As 2019 wraps up, Victoria’s First Peoples’ Assembly is gearing up for an incoming year of Treaty talks with the state’s Labor Government.

Announced in early December, the 32-strong Assembly met for the first time last week at Victoria’s Parliament House after being officially declared by Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Gavin Jennings.

“This is an important moment in time – a step forward in a journey of healing and empowerment for Aboriginal Victorians,” Minister Jennings said.

“I’m honoured to declare the First People’s Assembly of Victoria as the elected body for Aboriginal Victorians.”

The Assembly – the first democratically elected group of Aboriginal Victorians in the state’s history – is made up of 21 members who were elected by Aboriginal Victorians over an election period across September and October.

The remaining 11 seats were reserved for Traditional Owners already formally recognised by the Government.

“There can be no reconciliation without Treaty – and all Victorians can be proud of the progress we’ve made so far,” Minister Jennings said.

Now the election period is over, the Assembly is tasked with creating a framework to support Treaty negotiations going into 2020 and the future with the Victorian Government.

During the inaugural meeting, the Assembly nominated their Co-Chairs, Taungurung man Marcus Stewart and Bangerang woman Geraldine Atkinson.

Both Victorians have extensive experience in the Indigenous business and community sectors.

Mr Stewart is the current CEO of the Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations, an organisation that primarily focuses on protecting the cultural heritage of Country across the state.

Humble at his election to the Co-Chair role, Mr Stewart said it was a “tremendous honour” to be in the position.

“There is a huge amount of work ahead, but also a tremendous opportunity for badly-needed structural change,” Mr Stewart said.

“I want every person in Victoria to know that Treaties are the right thing to do and will bring about change for the better.”

With years of experience in Aboriginal community organisations, Ms Atkinson is currently President of the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association.

Ms Atkinson echoed similar sentiments as her fellow Co-Chair and reflected on the journey of her ancestors.

“There has never been another organisation like the Assembly, ever. This is history in the making, and it is a privilege to be part of it,” Ms Atkinson said.

“Today, of all days, I am thinking of our old people, who fought so hard for our rights. They are what got us to where we are today.”

The Co-Chairs are also part of an Executive team made up of another seven members and themselves.

Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) also voiced their support for the new Assembly.

Acting CEO, Trevor Pearce, compared the Assembly to other historic moments such as the 1966 Wave Hill Walk Off, the 1967 Referendum and the 1992 Mabo v Queensland case.

“This next part of Australian history marks the first time an Australian Government will enter into Treaty negotiations with any Aboriginal people. Australia is the last colony of Great Britain to start the process,” Mr Pearce said.

The Acting CEO also said Treaty will be beneficial to all Victorians and that it’s vital in transforming the power dynamics between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Victorians.

“The culture of Victoria will be richer when Victoria embraces its entire history and not just parts here and there,” Mr Pearce said.

“Truth-telling and not sanitising our shared history can lead to the first steps of healing our nation. We are optimistic that it will create momentum for the adoption of Treaty negotiations and truth-telling to begin at a national level.”

By Hannah Cross