You may not realise it, but we are on the cusp of a momentous step forward. In late 2019, Aboriginal communities in Victoria will take a significant step towards treaties. It is now possible to imagine a treaty being agreed and signed.
In some ways, this is extraordinary. Political leaders of generations past have dismissed it as too hard. They have shirked the difficult questions of Australia’s unresolved past. Those of today are no longer doing so – and it is vital that you, and your students, know why this is the case.
We don’t talk about it much, but Aboriginal people do not accept the sovereignty of the Commonwealth. Bluntly, our people were here first. And when colonisation occurred, we never ceded our sovereignty. The colonisers tried to claim that the land was empty (terra nullius) but this was rejected when Eddie Mabo went to the High Court in 1993.
Australia is the only developed Commonwealth nation not to have a treaty with its first peoples.
We are now in a situation where there are multiple entities which claim sovereignty. A treaty is the agreement that resolves those multiple claims. It is needed because it is overwhelmingly the right thing to do.
I say ‘treaties’ rather than ‘treaty’ because there are hundreds of nations in Australia. Each has different histories, cultures and aspirations. The mob in Mildura has little in common, culturally, with those in Mallacoota. It is not culturally appropriate for a one-size-fits-all treaty. It is most likely that we will see different treaties negotiated, each covering the traditional area of a particular mob.
Australia is the only developed Commonwealth nation not to have a treaty with its first peoples. The New Zealand, the US and Canada have all agreed sovereign treaties. We are the odd one out. In Victoria, the huge steps to change this are the result of decades of hard, hard work from Aboriginal leaders.
From William Cooper’s petition to King George IV in 1938, to the efforts of Aunty Marg Tucker and Sir Doug Nicholls, to those of the past 30 years, we stand on the shoulders of giants. It would be wonderful if you familiarised yourself with this history, and even more wonderful if your students were to learn more about it.
Imagine a world, in years to come, where every student knows about their local Aboriginal culture. Imagine every student learning some of the local Aboriginal language. Imagine an Australia where Aboriginal culture is embedded in everything we do, from the food we eat to the words we use.
As an educator, you have a chance to help our nation learn about its true past. You can teach your students about the Aboriginal land they live on.
Aboriginal communities in Victoria will need support to conduct fair negotiations with powerful governments. The First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria is being set up to help mobs get to the negotiating table. The assembly will be powerful, independent and culturally strong. No government will be able to shut it down. It is not being set up to negotiate a treaty. Rather, it will help create the framework for treaty negotiations – this will set out how treaties can be agreed in Victoria.
An Aboriginal vote between 16 September and 20 October will help determine which Victorian Traditional Owners take some assembly seats. (The other seats are guaranteed for each formally recognised Traditional Owner group.) Aboriginal people aged 16 years and older are eligible to vote. Votes can be cast in person, via post or online.
As an educator, you have a chance to help our nation learn about its true past. You can teach your students about the Aboriginal land they live on. For example, the six, seven or eight local seasons (depending on where you are in Victoria) are much more climate-appropriate than the European imports we commonly refer to. Also, do you or your students know that the eel traps and stone huts of western Victoria are older than the Pyramids or Stonehenge?
These are just two aspects of the oldest continuing culture on Earth. This culture is precious. And it is right here, in the midst of where you live, work and relax. Here, you can hear songs and see dances that date back longer than anywhere else on Earth.