We’re tossing up whether we keep it as 18 or lower it to 16.”

In the election, which is expected to be held early next year, traditional owners will be able to stand as candidates for up to 30 seats on the Aboriginal body. Successful candidates will get a sitting fee for attending meetings.

It has yet to be decided whether voting is held over a week or several weeks, rather than just on one day—and whether online voting is used as well as polling booths.

Ms Gallagher said it was important elders had a voice.

“At the moment in my consultations in Victoria, I’m asking Aboriginal people, ‘how do I get an elders’ voice within this framework?’,” she said.

“At the moment, what the thinking is that there would be an elders’ gathering or congress, a body of elders who will oversee the cultural authority of it all.

“At the moment I’m getting advice from Aboriginal communities and elders I talk to in our community roadshows trying to understand, how do I get that in?

“I think it is very important to the process. It is culturally appropriate. Elders need to be at the heart of this mechanism. Elders need to ensure the representative body is acting in a way that is consistent with our culture or cultures.

“There have always been issues in our communities since settlement about Aboriginality, so that’s a vital role that elders do play. They would need to address all those issues.

“They would look at cultural ethics and make sure the cultural integrity is kept up.”

Ms Gallagher said setting up the framework for the election was “a challenge”. She said they were working to their own model, but she was also considering what had been done elsewhere, such as in British Columbia.

“I think they’ve done it, but I want to have a look at how they did it,” she said.

With Victoria also due to go to a State election later this year, Ms Gallagher said the treaty process could be affected by a change in government.

Labor currently holds power in Victoria.

“The Opposition made it very clear it didn’t support treaty at a State-based level,” Ms Gallagher said.

“If they get in, we have a bill there, it is an act of law which is one good thing but there are other ways, if they don’t support it, there are other things that could happen.

“I think all Aboriginal people are just hoping people do the right thing, regardless of who is in power.”

The Advancing the Treaty Process with Aboriginal Victorians Bill 2018 passed the Legislative Council last Thursday, allowing for the creation of the representative body by mid-2019, a self-determination fund and a Treaty authority to umpire the process.

It is the first time an Australian Parliament has adopted legislation stating a formal intention to negotiate a treaty with First Peoples.

Wendy Caccetta