Victoria's Treaty talks welcomed by Congress

The Aboriginal flag. Source: AAP

SBS World News Radio: Victoria's government and Indigenous communities have been commended for escalating talks on a possible Treaty.

Victoria's government and Indigenous communities have been commended for escalating talks on a possible Treaty.

The National Congress of Australia's First Peoples says a Treaty is more likely to produce tangible outcomes for Indigenous Australians than Constitutional Recognition.

The Victorian government says a Treaty with the state's Aboriginal communities could recognise Indigenous people's history and prior occupation of the land, while also addressing injustices that have taken place.

Earlier this year Victoria's Indigenous Affairs Minister, Natalie Hutchins, met 500 Indigenous representatives.

Originally called to look at Constitutional recognition, by meeting's end a motion was passed that Victoria would aim to have a treaty in place by December 2016.

Ms Hutchins says the government has been holding public consultations to gauge what Indigenous communities would want from a treaty.

"We are working at a heavy pace at the moment to get through some regional forums so we can have a two-day convention in Melbourne inviting everyone from across Victoria in the Aboriginal community to participate in that forum, where we're looking to come up with some ideas around a representative body for the Victorian Aboriginal community, so genuine discussions can start around Treaty going forward, but also in consultation on a range of issues that the government is working on and that do touch on Aboriginal community."

The Minister says a treaty could also affect the way the state government provides services to Indigenous communities.

She says outcomes could rage from improving health care services to what she describes as reinvigorating Aboriginal culture in Victoria.

She points to New Zealand's Treaty of Waitangi as a possible model.

Signed in 1840 between British Crown representatives and Maori chiefs, the Treaty is still contested in New Zealand but Ms Hutchins says the ongoing debate is valuable.

"Through their discussions of Treaty, the Maori culture is so on the forefront of New Zealand identity. We don't have that here in Australia and certainly not in Victoria. So (we're) looking at mechanisms where we can appreciate and learn about Aboriginal culture, support the land management in areas of importance to Aboriginal people. There's a range of issues ... How we're delivering services to the Aboriginal community. I genuinely don't think we can close the Health Gap and the Life Expectancy Gap between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people without having Aboriginal people involved at an extremely high level, and on the ground in delivering those services."

Victoria's opposition has told SBS it supports government talks with the Indigenous communities but says it is too soon to say if a Treaty will go ahead.

At a national level, Constitutional recognition has been central to conversations since then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard appointed an expert panel in 2010 to gauge public attitudes on a potential referendum.

Last year a Referendum Council was established jointly by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten and is due to hold community consultations later this year.

Rod Little is co-chair of The National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, the main group representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

He says amongst Congress's membership there is a strong preference for a Treaty over Constitutional recognition.

He says Victoria is a state that is acknowledging this trend.

"First Peoples have been wanting a Treaty for a very long time and some are of the view that the conversation has to start, and they see that, perhaps, the constitutional recognition process is jumping ahead and more about symbolism than the pursuit of real outcomes under some kind of arrangement. Treaty is an arrangement between parties and it's a framework for establishing the ground rules for the relationship and all that is formalised. So you are binding parties together to give and receive and to communicate, and all the rest of it."

Rod Little says Congress's regular membership surveys show Victoria's talks on Treaty have created some buzz amongst Indigenous groups in other states.

Cheryl Saunders is an expert in Constitutional Law at the University of Melbourne, and says the conversations in Victoria will likely put pressure on the Federal Government to make national policies meaningful.

"The idea of a state-based Treaty bubbling up from the grassroots is a very healthy intrusion into that debate. It just shows there are other ways of doing these things and it probably puts a bit of a break on the idea that national constitutional recognition can be purely symbolic."

Should Victoria agree on a Treaty this year, it would come 228 years after European settlement.

This contrasts with other Commonwealth nations, such as Canada and New Zealand, who implemented treaties soon after European arrival.

Ms Saunders says these historic treaties should not be consulted too closely should Victoria frame its own.

"It's quite important that people break loose from those precedents to the extent that that makes sense because so much has changed. There is an opportunity now in this agreement or Treaty to address the real issues that arise from living together because we know or can envisage what those real issues are. I think the two sides to this negotiation really need to think of what most usefully be done with these arrangements to improve government in the future and to ensure there is a very significant degree of mutual respect between the two communities."



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