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Infrastructure and Victoria’s First Nations peoples

Infrastructure Victoria proudly acknowledges Victoria’s First Nations peoples and their ongoing resilience in preserving and practising the world’s oldest living culture. We acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands and waters on which we live and work, and pay our respect to their Elders past, present and emerging. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their cultures have prevailed and endured despite experiencing entrenched disadvantage, political exclusion, intergenerational trauma and ongoing institutional racism.

Victoria’s Aboriginal peoples were this land’s first infrastructure builders. For example, at Budj Bim in western Victoria, ancient lava flows were cultivated by Gunditjmara peoples to engineer one of the world’s oldest freshwater aquaculture systems to farm and harvest Kooyang (short-finned eels) and other fish. Alongside the traditionally engineered aquaculture systems, Gunditjmara clans established villages along the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape by building clusters of stone houses.3 We also acknowledge that infrastructure made possible the history of colonisation and dispossession of Victoria’s First Peoples. The construction of infrastructure, such as ports, roads, railways, mines and dams, allowed the Port Phillip colony to grow and expand. This infrastructure allowed colonists to reach and alter ever greater tracts of land, without the agreement of Victoria’s First Peoples. The exploitation of this land for agriculture and minerals also funded and fed the expanding colony, using colonial infrastructure to transport it. Infrastructure continues being built on the traditional lands of Victoria’s First Peoples today.

In recognition of past wrongs, the Victorian Government has established the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission as Australia’s first truth-telling process. Yoo-rrook is the Wemba Wemba / Wamba Wamba word for truth, and the Commission will investigate historical and ongoing injustices committed against Aboriginal Victorians since colonisation, across all areas of social, political and economic life. The Commission will deliver an interim report to the Victorian Government by 30 June 2022 and a final report by 30 June 2024.4 The Victorian Government has also committed to pursuing a Treaty in partnership with Aboriginal Victorians to take the next step towards reconciliation and Aboriginal self-determination. The First Peoples’ Assembly is the first democratically elected body of Aboriginal Victorians in the state’s history and is working in partnership with the Victorian Government to establish the elements required to support future Treaty negotiations.

While the content of a treaty or treaties is not yet known, Victoria’s Treaty could include the recognition of past wrongs, acknowledgement of the unique position of Aboriginal Victorians, enhancement of existing laws and how they impact Aboriginal people in Victoria, and the transfer of decision-making power and resources so that Traditional Owners and Aboriginal Victorians can make decisions about the matters that affect their lives.5

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples enshrines Aboriginal self-determination as a human right. It describes self-determination as the ability for Indigenous people to freely determine their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural development. It also describes self-determination as a right that relates to groups of people, not just individuals. The Victorian Government has committed to using self-determination as the guiding principle in Aboriginal affairs.6

In July 2020, the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations, the Australian Government, state and territory governments, and the Australian Local Government Association signed a new National Agreement on Closing the Gap. The new agreement takes a partnership approach between governments and Aboriginal organisations, and contains 17 targets across education, employment, health and wellbeing, justice, safety, housing, land and waters, and languages. The agreement commits the parties to building formal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled sectors to support Closing the Gap, including developing Sector Strengthening Plans with a stream dedicated to capital infrastructure.7 It also states that when new funding initiatives are decided to service the broader population, a meaningful proportion is allocated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations.8 The agreement requires the Victorian Government to prepare an implementation plan to progress the targets in Victoria.9 The Victorian Government has also developed the Victorian Aboriginal Affairs Framework 2018–2023 to lay out Victoria’s approach to Aboriginal affairs, and providing the metrics, targets and priorities to guide the state’s progress. It contains 20 goals, many aligning with the Closing the Gap targets. Many of these goals and targets will require infrastructure to fulfill. Infrastructure design and construction can exacerbate systemic injustice.10 The historic dispossession and incarceration of Aboriginal people on missions and reserves without reference to their connection to their Country has meant that populations are scattered and often remote from their traditional lands and heritage and family. Dispossession has resulted in disadvantage which itself creates patterns of domestic location for many Aboriginal families in poorer suburbs that are inadequately serviced with infrastructure.11 Infrastructure can connect Aboriginal people to their family, kin, community, and support their connection to Country, culture, spirituality, and ancestry.12 It is critical in addressing prevailing socio economic, health and wellbeing challenges within the Victorian Aboriginal community.13 The Victorian Government and many Aboriginal organisations have begun to outline the way forward, including in:

Korin Korin Balit Djak: Aboriginal health, wellbeing and safety strategic plan 2017–202714
Balit Murrup: Aboriginal social and emotional wellbeing framework 2017–202715
Dhelk Dja – Safe our way: strong culture, strong peoples, strong families16
Marrung: Aboriginal education plan 2016–202617
Wungurilwil Gapgapduir: Aboriginal children and families agreement18
Burra Lotjpa Dunguludja: Victorian Aboriginal justice agreement – Phase 419
Tharamba Bugheen: Victorian Aboriginal business strategy 2017–202120
Mana-na woorn-tyeen maar-takoort: the Victorian Aboriginal housing and homelessness framework.21

Along with the Treaty process, Yoo-rrook Justice Commission, and the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, these and other frameworks, plans and reports begin to map a pathway forward to address Aboriginal disadvantage, fight racism, overcome intergenerational trauma, and meet the current and future needs of Victoria’s First Nations people. In turn, they can help inform future infrastructure planning for Victoria’s First Nations peoples and Aboriginal community-controlled organisations.

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