Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Address to Parliament

Address by First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria co-chairs

Address to Parliament

Address by First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria co-chairs

The SPEAKER (10:38): Members, pursuant to a resolution of this house I have the privilege to invite Bangerang and Wiradjuri elder Aunty Geraldine Atkinson and Nira illim bulluk man of the Taungurung nation Mr Marcus Stewart to the floor of the house. I would like to thank the traditional owners for the welcome to country today and on behalf of the honourable members of this house acknowledge, as we do every sitting day, the traditional owners of the land we are meeting on. We pay our respects to them, their culture, their elders past, present and future, and elders who are with us today from other communities. Co-chair Atkinson and co-chair Stewart, this is a historic day for our state, and it is my privilege to now invite you both to read out the names of the members of the First Peoples’ Assembly and to address the house.

Aunty Geraldine ATKINSON (10:39): I would like to acknowledge the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria members. From South-East Region, Alice Pepper and Kaylene Williamson; elected member for North-East Region, Aunty Leanne Miller; elected member for South-West Region, Aunty Charmaine Clarke; elected members for North-West Region, Jacinta Chaplin and Raylene Harradine; elected members for the Metropolitan Region, Ngarra Murray, Tracey Evans, Aunty Carolyn Briggs and Aunty Muriel Bamblett; the representative from the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, Aunty Donna Wright; and the representative for the First People of the Millewa-Mallee Aboriginal Corporation, Melissa Jones. I would also like to acknowledge Metropolitan representative Aunty Esme Bamblett, who could not be here today but has made an enormous contribution to our work. Thank you.

Mr Marcus STEWART (10:40): I would also like to acknowledge elected member for the South East Peter Hood; elected member for the North East Travis Morgan; elected members for the South West Region Uncle Michael ‘Mookeye’ Bell and Jordan Edwards; elected members for the Metropolitan Region Rueben Berg, Matt Burns and Alister Thorpe; representative for the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation Troy McDonald; representative for the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation Trent Nelson; representative for the Barengi Gadjin Land Council Dylan Clarke; and representative for the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation Uncle Andrew Gardiner.

Uncle Andrew GARDINER (10:41): Andrew Gardiner, Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung. I would like to say that this is a very significant, momentous day. We invite everybody to participate in the debate and err on the side of caution, which is our future. I would also like to say that our country has never been ceded—the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung are the traditional owners of Melbourne. We always pay our respects to our elders past, present and future. Our traditional lands extended from Werribee River in the west to the Great Dividing Range in the north, Mount Baw Baw in the east and Mordialloc Creek to the south. We always pay our respects to elders. They are knowledge holders, and they give us their wisdom and their life experience. Those truths are evident from our elders of the past time. I would like to say Wominjeka, Wurundjeri Woi wurrung balak, yearmen koondi biik. Welcome to the traditional country of the Wurundjeri clans of the Woi Wurrung people. Thank you.

Mr Marcus STEWART (10:42): I would just also like to note an elected member for the North West who cannot be here—a couple of our members—Jason Kelly; Sean Fagan, Wadawurrung Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation reserved seat holder; elected member from the Metropolitan Region Uncle Trevor Gallagher; and representative of the Eastern Maar corporation Jamie Lowe.

Aunty Geraldine ATKINSON (10:42): Hello, everybody. My name is Geraldine Atkinson, and those who know me usually call me Aunty Geri. I hope that I will get to know you and you will be able to also acknowledge me that way, so thank you.

I too would like to acknowledge country and acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded in this land. I specifically acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which this Parliament House sits, the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people, and we have just heard from Uncle Andrew. I am a proud Bangerang woman. I am from the north-east of what is known as Victoria, country which flanks the Goulburn and the Murray rivers. In my language I would just like to say Galya Yawa Wuta, Nyuwanda gaka yapaneyepuk muma girrandjamik burraya, wuta nyuwandan yenbena barrpirrik. What I have just said is ‘Good morning, everyone. We, all of us, come here together today from near and far for the future of all people, all our people’. I love the opportunity to share my language, and I love seeing the increasing willingness of people, communities and institutions right across Victoria to embrace and celebrate our culture.

In many ways the agreement that we have reached with the government to create a Treaty Authority led by First Peoples and grounded in our culture goes to the heart of this very dynamic. It recognises the journey to treaty is not only about destination, but how we get there is vitally important. Our community knows what is best for our community. It is essential that First Peoples lead this journey—essential because it is both the morally right approach and the most effective approach in achieving the best results. But the journey also presents many opportunities for everyone to learn from and share in the strength and the wisdom of the oldest living culture in the world.

