Q&A INTERVIEW WITH VICTORIA'S TREATY ADVANCEMENT COMMISSIONER JILL GALLAGHER

 
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She’s been described as the no-nonsense, warm and pragmatic negotiator.
She is Jill Gallagher AO. A proud Gunditjmara woman. And Victoria’s Treaty Advancement Commissioner.

Jill has dedicated her life to advocating for self-determination outcomes on behalf of the Aboriginal community. Now, Jill is trying something that has never been done before; establishing an Aboriginal Representative Body, which will work with the State Government to create the elements to support Treaty negotiations in Victoria.

 Jill recently opened up in an interview with the Federation to talk about the possibilities of Treaty, what it means for Traditional Owners and addressed the elephant in the room – the state election in November.


HIGHLIGHTS OF INTERVIEW

  • Traditional Owners encouraged to run as candidates for the Aboriginal Representative Body elections which will be held early next year.

  • The Victorian state election will bring about some uncertainty, but it is important to know the current process cannot change without changing legislation, so vital momentum continues to ensure the Treaty message and process stays on track.

  • This is a first for Australia, so while there are currently no precedents, Jill says the possibilities of Treaty are huge. Some of those possibilities include land taxes, buy-backs of private land, Aboriginal history and culture to be taught in schools, reparations and a clearer path for financial sustainability.

 

WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF A TREATY IN VICTORIA?

It will be deeply significant – both for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

This will be the first time any government in Australia has acknowledged the true injustice of dispossession. It will be one of the major resets of the relationship between a government and Aboriginal communities.

We don’t yet know what a treaty may include – or even whether it’s one treaty or several.

The possibilities are huge.

It could be truth-telling about this country’s history.

It could be reparation and a clearer path to financial sustainability.

It could be local language and culture hubs.

It could be buy-backs of private land, like they’ve done in Canada where there’s a willing seller, willing buyer.

It could be an Aboriginal name for somewhere like the MCG, which is a traditional meeting place for our people.

It could be the abolition of state taxes for Aboriginal people.

So the possibilities, when you think about them, are incredible.

Everything is on the table.

We need to get to the table first.


WHAT ROLE IS THE VICTORIAN TREATY ADVANCEMENT COMMISSION PLAYING IN TREATY?

The Commission is basically getting us from where we are now, to the next phase of the process.

We are setting up the Aboriginal Representative Body – Traditional Owners, elected by every Aboriginal person in Victoria. That Representative Body will be the voice for Aboriginal people in the next phase of treaty. It will help make big decisions, like who can negotiate and what is on the negotiating table.

Our job is to set up that body so that it has our best minds, our best people involved. If we do that, it will be a big step towards successful treaties that work for our community.


WHERE IS THE TREATY PROCESS CURRENTLY AT?

At the moment we are designing the way the Representative Body will work, and how it will be elected. There are big challenges – no-one has done this before, and our mob knows there is no traditional state-wide mechanism in Victoria. It’s a culturally foreign concept.

We need to make sure the Rep Body allows Elders to have really strong voices, and does business our way. We need to blend both traditional and western governance.


NOW TALK ME THROUGH THE PROCESS, JUST HOW COMPLEX WILL IT BE FOR VICTORIA TO NEGOTIATE A TREATY? WHAT NEEDS TO BE CONSIDERED?

I have to be honest – it will be extremely complex.

Treaties take time. They could take years. The legalities involved are significant.

Our mobs, the Aboriginal negotiating parties, need to consider what their priorities are, and what their negotiating positions are.

For example, where is the balance between what we will accept and what we will reject?

Our mob needs to consider what sort of outcomes will have broad support among our communities.
 

“A treaty will only be as powerful as the community behind it – so we need our mobs to be informed and united through the process.”

 

And it is imperative that Aboriginal Traditional Owners bring the community along with the decisions that are made. It will not be easy – there will be bumps in the road – but we need our leaders to be front and centre on this journey. 

There’s also the national political situation – at the moment, the Commonwealth doesn’t support a treaty. That may change. If it does, what does that mean for the Victorian process? I can’t answer that right now. But it’s another example of a complexity that may need to be worked through.

It is imperative that we, as Aboriginal Traditional Owners and leaders bring community along with us. 


WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS?

The next step, essentially, is the elections to set up the Aboriginal Representative Body.

Before then, we at the Treaty Advancement Commission need to come up with an electoral system that is culturally appropriate, allows our communities to have their say, and gets our best hunter-gatherers on that Representative Body to take the process forward.

We need to make sure Elders are able to keep the Representative Body culturally accountable, so it does business our way.

