Victoria passes historic law to create Indigenous treaty framework

It is the first ever Australian legislation stating intent to negotiate a treaty

The Victoria parliament has passed legislation that will create a framework for negotiating a treaty with Aboriginal people.

It is the first time legislation stating a formal intent to negotiate a treaty or treaties with Aboriginal people has ever been adopted by an Australian parliament, and comes as a federal parliamentary committee conducts hearings to examine national options for constitutional recognition and a treaty following the Uluru statement.

Other jurisdictions have also begun a treaty process, with the Northern Territory signing an agreement to begin treaty talks with four land councils last month, and the NSW opposition promising to begin the treaty process if it wins government. Treaty negotiations had begun in South Australia but were halted by the Marshall government.

The Victorian Aboriginal affairs minister, Natalie Hutchins, said the passage of the legislation was a “historic moment”.

“Treaty will have benefits for all Victorians – promoting reconciliation, fostering shared pride in Aboriginal culture and helping to heal the wounds of the past,” she said in a statement. “Aboriginal Victorians will continue to be at the centre of this process, as we work towards establishing the Aboriginal Representative Body.”

The Advancing the Treaty Process with Aboriginal Victorians bill 2018 establishes the framework for forming the Aboriginal Representative Body, which will in turn be tasked with setting the framework for negotiating a treaty or treaties with Aboriginal people and traditional owner groups in Victoria.

It passed the legislative council on Thursday night after a five-hour debate on Thursday night, without the support of the opposition.

None of the 42 amendments proposed by the Greens were adopted. Proposed amendments included a positive belief on behalf of government that Aboriginal sovereignty had never been ceded, replacing the Aboriginal working group with a clan elder’s council, inserting the definition of self-determination from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and appending a schedule of all known Victorian clans to the legislation.

The Greens leader, Samantha Ratman, said the amendments addressed the concerns of many Aboriginal people that involvement in a state-based treaty negotiation process would undermine their sovereignty and negate their ability to participate in a potential future national treaty process.

The special minister of state, Gavin Jennings, who carried the bill for the government in the upper house, said that Aboriginal sovereignty would only be lost if it was explicitly bargained away through the treaty process, a compromise to which Aboriginal people would never agree.

Jennings dismissed concerns from Liberal MP Bernie Finn, who argued that the dictionary definition of a treaty was an agreement between two sovereign states and that, as Aboriginal Victorians were also Victorian citizens, Victoria was effectively proposing to sign a treaty with itself.

He also argued a treaty was not necessary to address disadvantage.

“What is preventing Aboriginal Australians from having the sort of empowerment to which you refer before any such legislation of the nature that we’re trying to advance today, or you’re trying to advance today, occurs?” Finn said.

Jennings said the negative impact of 230 years of dispossession and systemic oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was “irrefutable” and that a treaty would go some way towards healing that damage.

“It is a population-based disaster that has been imposed on Aboriginal people since European settlement,” he said.

The Victorian Treaty Advancement Commission is conducting community consultation along the Murray River this week and will hold an information session in Swan Hill on Friday.


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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