It wouldn’t be a meeting of Aboriginal people without a bit of anger and a few surprises, according to Victoria’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Natalie Hutchins.
It was certainly what happened last month, when a meeting of hundreds of the state’s Aboriginal people overwhelmingly rejected constitutional recognition.
“There were a lot of people in the room who believed Aboriginal Victorians didn't need to be recognised in the constitution, that quite frankly it is white man's law,” Minister Hutchins told The Point.
It has spurred Victoria’s ruling Labor Party to signal its willingness to enter into treaty negotiations with the Aboriginal nations in the state.
There will be consultation with all Victorians about treaties, culminating in a two day convention, according to the minister.
“Hopefully out of that two day convention, we actually get to a process stage of formalising talks towards a treaty.”
Treaty v constitutional recognition
The moves put Victoria at odds with many other states, especially New South Wales.
NSW Premier Mike Baird became the first premier to officially support the Recognise campaign last year.
The Recognise campaign aims to ensure a successful referendum to change Australia’s Constitution to somehow acknowledge Indigenous people.
Constitutional recognition was at the heart of the Abbott Government. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has also indicated his willingness to see it happen next year.
But, all of that was swept aside at the Melbourne meeting last month.
“It sort of moved from talking about our feelings around constitutional recognition, in regards to forwarding that particular agenda, to putting a motion to community and mob in the room fairly early in the piece and asked: do we support constitutional recognition or not?” said Taungurong man Adam Frogley.
“Overwhelmingly, it was unanimously voted that the mob in the room didn't support constitutional recognition.”
Although the Victorian Government has showed more willingness than other states to talk treaties, the state’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister said the two concepts weren’t polar opposites.
Natalie Hutchins told The Point, that “doesn’t have to be an exclusive decision in self-determination. It can happen at the same time as discussions around treaty as Reconciliation Action Plans are being put in place by businesses and local communities.”
'It’s all up for negotiation'
For Victoria’s Aboriginal people, consensus is needed, followed by negotiations with the government and realistic expectations of what a treaty will achieve.
“If we don’t have mob come along with us and the rest of the community along with us, this is really going to be a fraught process,” according to Adam Frogley.
“I think it’s going to be an education process not only for the wider populace, but also for mob.”
This is an opportunity to fundamentally alter the state’s engagement with Aboriginal people, according to the Victorian Government.
“No Victorian needs to be scared of losing their property and where they live, and what they own now,” Natalie Hutchins said.
“But, certainly, in going forward, reaching agreement about how services are delivered to our Aboriginal communities, how Crown land is managed, how waterways are managed, these are all up for negotiation.”
What happens in Victoria stays in Victoria
Australia is the only Commonwealth nation that doesn’t have a treaty with its Indigenous people.
New Zealand has an agreement with the Maori people, the Treaty of Waitangi signed in 1840.
Canada has several treaties with various Aboriginal tribes.
The Victorian Government could tread a fairly easy legal path to treaty, according to Melbourne University academic and Wiradjuri lawyer Mark McMillan.
“Anything the government does is legal. The Victorian Constitution says Victoria can make laws for anything that it wants,” he told The Point.
But he said that won’t translate into a legal precedent forcing other states to act.
Rather, “it might be used as political leverage, like. 'if it can happen in Victoria why the hell can't it happen here?'”
The Victorian Government is stepping into a void left by the Turnbull Government, according to Minister Hutchins.
“I think the Federal Government has really failed to engage Aboriginal Victorians on this discussion around constitutional recognition. I think on a whole range of issues they’ve been left off the agenda,” Aboriginal Affairs Minister Natalie Hutchins said.
“The realities are the Commonwealth needs to step up and get involved.”