‘We are turning this room black’: inaugural First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria start path to treaty

Calla Wahlquist
Photograph: James Ross/EPA

Before handing over to those elected to develop a framework for treaty in Victoria, the outgoing treaty commissioner, Jill Gallagher, delivered a warning.

“We know there are people who don’t want us to succeed,” Gallagher told the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, who gathered for their first official meeting in the legislative council chamber in Victorian state parliament on Tuesday.

“They don’t want treaty, they want us to fail ... some mainstream media and some politicians see disagreement as a weakness in our communities and they try to use it against us.”

Related: I’m inspired by our peoples’ enthusiasm for getting the treaty process right | Jill Gallagher

If successful, the assembly will negotiate the first statewide treaty framework in Australia, allowing for the creation of a treaty or series of treaties to begin correcting an imbalance of power that has existed since colonisation, 231 years ago.

Twenty-one of the assembly’s 32 members were elected by Aboriginal Victorians in a statewide voting process, in which only 3,000 of the 30,000 people who were eligible to vote enrolled and only 2,000 votes were cast. The remaining 11 were nominated to represent land corporations.

Expanding that electoral roll and encouraging all eligible Aboriginal Victorians to vote in subsequent elections is one of the tasks of the assembly.

Gallagher has compared the assembly to the formation of the Sámi parliament in Norway in the 1980s, and urged its inaugural members to view disagreements about significant issues as a sign of its strength and diversity.

“Fight and disagree for the bigger picture, not the little stuff,” Gallagher said. “You will need to compromise, seek just outcomes, not let the perfect undermine the good.”

Outgoing Victorian treaty advancement commissioner Jill Gallagher is seen inside the Legislative Assembly ahead of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria inaugural meeting. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

It was a pointed beginning. Already, disagreement about the decision to hold their first meeting in parliament left the assembly one member short: Jason Kelly, a representative from north-west Victoria, did not attend because he felt the building was culturally unsafe.

The Victorian parliament is the building in which the White Australia policy was crafted, the legislative foundation to the stolen generation. On an ordinary sitting day it has no Aboriginal members.

Choosing this place for the first meeting was seen as a reclamation by some and a mistake by others.

“I am sure coming here today for some of you was a bit of a challenge,” Gallagher said. “But today we have pushed politicians, we have pushed government out of their comfort zone. We occupy the seat of government ... And in this room, in these halls of power draped in our culture, I tell you that our sovereignty will be recognised, it must be recognised.”

This assembly is an opportunity for us to take on 230 years of colonial thuggery that has been implemented systematically against our people.

Troy McDonald

The legislative council chamber was decked out with gum leaves and other native flora, with possum skins bearing the assembly’s symbol lain across every seat.

Covering the central table was the treaty cloak, a patchwork of possum skin bearing inscriptions and designs from more than 30 community gatherings conducted by the Victorian Treaty Advancement Commission in 2018. Many assembly members wore their own possum-skin cloaks, gifted by their communities and families. At the head of the chamber, a table carried coolamons representing particular clans.

“We are turning this room black and it’s never been black before,” Trent Nelson, the representative from the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Association, said.

Possum skins and a table carried coolamons. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

Jordan Edwards, a Gunditjmara, Keerraywurrung, Wathaurong and Arrente man representing south-west Victoria, and one of the youngest members of the assembly, said the choice of venue reflected the “lack of blackness in this process.”

“We are not government,” he said. “We do not have to act like them. We do not have to be like them.”

There have been campaigns for treaty in Victoria since the 19th century. The Andrews government committed to the process in February 2016, after a meeting of land councils rejected a symbolic approach to recognising Aboriginal Victorians in the state constitution. The Treaty Advancement Commission, headed by Gallagher, was formed in 2017 to create the First Peoples’ Assembly and has now been formally disbanded.

Sissy Austin, a 25-year-old Djab Wurrung woman and representative from the south-west region, said her trust in the Andrews government to negotiate a fair and just treaty had been undermined by their pursuit of a road project that involves the destruction of sacred birthing trees.

Related: Djab Wurrung activists allow highway work to resume as sacred trees talks continue

All said they hoped their work would lead to better outcomes for their children, who would be able to accept their rights as a given not an object of ongoing struggle. “I am sick and tired of fighting and crying,” said Wadawurrung Aboriginal Corporation representative Sean Fagan.

Troy McDonald from the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation said the treaty process was about “our waterways, our air, our stuff in the ground, our trees, our animals, and our families”.

“This assembly is an opportunity for us to take on 230 years of colonial thuggery that has been implemented systematically against our people,” he said.