Marcus and I are so proud to be here with you today to talk about the Treaty Authority. It is a vital piece of the architecture that is going to help us deliver treaty. We are here representing the democratic voice of our people, the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, and we are here to present to you the democratic voice of the state of Victoria. It is remarkable when you think about it like that. Although a huge power imbalance remains, my people, the First Peoples, now have a voice and the means to communicate with, to negotiate with and to create with this institution—sovereign power from us, sovereign power to you.

Many people have worked hard to make this a reality, but I want to take a moment to give a particular thanks to Gunditjmara woman Jill Gallagher AO, who I believe is with us today. Jill’s patience and steady guidance in bringing form to the First Peoples’ Assembly as the treaty advancement commissioner is something everyone in Victoria should be grateful for, and I acknowledge the plaudits that you have just given her. So thank you, Jill. I hope you are as pleased as I am to see such tangible steps being taken towards treaty—this Treaty Authority Agreement being a prime example.

There is no escaping the harsh reality that Aboriginal people have suffered immensely at the hands of the Victorian state. We were driven from our lands, murdered, herded onto reserves, torn apart from our families. We were unfairly targeted and discriminated against for generations, with the disadvantage and injustice compounding over the years. But you know what? We have survived. We survived the concerted attempts to eradicate us and our culture, and it should be of no surprise that many of our people find it hard to place any trust in Parliament or have faith in government systems. Indeed all too often these are still the sources of ongoing injustices. That needs to change, and treaty is the way that we can change that.

I want treaty to restore the ability of my people to make the decisions that affect our communities, our culture and our country—the ability to do things our way. This is why it is so important that the Treaty Authority is led by First Peoples and grounded in our culture, lore and law. The Treaty Authority will support treaty making in Victoria between the First Peoples of Victoria and the state government. It will also be an independent umpire to help resolve disputes between our nation groups, and we are going to do it our way. This is not something that any colonial system can do for us. We determine who we are, who represents us and where our country is.

We asked for the Treaty Authority to sit outside the usual government system. It will not report to a minister that sits in Parliament. Its funding cycle will be insulated from the whims of the usual political cycles. And I understand that that is different, but it needs to be. Treaty needs to be done on our terms. Our people need to have faith in the path forward. Our lore and law have stood the test of time, and I am proud to see thousands of years of knowledge, wisdom and resilience of our people being embedded into the public institutions we are creating on the journey to treaty. Western court systems are combative by default, whereas the Treaty Authority will respect our culture. The starting point will always be dialogue.

Our culture has been practised for countless generations, and I want it to be practised here for countless more generations. You each have a part to play here in ensuring that this can happen. I ask you to walk with us on this journey. I ask that you give the Treaty Authority and Other Treaty Elements Bill 2022 your blessings and play your part in making history. Do not look back on this moment in years to come to see yourself on the wrong side of history. Instead step into this moment and have the courage to help create change and relinquish a fraction of power so that the treaty umpire can be truly independent from government.

In passing this bill the members of this Parliament have an opportunity to facilitate the creation of the first permanent peace architecture for treaty making. This is a positive step, and I believe it is a step best taken together with all of us. What a message that will send for everyone to see: a consensus vote, all sides of politics coming together to get us closer to treaty in Victoria. Thank you for listening. I will now hand over to Marcus.

Mr Marcus STEWART (10:50): Thanks, Aunty Geri. My name is Marcus Stewart. I am a proud Nira illim bulluk man of the Taungurung nation in Central Victoria, and I am also the fellow co-chair of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria. I also want to begin by paying my respects to country, acknowledging the Wurundjuri Woi Wurrung people as the traditional owners of this land and paying respects to their elders past and present, but also acknowledging all Aboriginal people, elders and all our ancestors who have guided us on this journey.

We think about Parliament, where we stand today, and the short history it has on this land in the context of the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung who have been on this land for thousands of years, like many traditional owners throughout Victoria. Wa wa gi Woi Wurrung, liwick nugal-dhan gaaguk, wa wa gi yumaagu, gilgruk ngun-godjin.

