Wurundjeri man Reg Edwards urged Aboriginal Victorians not to be “shame” and to cast their vote. (ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)
“I have never voted in my life, in any process. What will this achieve, if I now enrol and vote?”
- Voting is underway to elect a First Peoples’ Assembly to set up the rules for Victorian treaty negotiations
- Voters said they wanted treaties that delivered truth telling, better education and stronger protection of cultural sites
- Some scepticism remains towards the process, with one Aboriginal corporation rejecting the elections
It was a simple question levelled at Victoria’s treaty commissioner Jill Gallagher by a female inmate.
“I said ‘well think of it like this: our communities have been disempowered for 240 years’,” Ms Gallagher said.
Like many Aboriginal Victorians, Ms Gallagher hopes the state’s historic elections for a First Peoples’ Assembly will empower communities.
“She replied ‘so you’ve got Government and you’ve got an Aboriginal elected body who’s going to be our powerful voice?’ I said ‘yes’.”
Voting is underway across the state to elect the Assembly, a 32-person strong body tasked with hammering out the rules and conditions under which the Victorian Government will negotiate separate treaties with Victorian clans and nations.
Victorian Treaty Advancement Commissioner Jill Gallagher said she believed she would see treaties negotiated in her lifetime. (AAP: James Ross)
The Assembly will also establish a Treaty Authority to act as an “independent umpire” and set up a self-determination fund to support Aboriginal communities during negotiations.
It is a complex proposition that goes to the heart of many Aboriginal peoples’ belief that sovereignty was never ceded to British colonisers.
Scepticism over treaty remains
At a voting event in the northern Victorian city of Shepparton, traditional Yorta Yorta dances opened the afternoon.
Several voting events are being held across the state before polls close on October 20. (ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)
For Yorta Yorta elder Aunty Frances Mathyssen, treaty represents an opportunity for truth telling about the racism and injustices she and her people have suffered.
At 90, she can still remember the day of the Cummeragunja Walk-Off, when she joined her community in marching from the mission in southern New South Wales to protest living conditions and government intervention.
She said she would like to see a treaty that boosted the number of Yorta Yorta educators in schools.
“To have our children in school taught about what’s happening, by our own people. What’s happening in our country,” she said.
Frances Mathyssen said she believed Aboriginal Victorians should embrace the treaty process. (ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)
But amongst some of Victoria’s Aboriginal communities, scepticism remains.
Critics have argued that as a state government, Victoria does not have the authority to negotiate a treaty with another sovereign nation.
Mixed views have been aired within Yorta Yorta communities, with the corporation’s Council of Elders releasing a statement in June where it stated its members would not stand as candidates.
“We will not participate in a farcical regional representative body or authority and provide a fast track toward the disempowerment of the Sovereign Yorta Yorta Nation and its People,” the statement said.
Aboriginal Victorians can vote to elect assembly members to five regions across the state. (Supplied: Victorian Treaty Advancement Commissioner)
Victoria’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Gavin Jennings said he understood their point of view.
“But there is a dead end that they take themselves into,” he said.
“Do you ever negotiate with anybody? Do you ever, would you ever, find a space by which the healing occurs, [so] you can actually stop living in the past and live in the future?”
Ms Gallagher, a Gunditjmara woman, said she believed this unique election would deliver a kind of “voice to Parliament” that had not existed before.
“I’d like to see one of them [the treaties] done before I leave this planet … I actually am very optimistic that it can happen,” she said.
She said Victoria’s process had drawn interest from interstate and she had visited the Northern Territory and Queensland as they began to explore their own treaty ideas.
Of about 30,000 Aboriginal Victorians eligible to vote in the assembly elections, Ms Gallagher said enrolment rates were sitting at about 2,300 people.
‘Voting for my own mob feels better’
The commission has run voting events across the state in an effort to boost the number of people casting a vote. (ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)
In the suburb of Frankston in Melbourne’s south-east, a pop-up polling event drew in a small community of treaty supporters, many of whom came to cast their vote.
Fiona Newson is a fourth-generation descendent of Nandergoroke, who was one of four Bunurong women abducted by sealers at Point Nepean in 1883.
Her expectations for treaty were shaped by her work with archaeologists and historians to preserve the cultural sites left behind by the Mornington Peninsula’s first inhabitants.
“I would like to see our ceremonial places protected, as opposed to being dug up to salvage whatever’s under the ground,” she said.
Fiona Newson said current laws offered greater protection to colonial heritage than Aboriginal sites. (ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)
Ms Newson said she understood the scepticism that came from being let down by different government policies in the past, but she felt this process was different.
“Treaty … gives me hope that we might actually have a fair, democratic process for the voice of Aboriginal people, particularly here in Victoria and hopefully later on nationally to represent us at a level that we haven’t been represented in the past,” she said.
“I think that people have a lot more faith in this process than they’ve ever had in the past. More people are wanting to be involved in this … as opposed to sitting on the fence.”
Shanoah Kent, 16, was voting in a political election for the first time in her life and said the idea of treaty made her feel “nervous … but excited”.
Shanoah Kent said she was excited to vote for her “own mob” as she cast her first vote in a political election. (ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)
“Voting for my own mob feels better,” she said, adding that she hoped to see treaties boost the use of Aboriginal languages and social connections.
What asked what treaty meant to him, Wurundjeri man Reg Edwards paused for a good while before answering “a lot”.
“I remember growing up thinking that treaty was already been done and dusted. But that was like an old wives’ tale,” he said.
Reg Edwards and Assembly candidate Shane Clarke backed the treaty process at the Frankston event. (ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)
“But for that to be actually done properly by the right people and the right voices and the right way … [it’s] for First Australians to be acknowledged as we are here in the Western world now.”
“I feel like I’ve made a difference because the people that I voted for are people that I’ve grown up with in the community and that’s done a lot for our mob and still is now.”
He urged his fellow Victorian Aboriginals to make the most of their chance to cast their vote before polls close on October 20.
“Don’t be shame … be a number, be counted for, help us fight for what’s right.”