Transcript: Castan Centre/ King & Wood Mallesons Annual Lecture

This is a transcript of the 2018 Castan Centre / King & Wood Mallesons Annual Lecture.

It was delivered by the Treaty Advancement Commissioner, Jill Gallagher in Melbourne on 4 October, 2018.

I was born in the ACT. But I do have very strong cultural connections to traditional owners here in Victoria.

The Gunditjmara nations is western Victoria - for those who don't know - and my mother, who is still alive today, she's 92, she lived down on a little mission called Framlingham when she was growing up as a young woman. And has never been back, because she believes that the memories of going back down there are too hard for her to address at 92 years of age.

This afternoon I want to share a bit about our journey so far, our journey to treaties and what treaties can offer the Aboriginal community, but also what treaties can offer the State of Victoria.

I wish to briefly reflect on the work of the Castan Centre for Human Rights and its name sake, Ron Castan. Ron was a pioneer in the fight for legal recognition of our land rights. His leadership in the Gove and the Mabo cases won unprecedented victories for those nations and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. His advocacy for our communities was not just limited to the courtroom.

In 1971, Ron was the founding secretary of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service. In short VALS, VALS provided crucial support for some of the most vulnerable members of our communities who often went before the courts with no representation.

To this day, VALS remains a very strong and cornerstone organization of our community controlled sector. I believe our journey towards treaty honours Ron's legacy and our long history of struggle for our people’s proper recognition as the first peoples of this country.

I'm hoping with all you learned people in the room, that you are aware about what I'm going to just talk about briefly. But we all know that we, we as Aboriginal people in this country, we have inhabited Australia for over 80,000 years - though in our oral histories and our stories, we believe we've been here since the beginning of time.

But in this time, we have 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 land, the environment, to the animals, to the flora. We had to develop knowledge and relationships with the land that enabled us, as a peoples, to survive. But not only survive, to adapt and excel in some of the harshest environments in the world.

And we maintain a lot of this knowledge today - enriching our cultures as well as the cultures of the world. Our cultures are here in Australia have to be recognized as one of the oldest living culture[s] in the world.

But in just over 200 years, colonisation attempted to wipe all of this out.

So volcanoes and Ice Age couldn't wipe us out or destroy us as an ancient, rich culture for many, many thousands of years.

But just in 200 years, through the forced removals of our peoples off their own traditional country, the massacres of our people, the systems of missions that were set up supposedly to protect, the introduction of small pox and other diseases, the theft of our children, these were systematic attempts to destroy our way of life and our people and our communities.

But what a lot of people don't know - what's not taught in schools - is that our people did resist.

We tried to resist colonisation every step of the way. Even today, we are still resisting.

We've all heard of the frontier wars. We had shown a resilience few people on this planet could actually muster, we have never given an inch of our land or our way of life without immense struggles. And this struggle still continues today.

But I don't share our history to look for sympathy, we don't need sympathy.

I share it because we don't talk about it enough in Australian society.

We don't tell the truth in this country.

We don't acknowledge that there were crimes against humanity committed on our people, the Indigenous people of this country.

I share this history to show why we need treaties. Australia is one of the only Commonwealth countries that does not have a treaty with its Indigenous people.

No Aboriginal Australian has ever ceded our sovereignty and we began demanding treaty almost as soon as the First Fleet arrived.

Why is treaty so important? Treaty is about the fundamental change in how we are recognized in our own country.

I believe only treaties can deliver that change. It's about our recognition of our sovereignty and our inherent right to self-determination and our culture.

It's about truth telling and acknowledging the impacts of colonisation.

It's about wealth creation. This is not just about economic empowerment, but embracing our intangible wealth by strengthening our languages and our culture and our way of doing business.

Treaty can do this in so many ways, through truth telling, land buy-backs - because treaty cannot be about private land. It has to be about reparation. It has to be about acknowledging the past and this is not just a one way street.

We have the oldest living culture on Earth, we have language, we have our song and our dances, we have our stories, we have our Elders and we are strong[er] today than ever we have been before.

But I want to see a world where our language and our culture is taught in schools.

We see it in the landscape, we see in our language and in our politics.

When you look around this awesome view, is there anything in the landscape that you can visually see that tells you that there are 50,000 Aboriginal people that live in this state? That 20,000 of that 50,000 live in Melbourne? What's visible in the landscape is not our - there's no visibility of our culture in the landscape when you look around; a treaty can change that.

It's not just these intangible benefits, it is the economic development and growth that can be unlocked by treaties and could be benefit all Victorians.

It is estimated that the British Columbia Treaty process will deliver a net value to all Canadians, of up to $1.75 billion. Now, I think that study was done by PWC by the way. Pricewaterhouse [Coopers].

