I’m inspired by our peoples’ enthusiasm for getting the treaty process right | Jill Gallagher | Opinion

Hope can be in short supply in Australia’s Indigenous communities sometimes. Trust too.

But Aboriginal communities across Victoria are finding hope and putting their trust in themselves to get the treaty process right.

Despite hundreds of years of broken promises, exploitation and the threat of annihilation, Aboriginal Victorians are getting behind the First Peoples’ Assembly election under way around the state. It’s another step in a journey that should see treaties signed between the Victorian government and Aboriginal clans and groups within years.

It’s not been a quick process though. Even if you exclude the more than 200 years before it, the advancing the treaty process with Aboriginal Victorians bill was passed in June 2018, but the work has been ongoing since 2016.

The Aboriginal treaty working group and the Victorian treaty advancement commission, which I lead, have met regularly with communities across the state, including holding an elders forum to discuss creating an elders voice to the representative body.

There are Aboriginal election officers in the five regions across the state to help manage the mammoth task of registering Aboriginal voters and smoothing the path for them to participate in the First Peoples’ Assembly election.

This has been a grassroots campaign aimed at giving every Aboriginal in the state – and traditional owners inside and outside the state – the opportunity to either stand as a candidate and/or vote. We’ve even gone into every prison in Victoria to ensure prisoners get their chance to vote too.

Despite all this there are significant challenges that we continually work to overcome.

Some of those challenges are exactly why this process is so important: over-representation in the justice system, the mental health system, entrenched poverty, disconnection from country and poor health outcomes.

And unlike state and federal elections this one is voluntary.

These are all reasons why this process should be pursued as rigorously as possible and they are all factors that make our job more difficult.

As I’ve mentioned, trust in state and federal government systems is in short supply among Aboriginal communities so we’ve had to create our own electoral roll with its own unique provisions – including allowing 16-year-olds to vote – to better reflect our communities.

We also have a gender quota to ensure a strong representation of women on the assembly.

So as an Aboriginal woman and after those three and a half years of engaging with the Aboriginal community in Victoria, I’m disappointed to hear a woman of Lidia Thorpe’s experience and skills is withdrawing as a candidate for the assembly.

I’m sad she thinks enrolments are embarrassingly low. Given our people’s devastating story over the past two centuries, the challenges I’ve outlined that we face daily, and the litany of broken promises from authorities, I’m inspired by our peoples’ enthusiasm for the path we’re walking.

It’s inspiring for me to hear from prisoners who say the assembly can be a means to reconnecting them with their culture. It’s inspiring for me to hear the youth say they see it as a way for their voices to be heard. I’m inspired when I hear the stolen generations describe the assembly as a pathway back into the community circle. And who could be anything but inspired when the elders, whose languages were outlawed and who were pushed off their lands, say the assembly can help reinforce their vital cultural roles.

I emphasise, however, that this is a start. The assembly will not be the finish. It is a start. It needs to grow.

The assembly will negotiate with the state government a framework or set of rules under which Aboriginal groups and clans can agree on treaties. It will also establish an independent umpire under which treaty negotiations will be conducted, and a fund which will enable Aboriginal clans and groups to negotiate with the government on a more even playing field.

There is much to be done and the assembly and its role will evolve over time. But it’s the Aboriginal people of Victoria who will give the assembly its strength and legitimacy. And in them I trust and it’s them who give me hope.

Jill Gallagher AO is the Victorian treaty advancement commissioner

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