I rise to make a contribution on the Treaty Authority and Other Treaty Elements Bill 2022. It is the preamble to this bill which sets out so clearly the objective and wider intent of this piece of legislation, and I quote from it as follows:
By this Act, Aboriginal Victorians and the State take another step on the pathway towards treaty by making provision in relation to the Treaty Authority. The Treaty Authority is a necessary element in advancing the treaty process and has the functions given by section 28 of the Advancing the Treaty Process with Aboriginal Victorians Act 2018. To perform these functions, the Treaty Authority must be, and must be perceived to be, independent from and free of interference by any party to the treaty process. To secure this independence, the Treaty Authority is established by the Treaty Authority Agreement made under Part 4 of the Advancing the Treaty Process with Aboriginal Victorians Act 2018.
It has been a very long, hard journey for the Aboriginal people of Australia to achieve recognition, land rights, native title and now a process towards treaty making. This journey has been hard fought and filled with disappointment along the way, but communities here in Victoria have never given up hope, and they have continued to work hard to get to this point today where we are debating a very important bill that is part of that process.
Many of the major steps forward have occurred during my lifetime. Everyone will be aware of the 1967 referendum, which was successful in effectively transferring responsibility for many aspects of Aboriginal affairs to the commonwealth government and acknowledging the citizenship of Aboriginal people in a formal sense. That did not come easy. That was after years and years of demonstrations, of activism and of leadership in those early years that many of us will remember, and there are many famous names from that time.
In the 1970s as a young law graduate I went to Darwin to work with the then commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department and the Northern Territory Department of Law. This was a time of significant change, because the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 had just been passed by the federal Parliament. This was the first piece of federal legislation that provided the basis upon which Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory could claim rights to land based on traditional occupation. The outcome of a successful land rights claim under that legislation usually meant the transfer of freehold property or a perpetual lease title to the Indigenous people who were making that claim. I learned a great deal during those years about the traditional lores, practices and land ownership of people in the Northern Territory during that time and particularly during the Warlpiri land claim, which was over an area near Alice Springs and included the Tanami Desert.
We will all remember the Mabo case, which made its way through the courts in the 1980s. It challenged two perspectives of the Australian legal system: (1) that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had no concept of land ownership before colonisation, and (2) that British sovereignty over Australia surrendered the ownership of all land to the Crown and abolished any existing rights that existed in land. This case was so significant to the development of native title law as it recognised the land rights of the Meriam people, traditional owners of the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait. It was on 3 June 1992 that the Australian High Court overturned almost 200 years of law in this landmark case. Just this year Aboriginal Australians are celebrating the 30th anniversary of this land rights case and the developments that have taken place since then. This case formed the basis for the passage of the Native Title Act in 1993 in the federal Parliament.
Many native title cases have followed over the years throughout that ensuing time, and some have even gone to the High Court—the Yorta Yorta case, the Witt case. There are many, and many of them were across northern Australia. The Yorta Yorta case was the first of the native title claims to be made under the Native Title Act on mainland Australia. The lands of the Yorta Yorta and Bangerang people and the many other nations that come within the fold of that title are located in north-central Victoria between the Goulburn River and the Murray River. This was a case where the Yorta Yorta people sought exclusive possession and ownership of the land and waters within the boundaries of the land that they claimed. It was a claim made in one of the earliest and most highly settled areas of Australia and was ultimately unsuccessful, dismissed by the High Court in 2002 after many years of hearings. I was present throughout much of that case, which extended over many weeks, months and ultimately years. In the early months of those hearings we spent a great deal of time on the banks of the Goulburn River, the Murray River, Cummeragunja over towards Wangaratta—right across country—with the Federal Court setting up in those places every day and hearing from many elders of people who are no doubt ancestors of many of you here today.
It was an extraordinary process to gather so much knowledge and evidence from the people who were the elders then. It is an absolute treasure trove of information that the Yorta Yorta and all those other groups and nations who form part of the Yorta Yorta should have access to through court files, because it really goes to that issue of connection and identity. Sometimes, as the years move on, people forget the treasures that exist in terms of information and knowledge so people can trace back and connect to who their families were in situations where they may have become disconnected in many ways. I think we all acknowledge here that that connection to culture and land is just so incredibly important. The test of native title was just so unrealistic in so many ways, and native title has really not been the answer that people might have thought it would be when that legislation was passed back in 1993. Many of the claims that followed had some outcomes, but they certainly did not deliver in the way Aboriginal people across Australia had hoped that it would.
In 2010 Victoria passed the Victorian Traditional Owner Settlement Act 2010. Other states have passed similar legislation. It is a poor relation to native title, but it nevertheless exists here in Victoria, and it has provided the opportunity and pathway for traditional owners to make claims to land and get some recognition. In my electorate we have the Barmah National Park. The Yorta Yorta have an agreement with the government that cedes the management of that national park to the Yorta Yorta people, and the government have generously funded many steps along the way to enable that to become a very significant part of the process. The journey for land recognition has been a very long one, and right across Victoria I know of much of the pain that has gone into many cases. I have been on the periphery of the Gunditjmara case, the Gunaikurnai case and many others that have gone on throughout Victoria.
I think it is just so important that we are here today talking about treaty, about walking side by side with the Aboriginal people of our community, because it is really saying we acknowledge that this journey has been so hard and so painful, and that so many people have been lost in so many ways along the way. To all of you who are sitting here today, the leadership you have shown is extraordinary, and I just encourage you to stay strong and keep doing it because working towards treaty is the next step. I have sort of outlined the many steps that have been there along the way, and this is the next step. Let us hope that in some ways this is a light at the end of the tunnel. Let us hope that agreements can be reached. Let us hope that on a national level there will be the leadership that is required to make the acknowledgements, to look at the Uluru Statement from the Heart, to listen to Aboriginal people’s voices and to let them have a significant say in the running of the whole country but particularly in relation to their own self-determination. It is a journey. It is a hard one, but it is about time, and I certainly commend this bill to the house as part of that very important journey.