Guest lecture: University of Melbourne

The following is a speech delivered by the Treaty Advancement Commissioner, Jill Gallagher AO at the University of Melbourne on 10 May, 2018.

Some sections have been edited for context and clarity


Wominjeka means hello in Wurundjeri language.

It's not our language.

It's not my tongue, but it's fitting that I use part of their language to say hello to you guys.

Therefore, I wish to acknowledge the people in the Kulin Nations.

The traditional owners of the land on which we meet today.

I wish to pay my respects to their elders, and elders throughout Victoria, whose generations of struggle and sacrifice has brought us to where we are today.

I am an Aboriginal woman from Gunditjmara nations, which is Western Victoria, and I'm also Victoria's first Treaty Advancement Commissioner, and I commenced this role this year.

Today I want to talk about the impacts of colonisation on the Victorian Aboriginal communities, and the need for treaties.

I hope I'll talk real fast so we can have heaps of questions at the end.

We all know Victoria was occupied prior to colonisation.

That's a fact.

It's not a myth, or a legend, it is a fact.

Aboriginal people were here before settlement.

We believe that this country was colonised on a lie.

A lie that this continent was Terra Nullius.

Mabo actually debunked that myth, through Eddie Mabo's fight for recognition up on Murray Island.

But in Victoria, we all know also, if you've studied archaeology, our ancestors walked this country when there was a land bridge that joined Tasmania and the mainland.

Our ancestors here in Victoria witnessed volcanoes erupting.

Tower Hill, which is in Western Victoria, that was 32,000 years ago, that my ancestors witnessed Tower Hill erupt as an active volcano.

Our people hunted megafauna with mere stone tools and wooden implements.

Megafauna died out in this country 45,000 years ago, and yet we are still here as a nation, as a peoples, as the First Nations of this country, of this continent.

We are still here.

Our communities had and still have very complex social structures.

We had our own laws that governed our ways of life.

Our people knew how to use the environment for our survival.

We knew about traditional medicines, about fire farming and fish farming methods.

We knew how to look after the land, so the land knew how to look after us.

Then, colonization happened.

For Aboriginal communities in Victoria, colonisation, it was brutal, and unquantifiable.

It had devastating impacts on us as a people, and it still does today.

The introduction of diseases, the massacres, the theft of our country, of our lands.

The forced relocation of our people, and generations of our children stolen from families, from communities, and their culture.

We have survived what could only be described as crimes against humanity.

There was never a declared war in this country.

When Captain Cook first so-called discovered Australia, there was never a declared war.

Our ancestors welcomed Captain Cook with open arms.

There was never a declared war, so people can't be held accountable for war crimes, but there were crimes against humanity.

No one knows about them but those who have an interest, research, and talk about it, and learn about it.

But no one knows about the crimes against humanity in this country and no one wants to talk about it.

Especially governments.

In South Africa, when apartheid existed, there was never a declared war there either, and there were crimes against humanity there too.

But when apartheid was abolished, they had truth hearings.

People could get up and tell their stories how colonisation and how settlement impacted on their lives, on their communities, on their culture.

And all the atrocities that happened in the name of colonising and taking over.

But despite all this, we as Aboriginal people in Victoria, we remain very strong, and proud people, in communities.

We continue to grow, and make great strides for our communities.

But there's still unfinished business in this country, in Australia.

Australia's one of the only Commonwealth country that does not have treaties with Indigenous peoples.

We are one of the only Commonwealth countries that doesn't have treaties.

We all should feel ashamed of it.

Surely we do.

And embarrassed on an international platform.

We as Aboriginal people, we have never ceded our sovereignty.

We have long called for treaties in this country.

That's not a new ask.

We've had political activists for many years, both at the national level and state levels calling for treaties.

I think it was Bob Hawke that said, "Let's explore that. What that looks like," and we ended up with reconciliation.

I've got nothing against reconciliation, by the way.

I'm not trying to disrespect it.

But unfinished business needs to happen first.

What's new in this demand for treaties is that this government heeded our call two years ago, and here in Victoria, we are further down the path of treaties than we have ever been before.

For me, as Commissioner, that's quite exciting.

For me as an Aboriginal woman, that's quite exciting.

I'm hoping for Victorians, it's quite exciting.

And I have faith that all Victorians would ... well, the majority of Victorians would, support governments continuing to explore what treaties would look like in this state.

This is an incredible opportunity for us as Aboriginal people, but it's also an incredible opportunity for all Victorians to be a part of.

We need to make sure that we seize those opportunities.

Treaties are necessary for the recognition of the wrongs, and all the atrocities, and the crimes against humanity.

They're necessary to raise them to the surface.

To make everyone aware.

Not only in Australia, but internationally, on an international platform.

We have to have true recognition of what happened to our people in this country.

It's not about blaming you, or blaming current governments, or blaming any other Australian.

It's about stating a fact, and it's about attempting to right those wrongs.

Treaties are also necessary for the promotion of our fundamental human rights as Aboriginal people, of the First Peoples of this country.

Treaties are an opportunity to recast the relationship between Aboriginal Victorians, and non-Aboriginal Victorians.

My role as Commissioner, is not to actually negotiate treaties, so that's not what we're currently working on.

My role is to establish a representative body.

The representative body will be a democratic voice for all our people in the treaty process, and independent of government, and that's crucial.

Once established, the representative body will work with government to establish a treaty negotiation framework, which sets out what is on the table, and what is off the table, and who can negotiate treaties.

It will also establish a treaty authority, which will be the independent umpire in the process of negotiating treaties.

It will also establish a self-determination fund. Which will support Aboriginal communities to be on an even playing field with government when treaties are being negotiated.

In support of this, the Victorian government has introduced a Bill into parliament, and we're all hoping that it is going to be debated in the coming weeks.

The Bill will, for first time in law, commit the government to a treaty process.

A treaty process with Aboriginal Victorians, and to ensure that it's done fairly.

This legislation is a fundamental milestone in the whole process leading up to treaties for the state of Victoria.

It's something we've never ever done before, so it's a learning curve for us.

We're actually looking at other examples around the world.

We're looking at New Zealand, the Treaty of Waitangi.

Looking at British Columbia, the US, to see if we can learn something from them.

Take some good bits, maybe not some of the bad bits.

This is an incredibly exciting time for me, and all members of our communities in Victoria.

This is history in the making.

People don't realize what we're doing here.

It's trailblazing, it's history, and I believe you can be a part of this.

You can be a part of supporting us in making this history.

I believe it's everybody's responsibility, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, to keep yourself informed.

If you support treaties for the First People of this country, then make it your business to keep what's going on.

Sign up so that we can send you information.

We're looking for people's email addresses.

You can learn more about the Commission by following us on Facebook.

We have a Facebook page and Twitter.

We tweet, which is something new to me.

In closing, I really think Victoria can lead the way for the rest of the country.

We don't have treaties in any other part of Australia.

We're not likely to get a Commonwealth treaty or a Commonwealth treaty framework.

South Australia has a treaty process, they’re doing things a little bit differently to us, but they’ve had a change of government and have paused the process at the moment.

It is a challenge, but I’m optimistic, I have faith in human nature and I believe that having treaty in this country is doing the right thing for Aboriginal people.