“Yet out of the very roots of the grass we shake gold. We can see the particles shining as we open pieces of the grass roots …”
William Howitt Land, Labour and Gold; or Two Years in Victoria.
There is a gold rush on.
This rush, however, is not of the old auriferous sort, but rather flows continually from the alluvial streams of the government purse.
Crude racial entitlements to land, power and treasure for those with Aboriginal ancestry have grown to the point where bureaucracies with an Indigenous bent can now claim nearly double the amount of real estate on the diggings of this, the second Victorian gold rush.
Some of the greediest pans working these modern goldfields are those of the Victorian First People’s Assembly. Set up by Premier Daniel Andrews as a sovereign entity tasked with forming a treaty ‘on equal footing’ with the Victorian State Government, the First People’s Assembly was granted a ‘Self-Determination Fund’ with an initial allocation of $30.4 million. An ‘additional $20.2 million’ has since been allocated to the Assembly in the Victorian 20/21 budget.
This ‘stronger stipend’ has allowed the assembly to advertise for a slough of new positions for Policy Officers ($98,000-$120,000), Policy Managers ($121,000-$162,000), Senior Policy Officers ($98,000-$120,000) and Principal Researchers ($121,000-$162,000).
At a time when the private sector has been practically kept under mass house arrest, let alone restrained from trading, it may seem an insensitive time for the government to be advertising such positions.
Yet these paltry amounts are mere Sovereign Hill gold dust compared to the Welcome Stranger–sized nuggets they have in their sights.
In its Examples of Rights Under the Statewide and Local Treaties Discussion Paper, the First People’s Assembly include objectives such as the “recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty”, establishment of ‘self-government’, the introduction of ‘redress schemes’, ‘economic development’, and land ‘buy-backs’ among many other suggestions for improving the aboriginal lot; from more lenient sentences for Aboriginal crimes to reserved seats in parliament for aboriginal bums.
Under the heading ‘Transfers and Buy-Backs for Country’, the paper urges the pursuit in Victoria of a similar arrangement to the Noongar Native Title Claim, in which 320,00km2 of “development and cultural land” was granted to the Noongar group in WA, alongside a perpetual trust funded by the Government granting them $50 million per year over 12 years. In addition to this, they will receive a further $10 million per year over 12 years for establishing “Noongar Regional Corporations”, $6.5 million for establishing their offices, $10 million to develop and refurbish their property portfolio, $46.85 million for ‘land-related projects’ and $5.3 million towards the development of a Noongar Cultural Centre.
Added together, this comes to just under a cool $800 million, or $27.5 million for every member of staff (29) and over $120,000 for each of the 6,611 members of the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council Aboriginal Corporation, the Native Title Service Provider for the Noongar.
On top of the already established March 2020 “Stolen Generations redress scheme”, further schemes to pour funds into Aboriginal groups in repentance for perceived historical wrongs are suggested by the Assembly. The Paper suggests granting Aboriginals additional rights to the existing special rights granted in the Native Title Act 1993, Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 and the Traditional Owner Settlement Act 2010, to “manage Country” including exerting influence over “agriculture, water, fisheries and forests” to promote “traditional systems of land management”.
The paper also suggests offering “exemptions or different levels of taxation [for Aboriginals], or the direction of taxation towards specific programs benefitting Aboriginal Victorians.”
This gold rush, combined with diggings large and small; from drop-in-the-Ovens-River ($2 million) handouts for ‘formally and non-formally recognised groups’ to $109 million Eureka nuggets “for prioritising and celebrating Aboriginal culture,” show just a glimpse of the full extent of mining networks established in the rich vein of Commonwealth coffers.
The harsh Victorian goldfields of the 19th century were famed for their democratising effect (if not intention); engendering, among other things, the Eureka Stockade and advancing organised labour. In 1853 J. F. Hughes, a digger near Maldon, observed that: ‘Among those gold-seekers might have been found representatives of nearly every phase of human society [including] the Aboriginal’.
The modern Aboriginal gold rush, however, belongs only to a narrow elite. Only 2,000 votes were cast for the First People’s Assembly (7% of those eligible) and the 21 elected and 11 appointed members now represent a racial oligarchy, with some members not even securing 40 first-preference votes to dictate policy ‘on equal terms’ with the Victorian State Government, which represents 6.5 million people.
When a narrow, racially based elite can dictate policy and divert huge funds from the commonwealth into their own pockets, we move further from that future Kevin Rudd promised us when he made his 2008 apology; “A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia”, and move insidiously closer to a world of “four legs good, two legs better”.
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