• Uncle Bobby Nicholls and Vic Treaty Advancement Commissioner, Jill Gallagher consulting with men in Dhurringile Prison. (Victorian Treaty Advancement Commission)
OPINION: Respectful of everyone's right to participate, the Victorian Treaty Advancement Commissioner, Jill Gallagher has asked incarcerated men and women to describe their hopes for the future; their answers will inspire.
By
Jill Gallagher

28 Mar 2019 - 3:32 PM  UPDATED 28 Mar 2019 - 3:36 PM

A prison may seem an unlikely place for treaty talks. But it’s happening at the moment as Victoria’s Aboriginal community prepares to take the next major step in a historically significant journey.

In the past month, I have spent hours with Aboriginal men and women in prisons across Victoria, where we explained the finer details of the treaty process and let Aboriginal people know exactly how they can be involved.

Some of the conversations have been inspiring and worth repeating. For instance, a man in Port Phillip Prison near Melbourne, who said progress was "too late" for him.

"But not for the younger fellas in the room," he told the group. "One day everyone is going to hear your voices."

This man may be in prison, but his hope for the future revolved around other people, not himself.

People in prisons have clear and practical ideas about how treaties can lead to meaningful change.

Other conversations show that people in prisons have clear and practical ideas about how treaties can lead to meaningful change.

One young man in Melbourne Assessment Prison (MAP) told us he wouldn’t be in prison if he was connected to his family and his culture. That is heartbreaking.

He also spoke of how treaties could make Aboriginal communities stronger and help people reunite, which I personally, find inspiring.

One woman in the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre spoke about how not just people, but whole families and communities, need healing. Being lost — and having hope — were recurring themes of conversation.

"Treaties could be a chance for me to find my way home."

Another young man in Barwon Prison was telling us how he had felt lost for so long. "Treaties could be a chance for me to find my way home", he said.

One young man, also in the MAP told me of how in his view there is nothing outside jail telling him he is worth something'. Just think about that for a moment. 

Conversations like these show just how important meaningful change is.

The conversations have often gone to truth-telling. As one man from Hopkins Correctional Centre said, 'the carpet needs to be pulled back, and the dirt swept out from under it'.

Treaties are not magic bullets. But they can deliver deep, meaningful and substantial structural change.

It could be in the form of a truth-telling commission to uncover the true history of this country. It could be genuine self-determination. It could be a self-sustaining income stream so that a fair share of this country’s wealth goes to its first peoples.

It could be the strengthening of cultures, customs and languages, that have been practiced and spoken longer than any others on Earth.

And it should be, recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty.

In North America, First Nations leaders have told me how treaties helped people to go from managing poverty, to managing wealth. Imagine if Aboriginal Ausstralian communities could say similar things in 30 years’ time.

Later this year, Aboriginal people in Victoria will establish the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria. It will support communities in the lead up to, and during, treaty negotiations.

The Assembly will be totally independent from government. This is vital. As Aboriginal people we know from bitter experience, not to rely on political promises.

No politician will be able to shut the Assembly down. I want everyone to know that later this year, we will have an Assembly of Aboriginal voices paving the way for treaty negotiations.

I want people to know we will have a stronger Aboriginal voice in Victoria later this year. I want people to know that we are leading the way and setting a national example.

I want people to know we will have a stronger Aboriginal voice in Victoria later this year. I want people to know that we are leading the way and setting a national example.

As one man from Port Phillip Prison said, "we will start it here, and in other parts of Australia, it will follow."
The possibilities, a generation from now, are truly unprecedented.

To be honest, at the same time, it is difficult to hope for too much, in case it doesn’t come to be.

It will be difficult, emotionally, for this nation to come to terms with its past. But the situation now cannot go on.

And our people, in their own words, are ready to take the step forward.

 

Jill Gallagher is a Gunditjmara woman from western Victoria and is the Victorian Treaty Advancement Commissioner. Prior to this, she was CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO), leading a statewide network of co-ops. She was a Victorian delegate at the 2017 Uluru Convention and has for decades worked to support Aboriginal communities and help deliver better outcomes.

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