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Australian first: Victoria’s premier will sit before an Indigenous-led truth inquiry

In the heart of Wurundjeri country, Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan was feeling the weight of history.

“This is a deeply significant moment,” she said.

“We all as a community … need to understand the truth of the experience of First Peoples here in Victoria.”

Ms Allan spoke to the ABC from the historical site of Coranderrk, north-east of Melbourne, as she prepared to give evidence before the Yoorrook Justice Commission — Australia’s first truth-telling inquiry.

She will make Australian history as the first head of state to appear before a formal truth-telling inquiry — set up to investigate the impact of past and present systems on Indigenous communities.

Truth-telling commissions in other countries, such as Canada and South Africa, have been used to uncover gross violations of human rights. Victoria’s process is an Australian first.

“It saddens me that I did not have the opportunity to learn that at a much younger age,” she said.

Victoria remains ‘determined’ to continue down treaty path

In Victoria, Ms Allan’s Labor government is part of arguably the most ambitious response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which called for voice, treaty and truth to address injustices against First Peoples.

“There will be people who will want to block this path, but my government, we remain determined,” she said.

“The negotiations will be challenging no doubt … but it is so fundamentally important that we go down this path for the simple reason that we know from countless international examples that it works, it makes a difference.”

n Friday, Yoorrook heard from international law professor John Borrows, who belongs to the Anishinaabe/Ojibway Indigenous group from the Great Lakes area of Canada and the United States.

He told Yoorrook that much like Australia, Canada had also hosted hundreds of different inquiries analysing First Nations injustice with little impact.

“That’s made a huge difference for us, in the past 10 years in Canada,” he said.

That Victoria’s truth-telling inquiry was running alongside the treaty process was unique, he said. 

“This commission is at the cutting edge … I’m not aware of another treaty process that has a truth and justice commission as prominent as what you have got in your jurisdiction there,” he said.

Truth-telling journey not without disappointment

The past few months have highlighted the tension between the transformational, system-wide reforms called for by Aboriginal communities through Yoorrook, and the government’s response to them.

Some of those recommendations — which included a call for a First Nations-controlled child protection system — were met with scepticism from the state opposition, which expressed concern about the creation of parallel systems for Indigenous people.

The government’s position drew criticism from traditional owners, who described the response as “very frustrating” and disrespectful to elders who had given evidence.

Ms Allan said she understood the government’s response would frustrate some who felt they had already waited years for meaningful change.

“Many of the recommendations go to the really complex and challenging issues around the structures of our justice system … we’re saying we need more time,” she said.

“Because to work through these issues, to get them right, there’s some complex work that we need to do as government.”

arlier this month, Minister for Treaty and First Peoples Natalie Hutchins told Yoorrook she would like to see treaty negotiations completed ahead of the next state election in 2026.

Premier Jacinta Allan said she was not willing to set any “false deadlines” on negotiations, which are scheduled to begin later this year.

“It’s too important to see it rushed or dragged out,” she said.

Wurundjeri elder gifts historic letter to premier ahead of truth-telling appearance

Ms Allan’s recent visit to Coranderrk to meet with Yoorrook Justice commissioners and Wurundjeri elders ahead of her historic appearance at the truth-telling inquiry has its own special significance.

In 1863, the site near Healesville was established as an Aboriginal reserve — a home for the First Nations people displaced following the rapid and violent spread of settlers throughout Victoria from the 1830s.

During their meeting, Wurundjeri elder Aunty Jacqui Wandin told Ms Allan how the story of Coranderrk was central to the ongoing fight for Aboriginal land rights.

“Coranderrk is a place about tragedy, triumph, struggle and success,” Aunty Jacqui said.

“The people never, ever stopped demanding the right conditions.”

The famous Wurundjeri leader William Barak and other Coranderrk residents would regularly travel to Melbourne to petition the colonial powers of the day for better treatment.

“[William Barak] led in a non-violent way and the Wurundjeri still hold those values over time,” Aunty Jacqui said.

But in hosting the premier at Coranderrk, it was not just the fight that Wurundjeri elder Jacqui Wandin wanted to continue, but the tradition of friendship across cultures.

“There was a strong friendship a lot of my people forged with non-Indigenous people,” she said.

She gifted the premier a letter written by Barak and others from Coranderrk in 1886 to former Victorian premier Graham Berry which showed the “fond friendship” between the two men.

Ms Allan said she was “tingling all the way through” upon receipt of the letter.

In 1881, as premier, Graham Berry launched a parliamentary inquiry into conditions at Coranderrk following the sustained advocacy of William Barak and other residents.

The inquiry led by the colonial government was the first of its kind in Australian history to hear from Aboriginal witnesses.

More than 140 years later, for the first time, a First Peoples-led truth-telling inquiry will question Victoria’s own head of state.

Traditional owners across Victoria — and the nation — will be watching to see how Ms Allan grapples with the complex legacy her government has inherited.

“William Barak’s words and all the people at Coranderrk are extremely relevant today,” Ms Allan said.

“Let’s move forward together.”

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What is truth telling?

  • Victoria’s Yoorrook Justice Commission defines truth-telling as a process of openly sharing truths after periods of conflict to allow for resetting of relationships, based on justice and human rights.
  • Truth Commissions have been run all over the world, most notably in South Africa at the end of apartheid.
  • Yoorrook says its truth-telling “is the act of telling Victoria’s true history, by listening to the experiences of First Peoples”.