Transcript: 2018 Barak-Wonga Oration

This is a transcript of the 2018 Swinburne University Annual Barak-Wonga Oration, by the Victorian Treaty Advancement Commissioner, Jill Gallagher. It was delivered on 9 August 2018.

I wish to acknowledge that I am on Aboriginal land, the land of the Kulin nations, traditional owners of the land on which we meet today.

I wish to pay my respects to their Elders.

I also pay my respects to Elders throughout Victoria, whose struggle and sacrifice has brought us to where we are today.

I am a proud Gunditjmara woman from Western Victoria. At the start of this year I was appointed Victoria’s first Treaty Advancement Commissioner.

I would like to thank Swinburne University for inviting me to speak today.

I am proud to speak at the annual Barak-Wonga Oration.

William Barak and Simon Wonga are true champions of the Wurundjeri people, and should inspire all Aboriginal people in Victoria to continue the struggle for justice and self-determination.

Tonight provides us with an opportunity to listen, reflect and learn about ways we can achieve reconciliation in Victoria.

Today is the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples.

This day recognises the struggle and achievements not just of Aboriginal people in Australia, but Indigenous peoples across the planet.

We are connected in our quest towards self-determination, human rights and recognition of sovereignty.

Victoria was occupied prior to colonisation. That’s a fact.

Our communities had and still have very complex social structures, and our own lore that govern our way of life.

Our people knew how to use the environment for their survival, they knew their country, fire-farming and fish farming methods.

We knew how to look after the land so that it looked after us.

At Budj Bim, in my family’s country in Western Victoria, this was volcanic country, littered with dormant lava flows and rocks.

My ancestors developed a system of aquaculture across this country.

They dug channels and diverted the river, they created storage ponds for eels, which they harvested year round using woven traps, and smoked them in the hollows of gum trees.

My people lived in stone buildings built alongside this farm system.

The idea that we were just hunter gatherers was a myth, though we were pretty good at that too.

For the Aboriginal communities in Victoria - our communities - colonisation was brutal and had devastating impacts on us as a people, and still does today.

The introduction of disease, massacres, theft, forced relocation of our people, and generations of Aboriginal children stolen.

This all had an incredible impact that will still grapple with today.

Without a doubt these were crimes against humanity.

But despite all this….we remain a strong and proud people.

Our communities continue to grow and make great strides.

We have established institutions that express our truly unique cultural footprint on the world.

We have advocated for a proper place in our own country, developing inspirational champions in the process.

And we have created organisations to promote the welfare and advancement of our communities.

As we can see, there is unfinished business in this land. And this is the unfinished business of Treaty.

Australia is the only developed Commonwealth country that does not have a treaty with its First Nations.

Aboriginal Australians have never ceded sovereignty and have long called for treaty with government.

In 1835 when John Batmen signed a ‘treaty’ with the local Kulin clan elders - trading 600,000 acres of land for some blankets, trinkets and an annual ‘tribute’ - the treaty was annulled a few months later.

In the long run this was a good thing, because it was a rotten deal.

What it does mean though, is as early as 1835, government knew terra nullius was a myth.

Both William Barak and Simon Wonga were present at the signing of this ‘treaty.’

I have no doubt that the event spurred their future roles as champions of Aboriginal people in this state.

I believe that the event taught them the importance of self-organisation, and in coming together to achieve self-determination for Aboriginal people in this state.

We’ve had just short of 200 years of broken promises.

Bob Hawke promised a treaty by 1990. 27 years later Malcolm Turnbull rejected the Uluru statement.

So the call for treaty isn’t new. What is new is that in Victoria, government has heeded this call.

In early 2016, government held a self-determination forum, at Federation Square, asking community what it meant to us. What would self‑determination look like?

The overwhelming call is that we need treaty with government.

The first stage in the process is working out a representative structure for the Aboriginal people of Victoria - our collective voice to government.

This is somewhat unique to Victoria. Colonisation in this state smashed clans and families, and sought to dismantle our connection to culture and country.

As you well know, we’re still picking up the pieces. Not just through treaty but through land rights, the Heritage Act, and Traditional Owner Settlement Act.

What this means for treaty is that unlike some other states, there’s no clearly defined structure of nations that covers the whole state.

Therefore our first job is to construct a representative structure to work as the counterpart to the state.

This is a challenging concept, because pre-colonisation there was no state-wide structure for Aboriginal people, there was no state.

My role isn’t to negotiate treaties, that’s a while off.

My responsibility is to establish this Aboriginal Representative Body.

The Representative Body will work with government to:

    • Establish a Treaty Negotiation Framework. Which sets out the groundwork including what is on the table and who can negotiate treaties
    • Establish a Treaty Authority. Which will be the independent ‘umpire’ in the process
    • Establish a self-determination fund. Which will support Aboriginal communities to be on an even playing field with government.

This will be a democratic voice for our people in the treaty process, independent of government.

I have the difficult task to create, within what is essentially a white construct, a Body representative of the Aboriginal people of Victoria and infused with our culture.

In establishing this Body, I must ensure that traditional owners’ voices are central.

I am also doing my best to include as many Aboriginal people living in Victoria as possible in the process.

Next year, the Aboriginal people of Victoria will vote for their representatives on this Body - our strongest hunters and gatherers.

I will be asking all Aboriginal people in Victoria to enrol to vote and start considering who might stand in elections.

We are further on the path to treaty than ever before.

It’s no easy task, but I know that we are on the right road, and I know that we can do it.

Treaty is about fundamental change.

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 sovereign peoples.

Second, treaties will result in the empowerment of our communities on issues ranging from culture, economic development, land rights, and education.

Third, treaties can acknowledge that this land was taken from us. Treaties will therefore give us the opportunity to recast our relationship with the state.

We have 80,000 years of history on this country. We have language, songs and culture.

Why can’t we show the world that a strong, contemporary, Aboriginal culture permeates this land?

I want to see a world where this culture is taught in schools, where you see it in the landscape, in our language and our politics.

This is what treaties have the potential to give us.

This is an incredibly exciting time for us as Aboriginal people in Victoria, and for all Victorians.

This is history in the making.

Everyone has a responsibility to be involved in this process and stay informed.

You should be talking within your communities about what you’ve heard tonight, about how important treaty is, how it is fundamental to our human rights and our self-determination as Aboriginal people.

You don’t have to feel guilty about the past, but you do have an obligation to be involved now.

You can learn more about the Commission by following us on Facebook and Twitter and by signing up for emails at

The government has also launched Deadly Questions. A campaign prompting all Victorians to start thinking more about Aboriginal Victorians and their place in this state.

I am excited to be at the forefront of this stage of the treaty process.

We are leading the nation and I believe truly honouring the legacy of William Barak and Simon Wonga.