The “Massachusetts of Australia” is how former Australian Prime Minister John Howard once described the state of Victoria. His comment, a criticism mired deeply in his unwavering commitment to the increasingly conservative Liberal Party, was aimed at a state that has had a center-left Labor government for all but four years of the 21st century so far.
The state, which is often seen as a political outlier by the Australian conservative media, is largely an enigma in its hit and miss record toward progressive change.
On one side of the coin, the Daniel Andrews-led government has failed to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14, despite a significant number of human rights groups calling for its immediate implementation. Its “harsh” bail laws directly led to death of Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung, Wiradjuri, and Yorta Yorta woman Veronica Nelson in 2020, and the state maintains a police force with more members and more financial backing than any other jurisdiction in the country.
On the other side of the debate, the Andrews government has been an outspoken defender of LGBTQ+ rights; has banned the public display of the swastika; and, in 2019, announced one of the most significant institutions to be constructed since colonization of the continent: The legislating of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria; a democratically elected body to represent all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Victoria.
A First in Australia
The Assembly – the first of its kind in Australia – consists of 21 elected representatives and 10 seats reserved for formally recognized Traditional Owner groups.
Running for three weeks, the elections for the second iteration of the Assembly are currently taking place, with every First Nations person above 16 in the state eligible to vote. The Assembly also allows – in contrast to state and federal elections – voting for incarcerated citizens. With Indigenous people experiencing a significant over-representation in the criminal justice system, the Assembly argues that a lack of voting restrictions is vital in allowing maximum electoral participation.
Inaugural co-chair of the Assembly, Bangerang and Wiradjuri Elder Aunty Geraldine Atkinson, said that the Assembly gets strength from the wide-ranging views on offer throughout the First Nations communities.
In an interview with the author a couple of weeks ago, she argued that the Assembly worked with the state government as equal partners, allowing decisions to be made that would benefit First Nations people.
“We had enormous support [from the government] and during the negotiations, what we were able to do was earn their respect,” she said.
On the first iteration of the Assembly, she was unequivocal that it had been a success.
“Better outcomes are achieved when the collective aspirations, priorities and wisdom of First Peoples informs government decision-making.”
The Assembly’s achievements are tangible and include helping set up the current Yoorrook Justice Commission – the first formal truth-telling process into injustices experienced by First Peoples in Victoria – which has heard from Premier Daniel Andrews, as well as the state’s police commissioner, Shane Patton.
In a letter to the commission, Andrews said it was a “source of great shame” that Indigenous people continue to be over-represented in the child protection and criminal justice systems.
Meanwhile, Patton apologized for the actions of the Victorian police – both past and present – that resulted in “trauma experienced by so many Aboriginal families.”
Establishing a Treaty
The Assembly argues that treaties will provide for “better representation and political power for First Peoples.”
Ideas being discussed include a permanent number of seats in Victorian Parliament that members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community vote for, similar to the structure of Maori representation in New Zealand’s parliament, and a self-determination fund to build wealth for future generations.
There is also an endeavor to empower more local Traditional Owners to negotiate treaties for their specific priorities.
The state Labor party has been making all the right noises in its support for the treaty process. Only this week, it announced that AU$138 million was allocated to the treaty process, AU$82 million directly to the assembly.
Inaugural co-chair of the Assembly and Nira illim bulluk man of the Taungurung Nation Marcus Stewart said that the government can see that a “long-term commitment” for the treaty process is needed.
“For the treaty to begin to undo the damage of over 230 years of colonization, the process must be set up for success, and all mob must have the chance to be part of treaty-making,” he said.
Beginning in the second half of this year, an adjudicator – made up of five Indigenous people selected by a panel and known as the Treaty Authority – will act as an “independent umpire” to help resolve any treaty disputes between the two partners.
The government has relinquished some of its power, with the Treaty Authority sitting outside of the realms of a government agency and being truly independent. A similar mediating role is played by a Treaty Commission in the Canadian province of British Columbia.
Minister for Treaty and First Peoples Gabriel Williams said the government is “proud” of its partnership with the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria.
“The establishment of the panel is another important step on Victoria’s path to Treaty, with the Treaty Authority to commence operations later this year which will allow Treaty negotiations to begin,” Williams said.
A criticism from some progressive Indigenous people on the Voice to Parliament proposal is that the executive government does not have to act on anything proposed to it by the Voice. Former Indigenous spokesperson for the Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe has advanced the Blak Sovereignty movement, and has stated that she opposes the Voice due to it being an “advisory body with no power.”
The Treaty Authority is therefore designed to overcome this and act on any disputes that are unresolved in treaty negotiations, enabling a negotiation process and treaty body that has real power behind it.
Jill Gallagher, the former head of the state’s treaty advancement commission, told Guardian Australia that she would be nervous in negotiating with the government – and all their negotiating resources – over a treaty, without the Treaty Authority to act as an adjudicator.
“It ensures that the Aboriginal community won’t get dudded in this [treaty] process, so the authority could help,” she said.
“A small clan negotiating around the table with government could get hoodwinked.”
Despite the Victorian government being painted as a “socialist” by the conservative media, and simultaneously maligned by some progressives as too indebted to the police and opinion polls (often at the expense of real social change), it is undeniable that the joint establishing of the Assembly with First Nations people is a step that is resoundingly positive.
It remains to be seen how successful the treaty negotiations are. But in the current context of the upcoming Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum, which is operating in a toxic bubble of racist rhetoric, half-truths and vile social media comments, the fact this election has gone on with a majority of acceptance and lack of fanfare will be seen a positive sign going forward.