Victoria will establish Australia’s first formal truth-telling process for Aboriginal Victorians in a “historic” move some community members have waited decades for.
The state’s First People’s Assembly, a democratically-elected body set up to create the framework which will guide Victoria’s future treaty negotiations, voted last month to call on the State Government to establish a truth and justice commission.
Truth commissions aim to discover and document past injustices, usually by a government, and formally recognise their impacts.
The Victorian Government announced on Saturday that it would work with the Assembly to develop the terms of reference and how a truth and justice process would work in Victoria.
First People’s Assembly co-chair Marcus Stewart, a Nira illim bulluk man of the Taungurung Nation in Victoria, said the response of the community has been overwhelmingly positive.
“What a historic day for Victoria and an incredible moment in time for traditional owners and Aboriginal Victorians across the state,” he told the ABC.
Mr Stewart said the process would give Aboriginal people in Victoria the opportunity to “turn the invisible visible”.
“From our point of view, these injustices that have happened to us as Aboriginal Victorians and traditional owners cannot be undone,” he said.
“We cannot change history, but what we can do is we can change the way, and how, history is viewed, and that’s what we’re out to achieve.”
Community members encouraged to help shape process
Formal truth-telling processes, often called truth commissions, have been held in more than 30 countries, including South Africa, Canada and New Zealand.
They usually involve a royal commission-like process, and invite witnesses to give evidence about their personal experiences.
Establishing a process to facilitate truth-telling in Australia was one of the recommendations included in the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017.
Victoria’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Gabrielle Williams said the process would uncover “the truths of our past” and understand the ongoing impacts on Indigenous people.
“We owe it to Aboriginal Victorians to be frank and honest about the injustices they have faced — and continue to face,” she said in a statement.
“This will help us to address these injustices and build a stronger Victoria on a foundation of trust.”
Victoria’s truth and justice process might cover Australia’s frontier wars and massacres of Indigenous people during the colonial period, but also more recent issues including deaths in custody and the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in the justice system.
Indigenous women sing at the closing ceremony of the talks at Uluru.
Mr Stewart said no matter what the terms of reference end up looking like, it would be driven by feedback from the community.
“We will encourage Aboriginal communities and traditional owners to engage with their regional representatives, but also their traditional owner group reserve seat holders,” he said.
“On what they see as the key factors that these terms of reference have to be shaped around; what they see as the key truths we need to look at.”
‘Opportunity for us to heal and unite’
Mr Stewart also said part of designing Victoria’s truth and justice process would involve making sure witnesses feel safe to share their stories.
“A lot of our history has been traumatic, and we need to provide a safe environment and support for them to feel they can come and speak their truth, tell their story, but also have the support in a culturally-safe way,” he said, adding that support available for people after their involvement in a truth-telling process would also be considered.
The Assembly’s 21 elected members across five regions in Victoria will now talk to people in their communities, and work with the Victorian Government to design what the truth and justice process will look like.
Mr Stewart said the process would allow Victoria to embrace its history and work towards reconciliation.
“As challenging as this truth is going to be, it will provide an opportunity for us to heal and unite, but it will create a future Victoria that we all belong to and all connect with,” Mr Stewart said.