If I talk about the context of the acknowledgements that we give and the language that we use, they recognise the simple truth that there was a society of people here before invasion and that we are still here. As I did a couple of weeks ago when we were on Gadubanud country of the Eastern Maar nation in Lorne for a ceremonial signing of the Treaty Authority Agreement with the Premier, I want to invite everyone elected to the legislature—all MPs—just to take a second or a moment throughout my speech to look up at the faces in the smaller gallery and to remember the faces of our elected members of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria who represent the state of Victoria. These members are the heart and soul of the treaty movement here in Victoria. They stand on the shoulders of giants and have been able to deliver on our community’s aspirations and build on our activism and advocacy that we have seen for generations and decades. They have been out yarning in every corner of this state on country, having the hard conversations, finding the common ground, building consensus and finding the common threads to weave those stitches together of how we come here today with the bill that is in front of you.

We are the builders, and our community are the architects. We build to their design and to their aspirations. I am really proud to be walking alongside our members for the common purpose of securing tangible, structural change that will improve the lives of our people. The assembly is living proof that sovereignty was never ceded—a bold and positive act of self-determination. I also want to join Aunty Geri in thanking Aunty Jill Gallagher AO for her role in establishing the assembly. Jill, thank you. It is a good example of the progress that can be made when First Peoples are put in the driver’s seat, when solutions are crafted by First Peoples for First Peoples. So it makes complete sense that our lore, Western law and our cultural authority are at the heart of the architecture that will be put in place to get treaty done in this great state.

Since invasion successive governments have, by and large, inflicted serious harm on our people. For a long time the desire behind policies and laws—that were created in this room right here—was to eliminate us entirely. First Peoples in Victoria live in the shadow of colonisation, and it follows us everywhere we go. Targeted, issue-specific reform may cast discrete beams of light into our lives as First Peoples, but only more profound structural change can eradicate this shadow. Centuries have shown that the platitudes of the powerful cannot bring the kind of change that we want, that we seek and that we need.

Treaty is changing this. It is about giving First Peoples the power to decide First Peoples’ issues. If we want treaty to deliver, if we want to improve the lives of our people, we cannot move forward using the same systems that have been used against us and that have held us back. That is why passing the Treaty Authority and Other Treaty Elements Bill 2022 is such a critical step forward in the treaty journey, not only for this state but for this nation.

The Treaty Authority was informed by years of yarning, consultations and engagement with our people across the state and over country. As you know, building consensus takes time, and we have come here with an agreement that we are confident has the backing of our community. This model will ensure treaty negotiations are not restrained by colonial systems or government bureaucracy. Instead these negotiations will uphold our culture, our lore and western law, which has been practised on these lands for countless generations. By passing this bill we would take a huge leap forward in the journey towards treaty, a huge step forward in making things right. I will repeat the wise words of Aunty Geri:

Do not look back on this moment in years to come to see yourself on the wrong side of history.

Instead, walk with us, do what you can to support this groundbreaking treaty process. Again, this model was designed by First Peoples for First Peoples. The Victorian government has shown that they are willing to listen to our people. Yesterday the opposition did the same, demonstrating that treaty is beyond politics, and for that we thank you. So I stand here in expectation that the entire Parliament will support the bill. Treaty is about listening to the First Peoples. Well, we have spoken. This is what we are asking for. Without treaty, what is now called Victoria will remain, in our people’s hearts, in their minds and in reality, the colony of Victoria. We are asking you to pass the bill and breathe life into this agreement. Show the rest of Australia that Victoria is ready to right the wrongs of the past and create a better future, to welcome a united, not a divided, future for all Victorians. The sad truth is there are not many indicators that show positive outcomes of government involvement in Aboriginal people’s lives. On the flip side, there is overwhelming evidence that shows when Aboriginal people are in charge of the programs and the policies that affect our lives they succeed.

If you believe that Aboriginal people should succeed, then vote for this bill. If you believe that Aboriginal people should have the ability to make the decisions that disproportionately impact our lives, then support this bill. I firmly believe that the journey of treaty will bring us closer together as a society, but I want to be clear: treaty is not merely symbolic, as some have tried to suggest in recent days—treaty is about securing tangible, structural change that will improve our lives.

I want to thank all the parliamentarians that have met with us and have sought to learn more about the treaty process that we are putting together. I urge anyone who has any reservations to reach out. Our door is open, and our door will always be open. The journey to treaty might not always be easy. It might push some beyond their comfort zones, but it is a journey we need to take, and it is a journey best taken together. So please walk with us, and thank you.

The SPEAKER: Members, we thank the members of the First Peoples’ Assembly for being with us today, and we thank the co-chairs, Aunty Geri and Marcus Stewart, for his and her inspiring words. I ask members to acknowledge the co-chairs as they withdraw from the chamber.

Members applauded.