Transcript: Alick and Merle Jackomos Oration – IPAA Victoria

This is a transcript of a speech by the Treaty Advancement Commissioner, Jill Gallagher AO at the Alick and Merle Jackomos Oration – IPAA Victoria on September 6, 2018.

I wish to acknowledge that I'm on Aboriginal land. The land of the Kulin nations, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. I want to pay my respects to elders past and present and elders that are here today.

I am a proud Gunditjmara woman from western Victoria. Tonight I want to share a bit about our journey so far, and what treaty can offer Aboriginal community and the state. I also want to reflect firstly on the work of Aunty Merle and Uncle Alick. I want to thank Jill for her opening remarks and I also want to acknowledge the Jackomos family that are here tonight. Thank you.

The Jackomos family have created a formidable legacy in this country. Few families have had such profound impacts as the Jackomos’. When I was writing this speech, I started to list the organizations that Aunty Merle was foundational in developing, but I eventually had to stop because that's all I would be doing, listing the organizations.

Many of these organizations are now titans in our communities. The Aborigines Advancement League, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service. It's hard today as Aboriginal people, it's hard to imagine the fabric of our community without these services.

But Aunty Merle’s impact was just as powerful at a local level. Establishing a girls' hostel in Northcote, campaigning in the 1967 referendum, the tireless volunteer work, the endless NAIDOC events, and that's just to name a few. Her commitment to community has continued, as has been stated in Esmai’s remarks, in her retirement.

Uncle Alick has unique place in our community. For a North Carlton born Greek man, his contribution to preserving our culture is outstanding. His achievements are numerous. In sport, community development, child welfare, and the list goes on. Including being the only non-aboriginal person to be given life membership of the Aboriginal Advancement League. However, the standout for me, was his tireless work mapping and documenting our communities.

As Andrew has already mentioned, he was a gifted photographer, with a remarkable memory. He compiled one of the most significant photographic archives of Aboriginal Victorians, and assembled over 1,000 family genealogies. His work is still relied on heavily today, and for all that work we thank Aunty Merle and Uncle Alick, and the Jackomos family for continuing their legacy.

80,000 years of survival was nearly wiped out in 200 years.

We have inhabited Australia for over 80,000 years. Though we believe in a lot of our creation stories, that we have been here since the beginning of time. In this time, we survived the end of the last ice age, watching as glaciers retreated, isolating us from the rest of the world. We faced massive changes to the land, to the animals, to the flora, and even after all that, our populations flourished.

It is believed by the time Captain Cook crashed into the Great Barrier Reef, our population was in the middle of a three century growth spurt. We developed knowledge and relationships with the land that enabled us to survive. That enabled us to survive and adapt and excel in some of the harshest environments in the world.

But in just over 200 years all of this nearly was wiped out at the beginning of colonisation. Through the massacres, the mission era, smallpox, the destruction of our food supplies. Smallpox wiped out about 75 per cent of our population, and that's a conservative estimate.

Not to say we weren't without resistance. My people down in western Victoria, we were known for using our volcanic landscape to drive out the squatters and the authorities. And there are other stories of our continued resistance across this country. Aunty Merle's family fought back against oppression, against oppressive conditions, by supporting the Cummeragunja walk off, which is one example, and before returning to protect it.

I don't share our history to elicit sympathy. I share it because we don't talk about this enough. We don't tell the truth in this country. We don't acknowledge that there were crimes against humanity committed in this country. Australia is one of the only Commonwealth countries that does not have a treaty with its indigenous peoples. And no Aboriginal person has ever ceded our sovereignty. And we began demanding treaty almost as soon as the first fleet arrived.

Why is treaty so important? Last week I had an elder, in my travels, ask me why I was so hooked on the idea of having treaties. And my response to her was, I believe we need a fundamental change in how we are recognized in this country. And only treaties can deliver this.

This fundamental change is about three things. First, treaties enable us to perform the ultimate act of self-determination. This will result in the recognition of us as a sovereign peoples. Second, treaties will result in the empowerment of our communities on issues ranging from culture to land to education. Thirdly, treaties can acknowledge that this land was taken from us. Treaties will give us the opportunity to recast our relationship with the state. Treaty is about rectifying these wrongs, but it's also what we can share with the rest of the community.

We have the oldest living culture on earth. We have language, our songs, our dance, and we are strong in the practice of them today. I want to see a world where language and culture is taught in schools, where you see it in the landscape, in our language and our politics. But it's not just these intangible benefits, it is the economic development and growth that can be unlocked by treaties. And this will benefit all Victorians, not just our communities. In 2014, a review by Deloitte estimated the treaty process in British Columbia, Canada, will deliver a net value to all Canadians of up to $1.75 billion. And with credit to our hosts, an earlier report by PWC put this figure even higher. This shows that treaty is an opportunity that will benefit all Victorians.

Early this month, I was privileged to join a small delegation of Aboriginal Victorians that travelled to Canada and the United States. We met with First Nation leaders who have negotiated, or are currently negotiating treaties. We witnessed the incredible transformation that treaty can offer our communities. We witnessed how treaties gave communities control over their affairs, how they can embed culture in their social services, design a justice system that doesn't just lock up their children, develop housing policies that reunite communities, not divide. Coming through this self-determination is economic empowerment – it has to be. Treaty is not about the continued drip-feeding of funding and an obsession with pilot programs. True self-determination is control over our economy and hopefully we will not let the government off the hook on this.

We know government struggles to let go of power, and we know their silence on treaty has been deafening, until now. So what is different this time? We have a government that's committed to treaty, and has stuck with it for over two years now. We have legislation, the first time in this country, and Parliament has recognized our rights to treaty. The Act states in law that government will talk treaty and do so fairly.

We have the backing of the state, we know community is getting ready, so what are the next steps?

My role isn't to negotiate treaties, that's a while off. My responsibility is to establish an Aboriginal Representative Body. This will be our voice to government, and in partnership, with government,  they will develop the rules for future treaty negotiations and how we actually get there. Next year, Aboriginal Victorians will be asked to vote for their representative body. Our strongest hunters and gatherers. My role will be to conduct these elections,  and to build a body that is culturally strong and represents the diversity of all our voices.

On the 24th of September, I'm hosting a forum that will bring Elders together from across the state. The following day I'm hosting a gathering of Aboriginal Victorians. This is another opportunity for community to have their voices heard.

For the non-Aboriginal community, this process can seem quite new and a little bit scary. Treaty isn't about blame, and it isn't about taking people's back yards. The current population of Victorians is not responsible for the actions of their ancestors, but however, you are accountable for actions now. And please, don't be bystanders in this space.

Uncle Alick was a shining example of a non-Aboriginal man who gave tirelessly to our communities. He definitely was not a bystander. And the challenges we face in this space are immense, so we do need your help.

Every Victorian has a responsibility, a responsibility to be involved in this process. Inform yourself and stay informed. Be on top of what's happening with Aboriginal Victorians in the treaty space. Talk to your communities, and the organizations that you work for. Your families, your friends, your next-door neighbours. Tell them what you've heard, tell them what you believe, and tell them that you support the first people of this state having treaties. Explain to them that it's time we do things differently in Victoria. Explain to them all the things that treaty has to offer, and not just for Aboriginal communities. Most importantly, explain to them that we have been waiting for far too long to right the wrongs of the past.

Again, thank you to the Jackomos family for all you've done in the past and present. And again, thanks to the Institute of Public Administration and PWC for the opportunity to speak tonight. Thank you very much.

[Portions of this speech may have been edited for clarity]