But that is a really important point - we can all benefit from treaties.

In August, this year, I was privileged to join a very small delegation of Aboriginal Victorians that travelled to Canada and the United States.

We met with First Nation leaders who have negotiated, or are negotiating, treaties.

We witnessed the incredible transformation that treaties can offer communities.

We saw how treaties gave communities control over their own affairs, how they can embed culture into their social services, how they can design a justice system that doesn't just lock up their children, develop housing policies that reunite communities not divide.

We also saw how economic empowerment built incredible, culturally strong communities. In the words of one Chief that I met over there - band just a little side story, this is my naivety of First Nation's peoples, I thought Chiefs were men. This Chief happens to be a woman, which I thought was awesome. But in the words of this Chief, they went from managing - their community went from ‘managing poverty’ to ‘managing wealth’.

We know Governments struggle to let go of power, that's not going to be an easy one even though we have a willing Government in Victoria, and we know their silence on treaty has been deafening until now.

So what is different this time? Well, this time we have a Government that is committed to treaty. But more importantly they've stuck with it for over two years now, we're coming into the third year. We have the first treaty laws in this country, recognising our right to treaty and committing Government to this process.

Over the last two and a half years our communities have met and developed this process. Thousands of Aboriginal people have been, have been along part of the journey. We have the backing of the state. Our communities are engaged, so what's the next step for us?

So my role, my role is not to negotiate treaties or treaty. I believe that's a while off, that could be - I have no idea how long that could take.

My responsibility is to establish an Aboriginal Representative Body, a statewide Aboriginal representative body.

This will be our voice to Government and we'll work with them to develop the rules for future treaty negotiations, including what is on the table and probably what's not on the table, what's within a state Government remit, what's not within a state Government remit.

And who? Who negotiates treaties? Not from a Government point of view, they've probably got that all worked out. But who from the [Aboriginal] community, who from my community negotiates treaties? That's the challenge.

The Body, that my job is to establish, won't be established to negotiate treaties either. Their role will be to negotiate, in partnership with state Government, a treaty negotiating framework. That's the rule book, that's how treaties are going to be negotiated well into the future.

I also have to build this body that is culturally strong. Culturally strong, but also be able to survive the modern world and a body that can make decisions, so it also has to be practical. But it also has to represent the diversity of our voices within the Victorian Aboriginal community, not an easy task.

Last week I presented the proposed model for the representative body to our communities, on the 24th and 25th of September, we're in October now aren't we? Yeah, September. The first day, the 24th, was the first time ever that we've attempted to bring Aboriginal Elders from across the state of Victoria to talk about how do we include an Elder's voice in this body?

The body will be democratic, but also respectful of our way of doing business. So next year, Aboriginal Victorians will be asked to vote for their representatives - and we do need our strongest hunter-gatherers.

Because the biggest step in this whole process is not my role, not the Representative Body, but it's the framework that it [the Representative Body] is supposed to develop, that's the crucial document. That's the document.

Hopefully if we get that right, it will allow for locally based treaties to be negotiated into the future.

And also - if we get that framework right - we'll also look at some collective benefits that could come out of a treaty for Aboriginal people in Victoria.

For the non-Aboriginal community, this process can seem new, confusing and can seem a bit scary. The treaties, or treaty, isn't about people's private land or your backyard and it isn't about blaming anyone for the past.

No one today is responsible for the actions of your ancestors, but I believe you are accountable for your actions today.

So I'm asking, please don't be bystanders.

If you support treaties, if you support true recognition of the first people of this state, if you support righting the wrongs of the past, then talk about treaty.

Tell people you support it. Talk to your neighbours. Talk to your local groups of some sort, where you work.

Come out and tell people you support it - in particular the politicians.

The challenges we have faced, they're not small, they are immense. So we do need your help. Every Victorian has a responsibility to be involved in the process. Keep yourself informed and stay informed. Explain to people that you come into contact with what you heard today, what you've learnt today. And if you support it, spread the word.

But I think it's most importantly that we explain that Aboriginal people in this country have been waiting far too long to right these wrongs.

I believe we're on the cusp of something great, something many of us never thought we would ever see.

We are closer than ever before to having our right to self-determination, our right to sovereignty, recognised by the state of Victoria.

And I have to have faith that we will get there, and I'd like to thank you for your time today, listening to what I've had to say. I'd like to thank the hosts, [the] Castan Centre and King & Wood Mallesons. Thank you.

So please, if you do support treaties, talk to people, tell them. We're at- We are, I believe, historically at the cusp of achieving and showing the way for the rest of Australia. Let alone, the world.

[It’s a] bit shameful, bit embarrassing that Australia doesn't have treaties.

So, thank you very much.