Flat White

Clouds block the dawn light as Dan Andrews’ corroboree of jobbery first meets

19 December 2019

12:04 PM

19 December 2019

12:04 PM

Victoria’s First People’s Assembly sat for the first time last week, with the Doric colonnade of Parliament House welcoming a veritable corroboree of Aboriginal representatives, activists and self-appointed traditional owners from across the state.  

The venerable halls of the Victorian Legislative Council were decked with eucalyptus branches, wooden vessels and possum pelts adorned with the Assembly’s logo, the portraits of past Victorian statesmen looked on as their old seats were taken up by the 21 elected and 11 appointed members of the new, Aboriginal-only assembly. 

The stated purpose of the Assembly is to create an Aboriginal representative body with the sovereign power to negotiate a treaty (or treaties) with the State Government of Victoria. The Assembly intends to establish a ‘Treaty Authority’, which will umpire the treaty process, a ‘Treaty Negotiation Framework’, which will determine the rules and who participates in the process, and a ‘Self-determination Fund’ which will grant enough state funding for Aboriginal representatives to treat ‘on equal terms’ with the Victorian Government.  

With over $30 million in state funding already allocated to establish up the assembly, the recent elections achieved the dismal turnout of about 2,000 voters, with around a third of those enrolled not even casting their votes. With voters representing approximately five per cent of the total Aboriginal population of Victoria, the state government spent roughly $15,000 for every vote cast to set up the Assembly, which is yet to make its actual funding demands. Despite this, Treaty Advancement Commissioner Jill Gallagher applauded Aboriginal voters turning out ‘in their thousands’, which she described as a ‘huge result’.  

Further compounding this rocky start, two seats in the Assembly remained empty on its first sitting; one, Jason Kelly’s, who refused to attend because he felt that the colonial setting was ‘culturally unsafe‘, and the second, by the Yorta Yorta nation, who described the Assembly as ‘farcical‘ and refused to recognise the sovereignty of the ‘British Colonial Authorities’ as represented by the State Government.  

Despite these setbacks, the first sitting was applauded as a success, being largely taken up by welcome to country ceremonies, invocations of elders, congratulatory speeches and introductions from each of the Aboriginal members. 

While the contents of the treaty/treaties will be discussed in future sittings, vague hints of what will be included are already beginning to materialise. Ms Gallagher, in her address at the new ‘Aboriginal National Press Club’, stated that the treaty should include a ‘percentage of seats in Parliament’ reserved for the Aboriginal race as a kind of reimagined Lords Spiritual, Aboriginal culture being taught ‘compulsorily’ in schools, and Aboriginal languages being ‘brought back’, among many other things. Above all, she said that ‘there has to be land, there has to be compensation. There’s no getting around it.’  

With some form of native title existing over 14 899 km2, or approximately 57 per cent of the state’s landmass, and $109 million in state funding going directly to Indigenous affairs, on top of the $33.4 billion already spent annually at the federal level, one wonders where the state will find the means? Regardless, Ms Gallagher promised that ‘Victoria’s not gonna go broke as a result of treaties, and the Victorian Government won’t lose a lot of power. They just might have to share a little bit of it!’. 

As the negotiations begin, the vagueness of the sentiments and scale of the rhetoric around what they will include in the legally-binding treaty provides almost endless scope for what historian Keith Windschuttle calls the ‘Aboriginal political class’ to increase their political and financial powers, and will no doubt further the kind of jobbery and judicial activism he has demonstrated is occurring around this issue. Indeed, in order to overcome the opposition and the lack of bipartisan support for the treaty process, Ms Gallagher has said, simply, that ‘they can embed that further into either the Victorian Constitution or more legislation [sic]’, making it very difficult to extract. 

The next sitting will take place early next year, and will continue five to six times a year (with the executive meeting more regularly) until an agreement has been come to. As there is no deadline for the negotiations, we can expect the new Assembly to sit for as long as they desire. As 21 year old Assembly member Jordan Edwards said; “We are not government, we do not have to act like them, we do not have to be like them… We need to start to put our lore and our culture as equal, ahead of the colonisers.” Without a deadline and without any limit to their ambitions (or funding), we can expect them to do just that. 

(Bad) illustration: Parliament of Victoria, Twitter. 

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