News / Politics

Merri-bek looks to historic treaty with Indigenous community

Mayor in favour of local treaty as logical next step for reconciliation

The January 26 event in Coburg included a smoking ceremony.

Mark Phillips
Friday, January 26, 2024

THE City of Merri-bek is preparing to forge ahead with a formal treaty with traditional land owners without waiting for a statewide treaty to be negotiated by the Allan Government.

Speaking after a “mourning ceremony” at the Coburg civic centre on January 26, Mayor Adam Pulford said a treaty with the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung people would be a practical way the council could advance the cause of reconciliation after last year’s referendum defeat.

He said the 2022 Victorian legislation that established the process for the state’s treaty making process may also allow local authorities to negotiate treaties separately.

“There’s going to be a statewide treaty that deals with all of the big issues like housing, and education or health, but there’s also the capacity for local treaties. So the Wurundjeri Woi-Wurrung could potentially negotiate a treaty with us, a council.”

While Pulford stressed the treaty proposal was a longer-term aspiration that had not yet been formally discussed by councillors, Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Elder Uncle Andrew Gardiner later said talks towards one could start during this year.

If it did so, Merri-bek would be the first council in Victoria to have negotiated a treaty with First Peoples.

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In 2022, the council worked with the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation to change its name from Moreland to Merri-bek, which means ‘rocky country’.

Merri-bek falls inside the federal electorate of Wills, which recorded one of the largest Yes votes in Australia at last year’s referendum. The council has flown the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands flags at half-mast on January 26 for the past couple of years and also no longer conducts citizenship ceremonies on the contentious date that marks the beginning of British colonisation of Australia

Earlier, addressing a crowd of more than 100, Pulford said despite the resounding vote against the Voice referendum in October both in Victoria and nationally, he was optimistic the fight for reconciliation was not over.

“Just as after a bushfire there’s new green shoots, I think after the referendum it feels like it’s burnt a bit of the goodwill and progress we had for justice and rights for First Nations people but the turn out today is a spark of fightback,” he said.

“We as [non-Indigenous] allies might have found ourselves disheartened or shocked by the outcome but it’s important for us to continue to stand side by side with mob and to let them lead the way but to be there every step of the journey … it’s going to take all of us.”

Pulford told the crowd that Merri-bek had a proud record of listening to and supporting the traditional owners and First People of the area.

Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung elder Uncle Andrew Gardiner (left) and Merri-bek Mayor Adam Pulford (right).

In an interview afterwards with Brunswick Voice, Pulford said a treaty would be a logical next step for Merri-bek, which already has an Indigenous “voice” through an advisory committee.

But he said progress towards a local treaty would be contingent on the involvement of the Victorian Treaty Authority, an independent body established by legislation to facilitate and oversee treaty negotiations.

Pulford, who prior to his election as Mayor in November worked for the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, said there was nothing in the legislation to prevent councils negotiating treaties separately from the state government.

“I think you can actually do it at similar times,” he said. “And it would be very local, maybe over certain blocks of land or certain part responsibilities for caring for country, for example.”

Pointing to the examples of climate change and the war in Gaza, he said local governments often led the way in social change through actions that initiated public discussion.

The move comes after the Victorian treaty process lost bipartisan support when the Coalition announced this week it would no longer back it.

Gardiner, who is deputy chair of the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation, said his organisation was currently developing a treaty agreement document which would form the basis of negotiations with the council.

He said the document should be finalised for presentation to the council sometime in 2024.

“It would be a treaty agreement which says we understand, we support treaty, we support the traditional owners of the local area to advance their treaty aspirations,” he said.

“And we’re communicating these positive things with the broader Merri-bek community and we expect that the state government should listen.”

The mourning ceremony was held peacefully after several dozen neo-Nazis disrupted last year’s event by shouting racist slogans and forcing it to be held indoors.

A light police and security presence was on hand to ensure there was no repeat of last year’s fracas.

As well as speeches by Pulford and Gardiner, attendees were encouraged to participate in a smoking ceremony overseen by Wurundjeri man Thane Garvey.

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