‘Please don’t be bystanders’: treaty commissioner calls for public support

By David Donaldson

Monday September 10, 2018

Jill Gallagher
Jill Gallagher

A treaty with First Nations might be “a little bit scary” for some, but Victorian Treaty Advancement Commissioner Jill Gallagher AO hopes all Victorians will get involved. “We do need your help.”

“Treaty isn’t about guilt, it isn’t about blame, and it isn’t about taking people’s backyards,” Gallagher told the audience assembled for this year’s Jackomos Oration in Melbourne on Thursday evening.

“The current population of Victorians is not responsible for the actions of their ancestors, but you are accountable for actions now. And please, don’t be bystanders in this space.”

The Jackomos Oration, hosted by IPAA Victoria, celebrates the work of Alick and Merle Jackomos, who shaped Aboriginal life in Victoria, establishing the Aborigines Advancement League and the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service.

Gallagher was appointed to head up the Victorian Treaty Advancement Commission when it was created in January this year, following 14 years as CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation.

Historic legislation to create a framework for a treaty process — the first of its kind — passed in June, but it’s still early days.

“My role isn’t to negotiate treaties, that’s a while off,” Gallagher explained.

“My responsibility is to establish an Aboriginal representative body. This will be our voice to government, and in partnership, with government, they will develop the rules for future treaty negotiations and how we actually get there.

“Next year, Aboriginal Victorians will be asked to vote for their representative body. Our strongest hunters and gatherers. My role will be to conduct these elections, and to build a body that is culturally strong and represents the diversity of all our voices.”

The case for treaty

Gallagher explained why she thinks treaty is such an important issue.

“I believe we need a fundamental change in how we are recognised in this country, and only treaties can deliver this,” she said.

“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 a sovereign peoples.

“Second, treaties will result in the empowerment of our communities on issues ranging from culture to land to education.

“Thirdly, treaties can acknowledge that this land was taken from us. Treaties will give us the opportunity to recast our relationship with the state. Treaty is about rectifying these wrongs, but it’s also what we can share with the rest of the community.”

There’s also a business case argument to it.

“In 2014, a review by Deloitte estimated the treaty process in British Columbia, Canada, will deliver a net value to all Canadians of up to $1.75 billion,” she said. PwC, which co-hosted the event, “put this figure even higher”.

Gallagher was among a group of Aboriginal Victorians who travelled to the United States and Canada recently to meet with First Nations leaders who have a treaty or are currently negotiating one.

“We witnessed the incredible transformation that treaty can offer our communities. We witnessed how treaties gave communities control over their affairs, how they can embed culture in their social services, design a justice system that doesn’t just lock up their children, develop housing policies that reunite communities, not divide.

“Coming through this self-determination is economic empowerment — it has to be. Treaty is not about the continued drip-feeding of funding and an obsession with pilot programs.”

‘Every Victorian has a responsibility’

The commissioner ended with a call for non-Aboriginal Victorians to assist.

“The challenges we face in this space are immense, so we do need your help.

“Every Victorian has a responsibility to be involved in this process. Inform yourself and stay informed. Be on top of what’s happening with Aboriginal Victorians in the treaty space.

“Talk to your communities, and the organisations that you work for. Your families, your friends, your next-door neighbours. Tell them what you’ve heard, tell them what you believe, and tell them that you support the first people of this state having treaties.

“Explain to them that it’s time we do things differently in Victoria. Explain to them all the things that treaty has to offer, and not just for Aboriginal communities.

“Most importantly, explain to them that we have been waiting for far too long to right the wrongs of the past.”

READ MORE: The Policy Shop: an Indigenous right to self-determination and recognition

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