Jill Gallagher and the road ahead for Victoria’s Treaty

8 Jul 2018

Jill Gallagher is charged with creating the context in which Victorian Treaty negotiations can flourish. She talks to Daniel James about the opportunities and challenges ahead.

Nigel Scullion

No-one ever said negotiating a Treaty between Traditional Owners (TO) and the Victorian State Government was going to be easy.

Nothing like this has ever been attempted before by any country in the modern era. The challenges are large, but not insurmountable. The political will is there; but for how long?

Three weeks ago the Victorian Parliament officially passed the Advancing the Treaty Process with Aboriginal Victorians Bill 2018 (the Bill).The Bill has now become the law of the land and creates a path for genuine Treaty negotiations between the State and TO Groups, as represented through a yet to be formed Aboriginal Representative Body.

The passing of the Bill was indeed a historic occasion, but all the pageantry and celebrations are just a distant echo down the road now and the long grind to establishing a Treaty begins.

Gunditjimara woman and lifelong advocate for her people, Jill Gallagher AO is tasked with creating the framework that will formally allow negotiations to take place. Since her commencement in the role of Victorian Treaty Advancement Commissionerin February, Jill has travelled across the state, holding information sessions with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Victorians.

“One woman (non-Aboriginal) came to me at a forum we were talking at, she was visibly upset if any of her ancestors played a role in crimes against humanity, crimes against our people. I said it is not about you, about getting upset. You have nothing to feel guilty about, but if you continue to be bystanders then you will have something to feel guilty about,” Jill tells me, as we sit in her sun drenched office in Carlton.

“What we are doing in Victoria, is we’re basically mirroring the Uluru Statement. The Uluru Statement is talking about a voice to Parliament, we talk about the voice, the rep body… the Uluru Statement is talking about truth telling, I think Treaty has got to deal with truth telling, it is part of learning from the past.”

Learning from our past is something Jill knows a great deal about.

After attending some 19 schools, before being expelled at the age of 13 for being “non-compliant”, she found herself homeless on the streets of Melbourne. “I took off and I was going to conquer the world myself. In other words, I ran away from home. In hindsight, I would never do that again. I ran away from home. I lived on the street. Got to know what it’s like to rough it.”

Eventually returning home, it was from there she began her journey into Aboriginal affairs. From working in a women’s refuge, to finding a real passion through working in Aboriginal cultural heritage, “I got into an area that I really loved and that’s Aboriginal culture heritage. I worked in archeology. I worked in the museum of Victoria and I got to learn a lot. Not only from the museum, but also from elders telling their stories.”

Jill’s exposure to the real everyday issues, to learning the stories of many long gone Elders, and of course from her 15 years as CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO),has equipped her for this latest role as Commissioner. “I believe those early days have grounded me to take on such complex area as Treaty, quite sensitive and quite volatile in the community. It’s the first time that anyone, any Government put any Treaty on the table to that degree, so it’s exciting times.”

Perhaps the greatest misconception about the role of the Commission is that its job is to, in partnership with the Government, deliver a Treaty for Victoria. It is not.

The Commission’s role is to establish the democratically elected Aboriginal Representative Body, which will help communities negotiate with the State of Victoria. Jill explains, “My role is to set up this rep body (Aboriginal Representative Body) and the representative rules. Some of those rules are, and this is coming from the mob, only Traditional Owners that have cultural connection with country within Vic boundaries can sit on this rep body, so that’s strictly what they said to me, so that’s going to be one of the guiding principles.”

The constant and ongoing tension throughout the entire process is striking a balance between pragmatism and idealism. The impacts of invasion in south-eastern Australia and in the area now known as Victoria have been devastating. Of the estimated 300 clans pre-colonisation, only around 100 remain.

Criticism of the Commission’s approach is that it is watering down the cultural element of the process by not having every existing clan at the table.

How will cultural integrity be retained in what is ostensibly a white construct?

“So even this morning, I was getting questioned, this is a white process, government led process, why can’t we have Traditional Owner boundaries? Why aren’t we staying true to our culture? But then ok, if we stay true as possible to cultural boundaries, how many reps will there be…probably 100, and do you think 100 can negotiate and work out what needs to be worked out with the state Government?

We need some sort of white construct to operate within, we are modern day Australia, but how can we embed culture as much as possible?! What we have been working on since we started, how can I get an elder’s voice, not embedded in the rep body, but overarching, like a cultural integrity authority” added Jill.

Once the compositional arrangements of Aboriginal Representative Body are finalised, all Aboriginal people in Victoria will have a chance to vote whether they are a TO or not.

“There is a lot of Aboriginal people who have been smashed around from their original country, there is a lot of stolen generation people, who probably don’t know where they are connected to or if they do, they struggle to make the connection, so there is a lot of that in our community. There is a lot of sadness, but what this Treaty thing is doing, is giving us a sense of hope. So we have to make sure we put up our best and brightest to be able to sit around the table and negotiate.”

The Commission delivers its report to the Government in July 2019, it will then cease to be.

The Aboriginal Representative Body is enshrined in the Bill, and therefore the Government is obliged to negotiate with that body in whatever form it takes.

A ‘Treaty Authority’ will then be constituted to ensure that Treaty negotiations are conducted in good faith in accordance with the yet to be finalised negotiation framework. To assist TO Group negotiate with the State, a fund will be established. “The self-determination fund, and that’s also for the TO Groups to access when it’s up and running and set up, because they will have to be at the table on equal footing. As much as possible we can be equal to the Government.”

One cloud on the horizon is the November Victorian state election. The Liberal opposition has not provided bipartisan support for the advancement of the treaty, and while the recently passed Bill will make it more difficult for any Government to renege on the process, it won’t be impossible. Jill is rightly concerned, “it is a cloud, a real cloud. I am hoping the Bill gives us enough protection that they won’t do anything with it, that they won’t squash it, they can’t repeal the Bill easily, so the worst case scenario is that they get in and don’t fund us, not the commission but the rep body.”

The Commissioner now has just under 12 months to finalise its report. During that time Jill will continue to travel around the state to continue the dialogue with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Victorians alike. The path forward will take intellectual rigour, focus and determination. Any Treaty, whether it is one or many, is still at least three years away.

In many ways, Jill’s journey is reflective of our journey as a whole. She recounts a vivid scene of her time as young seasonal picker on Gunaikurnai country, “I remember it was just on dark and we crossed Gunaikurnai country down in, you know it was down in Stratford the big bridge you cross, that’s where a lot of blackfellas camped, all underneath there along that river, in seasonal picking. And I remember going over there at night and I’d look across, and it looked like the lights of the city. It was all the campfires… reminds me of the (song) Streets of old Fitzroy and all the city lights.”

In Victoria, we are no longer camping out, we are now enshrined in a process that is empowering Aboriginal Victorians from every TO group and those here from other nations. The campfires may have long gone out along the backs of the Avon river in Stratford, but their light and spirit continue to shine on and illuminate the way ahead for those of us that remain.

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