Indigenous leaders have pleaded with all Victorian MPs to vote for proposed laws to create an independent treaty authority, in a historic address to parliament.
Usual parliamentary business was suspended on Wednesday morning, with First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria co-chairs Marcus Stewart and Aunty Geraldine Atkinson giving speeches in the lower house.
Draped in traditional fur cloaks and wearing face paint, the pair invited fellow elected assembly members onto the house floor as they carried wooden message sticks, digging sticks and other artefacts.
Aunty Geraldine reinforced the significance of the Treaty Authority and Other Treaty Elements Bill 2022 to MPs in the chamber ahead of debate beginning.
“It’s a vital piece of the architecture that’s going to help us deliver the treaty,” she said.
Under the laws, the authority will operate outside the usual state bureaucracy with the ability to hire staff, lease an office and receive funding.
The independent treaty umpire will resolve any disputes between the assembly and the government and will not report to a minister.
Aunty Geraldine said the treaty process must be done on the terms of First Nations people.
“There’s no escaping the harsh reality that Aboriginal people have suffered immensely at the hands of the Victorian state,” the Bangerang and Wiradjuri elder said.
“We were driven from our lands, murdered, herded onto reserves, torn apart from our families. We were unfairly targeted and discriminated against for generations, with the disadvantage and injustice compounding over the years.
“It should be of no surprise that many of our people find it hard to place any trust in parliament or have faith in government systems.”
Mr Stewart, a Nira illim bulluk man of the Taungurung Nation, said the bill would be a huge step towards making things right.
“Don’t look back in years to come and see yourself on the wrong side of history. Instead walk with us and do what you can to support this groundbreaking process,” he said.
“Without treaty, what is now called Victoria will remain – in our people’s hearts, in their minds and in reality – the colony of Victoria.”
The speeches were greeted with a standing ovation from almost the entire chamber and followed an earlier smoking ceremony on the front steps of parliament.
While confirming plans to fly the Aboriginal flag above Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge, Premier Daniel Andrews warned the treaty process will take years.
“This won’t be quick. It’s not easy. There will be a lot of debate,” he told reporters.
The Victorian coalition voted to support the bill without amendment after a joint partyroom meeting on Tuesday.
Despite Liberal MP Tim Smith speaking in parliament against the legislation, opposition Indigenous affairs spokesman Peter Walsh insists it has the coalition’s full backing.
“Anyone who thinks there is any issue with our side of politics not wanting to work with Indigenous communities, that is a falsehood,” he said.
Debate on the bill in the lower house must be completed by 5pm on Thursday, the last parliamentary sitting day before a five-week break.
It could then be voted on, moving the legislation to the upper house when parliament resumes in August.