Wergaia and Wamba Wamba elder Eleanor Bourke is conscious of how closely First Nations communities around Australia are watching Victoria’s truth-telling commission
She’s even been warned: “Don’t muck it up.”
As chair of the Yoorrook Justice Commission, Prof Bourke is leading Australia’s first formal truth-telling inquiry for past and ongoing systemic injustices experienced by First Nations people.
“Treaty is on the agenda in other places – and they are watching us, our brothers and sisters elsewhere,” she says while launching the inquiry in Melbourne on Thursday.
As Victoria begins the Indigenous-led process of documenting the ongoing effects of colonisation on Aboriginal people, there are hopes its work could propel the momentum building in other states and territories for truth-telling processes and treaties.
Yoorrook has a mandate to investigate and document past and present injustices against the state’s First Nations people, including by the state and non-government bodies. While it is independent from the state’s First Peoples’ Assembly – the body elected by the state’s Indigenous people to help develop a treaty – the commission will help inform the agreement’s framework.
Co-chair of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria Aunty Geraldine Atkinson says Yoorrook is central to the negotiation of the state’s treaty.
“We can’t have a treaty without the truth being told ,” she tells Guardian Australia.
“We want a commission to make recommendations to ensure we get a good outcome for the Aboriginal community. It’s about looking for justice for the Stolen Generation and all those people who were misplaced, for the genocide that was committed.”
The commission’s commencement comes after decades of calls – most notably in the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart – for Australia to commit to a formal truth-telling process.
The Victorian inquiry – equipped with the power of a royal commission – is modelled on South Africa’s post-apartheid hearings. Similar processes have been held in New Zealand and Canada. But while those inquiries were nationwide, Yoorrook will be limited to investigating the injustices experienced by Victoria’s First Nations community.
Sue-Anne Hunter, deputy chair of the commission, believes a state-by state approach is best practice for truth-telling because each jurisdiction was “colonised differently”.
“We’re all different peoples. We have different cultural practices,” she tells Guardian Australia.
Hunter says some of the inquiry’s hearings “on country” would take place near the New South Wales-Victorian border. “If that’s where the truth takes us of what’s happened to our people, that’s where we’ll go,” she says.
But Hunter believes truth-telling hearings in other jurisdictions could inform a nationwide treaty.
In other parts of Australia, momentum is building in this space.
South Australia’s newly elected Labor government has committed to a separate voice, treaty and truth process, after former premier Steven Marshall paused the state’s treaty negotiations in 2018. Queensland and the Northern Territory are in the early stages of a path towards a treaty. In Victoria, opposition leader Matthew Guy has previously argued a national treaty was a better approach.
Bourke claims the commonwealth has been non-responsive on treaty and truth, given their response to the Uluru statement – the culmination of the voices of 250 First Nation elected delegates. The Morrison government rejected the key call to enshrine an Indigenous voice to parliament and its plans to legislate a “Voice to Government” is yet to eventuate.
“They’re still talking about how to hear the Aboriginal voice. Now that’s almost archaic in the context of Victoria talking about a treaty,” Bourke says.
The Uluru manifesto calls for a constitutional recognition via a First Nations voice to the Australian parliament. It also calls for the creation of a Makarrata Commission to oversee the process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations people and truth-telling about Indigenous history.
Federal Labor has vowed to enact the Uluru statement in its entirety if elected.
But, for now, Victoria is the only jurisdiction that is currently moving on both the treaty and truth components of the Uluru statement.
For Bourke, it’s unsurprising that Victoria is going it alone on a truth-telling and treaty process, given the state’s history of land justice over the past thirty years.
She points to numerous successful Native Title determinations in the early 2000s and the 2010 Victorian Traditional Owner Settlement Act. That legal framework formally recognises traditional owners, outside the federal government’s native title scheme.
“All of those things made our people believe it was possible to do more ,” she says.
“Victoria was very ready [for truth-telling’]. I think in many ways, given what has happened, the early part of this century.”
The commission will aim to document Indigenous stories from 1788 to present day in a culturally appropriate way, in an attempt to improve reconciliation, educate Victorians and the wider public about the state’s history and shape Aboriginal affairs in the state’s curriculum.
It will make recommendations for redress and reform to the state government and First Peoples’ Assembly for injustices, from the time of colonisation through the stolen generations up to the present day, detailing the treatment of Indigenous Australians.
Bourke hails this week’s launch a “momentous” occasion for Australia, Victoria and all First Nations people. But senior counsel-assisting the commission Tony McAvoy acknowledges the bureaucratic challenges the inquiry would likely face. He points to languishing recommendations from previous inquiries, such as the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.
“Whilst we might have many expressions of political will, of good conscience, the difficulty largely lies in the bureaucracy and the bureaucracy in this state as in other states and territories in this country, is colonial,” he says.
“It’s not designed for First Nations people. So our job is a difficult one. We don’t underestimate the difficulty of the task, but that’s what we intend to do.”