That is a very intense process – we are studying voting systems across the world, looking at the treaty processes in other nations like Canada and New Zealand – and when we come up with proposals, we can test them with our communities to see how they stack up.

We also get some terrific ideas coming direct from the community.


WHAT DO YOU SEE THE POSSIBILITIES OF A TREATY BEING?

I went to an event in Shepparton earlier this year where a Maori leader, Moana Jackson, spoke very very passionately about what lies ahead.

Essentially, his message was ‘don’t limit yourself’. In other words, dream big.

We sometimes don’t allow ourselves to dream – but at the moment it feels like a good moment to do so.


WHAT DO YOU THINK A TREATY WILL MEAN FOR TRADITIONAL OWNERS?

That’s a question for Traditional Owners, and it may well vary across Victoria, I’d think. What I would say is that the more you get involved, the better your chance to influence the outcome.

If you’re a Traditional Owner, and you have something you want treaty to deliver, then don’t sit on the sidelines. Speak up! Get involved.

We are holding elections in 2019 to set up the Aboriginal Representative Body. And Traditional Owners are able to put up their hands as candidates.


“We need Traditional Owners to be really well informed about these elections, and to run as candidates.”


We need our communities to be involved in this election, and vote for who they want on the Representative Body.

And after it’s all set up, we need to unite behind the Representative Body as it and government set the ground rules for treaty negotiations. It’s officially called the Treaty Negotiation Framework, but it’s simpler to think of it as the ground rules.

Who will negotiate? What will be on the negotiating table?

Those are big questions, and we need our best people on the Representative Body to get good outcomes right from the start.

So I’d hope Traditional Owners can see the opportunity here, and see how their influence can play a big part in delivering some really good wins for their community.

 

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WITH ALL EYES ON VICTORIA, DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOUR CARRYING THE WEIGHT OF A STATE ON YOUR SHOULDERS? I MEAN, VICTORIA IS THE FIRST AUSTRALIAN STATE TO NEGOTIATE A TREATY WITH ITS ABORIGINAL VICTORIANS. HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?


I do feel the eyes of the nation are on us. I look at it as a good thing. We in Victoria were hit very, very hard by colonisation. It was devastating.
 

But our people survived. And now, we have the chance to thrive.


“Imagine the possibilities. Truth-telling. Land taxes. Culture in classrooms. Reparations.”


We in Victoria have an opportunity to show Australia what can be achieved. We can show this country what can change.

That is a huge opportunity – how many chances do we ever get, in your life, to set a national example?


WHAT DO YOU SAY TO THE CRITICS OF THE PROCESS, THOSE WHO CLAIM THIS IS A GOVERNMENT LED PROCESS?

Well, the proof is in the pudding.
 

“The Commission I lead is an independent body – we don’t answer to the government. We make our own decisions. We draw strength and advice from the community in making those decisions.”

 

Going back a step, Aboriginal people have driven the process the whole way along.

Aboriginal people were the ones calling for treaty a generation ago.

Aboriginal leaders were the ones who’ve never stopped fighting for our people.  In 2016, the Victorian Government took all that on board and said it was open to exploring the treaties pathway.

From that point, there have been hundreds of consultations – thousands of people consulted. Because as you know, there was no model we could pick up off the shelf. This has never been done in Australia, so there’s no culturally appropriate Aboriginal model to sit down and negotiate a treaty.

It’s very new, it’s very complex, and it comes after 200 years of devastating colonisation. So I don’t think it’s surprising that some people are sceptical about this process. I think that’s to be expected.

But I also think this is an opportunity we cannot simply ignore. Since the Victorian Government made that decision in 2016, almost every Australian state or territory has started a treaty process.

South Australia has put theirs on hold, but that’s another story. My point is, others are following what we are doing.

So it’s on our mob to do this right.

The government is coming to the table, of course. We wouldn’t be where we are if the government had not committed to treaties. But to say it is a government led process is misunderstanding what has happened and what is happening next. And it diminishes the very difficult work that our leaders have put in to get this far.
I mean, how can it be a government led process when every Aboriginal person living in Victoria can vote in the Representative Body elections?

How can it be a government led process when the government has no role in who can run as a candidate?

Critics are entitled to their view. And they are also entitled to vote, or run for election if they are a Traditional Owner.

And debate is a good thing. There is no group of people, anywhere in the world, who agree on everything all of the time. So it’s not a surprise that our mob have debates, and it’s not a bad thing. And it really annoys me when this gets portrayed as ‘division’ in Aboriginal communities, when in fact it’s nothing of the sort.

So, in summary, this is nothing like a government led process. Far from it. And anyone who doubts that should take part in it, run for election, cast their vote, and have their say.


WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR CONCERNS, FEARS OR WHAT CHALLENGES DO YOU THINK LAY AHEAD?


“The biggest challenge, I fear, is this process getting undercut by political changes.

It’s not supported across the board. So the treaty process is potentially subject to politics, and that is an uncertainty I wish we could do without.”

 

Traditional Owners can play their part in helping this, by the way. Ring up your Member of Parliament, get a meeting, and hammer them about support for treaty.

Sometimes, these MPs just need to understand things better in order to support it. There’s some talk that Victorian MPs don’t support the Victorian process, because they think a treaty has to be national.

Now, they need to understand that Aboriginal culture is very decentralised. Our mobs across the country do not speak for each other, and make treaties for one another.

Locally based treaties are far more culturally appropriate, and that message needs to get through to the politicians.

So – again – if Traditional Owners are reading this, then contacting an MP and convincing them of the merits of treaty is one of the best things we can possibly do.


WITH AN ELECTION LOOMING, DO YOU FEAR A CHANGE IN GOVERNMENT COULD MEAN A SIMILAR SITUATION TO SOUTH AUSTRALIA, WHERE AN INCOMING LIBERAL GOVERNMENT PUT TREATY ON HOLD?

Not necessarily.

Despite the politics, our mob needs to know that in Victoria, this process is protected in law.  This is due to legislation that was passed by Parliament in June – you may remember hearing about it.

That legislation, those laws, mean that the Victorian Government is committed in law to the treaty process. It is committed in law to working with the Representative Body.

If a new government takes power after the election in November, they may not support the process. But they cannot change the process without changing legislation. And as we know, this may require the support of independent parties to get through parliament.

Ultimately, our mob needs to know this; the process has some uncertainty, for sure. And I accept that is not ideal.

But the process has a whole lot more protection than would otherwise be the case. If there was no legislation, a government could change it with one swoop.

At the moment, that’s not possible. So I say to our mob, take heart from where we are now. Get involved, and help us make the next steps.


WITH AUSTRALIAN POLITICS BECOMING MORE AND MORE POLARISED. WHAT MESSAGE DO YOU THINK NEEDS TO BE SENT TO THE PUBLIC FOR THEIR SUPPORT IN PRESSURING PARLIAMENT FOR GREATER RECOGNITION OF OUR FIRST PEOPLES?

Politics may be getting more polarised, but I think public opinion is shifting in favour of a treaty.

Most non-Aboriginal people are aware of the calls for treaty, going back 40 or 50 years. So the idea is not new, and I think people are slowly realising why it keeps coming up.


“A few years ago, treaty would have been a dirty word in mainstream politics in this country. Now we have governments across the country signing up for it. Now, it’s not as simple as that, we need our mobs to be united and ready to negotiate, but governments are open to it.”


I’ve spoken with lots of Aboriginal people across Victoria, but I’ve also spoken with lots of non-Aboriginal people. And the support for treaty is, at times, overwhelming. It is so, so heartening to hear.

The one thing I would say is that people can be open to the concept of treaty, but they don’t always know what specifically it might mean.

So if Traditional Owners are talking with non-Aboriginal people, that is worth bearing in mind. Non-Aboriginal people can mean well, but they don’t quite know what we’re talking about. And anything we can do to help explain that will slowly but surely help us get to where we want to go.


FINALLY, WE’VE SEEN THE POWER OF THE ULURU STATEMENT LOST ON PARLIAMENT, HOW CAN THE MEDIA AND ORAGNISATIONS LIKE THE FEDERATION, BETTER COMMUNICATE THE MESSAGE ON TREATY TO HELP GIVE PEOPLE A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF ITS IMPORTANCE, AND IN TURN, RETAIN BROADER SUPPORT FOR TREATY?

It’s a good question.

Treaty is difficult to explain, partly because it’s unprecedented here in Australia. We don’t have an example we can see the effects of. I think it all comes back to the need to just keep stating the case. Public opinion is like that – you have to keep saying and saying and saying the message, and just when you think it’s got through, you’ll realise you need to keep explaining more and more.

I think the media, and organisations like the Federation are doing a good job stating the case for treaty. I think we need to be patient, and play the long game. Things are changing right now, and it can be tempting to wonder why things aren’t changing more quickly. But this is a major change to make – and don’t forget, even a few years ago this wasn’t even up for discussion politically.

So things are changing. The important thing is we don’t lose momentum; we keep plugging away, and keep our focus on the long game where this is all going.


To find out how you can be involved in the Treaty process or for more information contact the Federation at talkingtreaty@fvtoc.com.au

 

 
NewsAlexandra SheehyNews, Treaty