Children and Health Legislation Amendment (Statement of Recognition, Aboriginal Self-Determination and other matters) Bill 2023

09 March 2023

Martha HAYLETT (Ripon) (15:03):

I rise to speak on the Children and Health Legislation Amendment (Statement of Recognition, Aboriginal Self-determination and Other Matters) Bill 2023. This bill reinforces the Victorian government’s commitment to Aboriginal self-determination in the health and child protection systems, centralising the importance of culturally safe services. It is an important step in the path to closing the gap, with one of the key aims to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal children in state care by 45 per cent by 2031. In an Australian first, this bill sets out to expand the role of Aboriginal agencies delivering children and family services to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal children in care.

It will also complement Victoria’s treaty process as we collectively work towards long-term solutions to right the wrongs of the past. For generations Aboriginal communities across Victoria have called for treaty to acknowledge the sovereignty of First Nations people. We know the Victorian traditional owners maintain that their sovereignty has never been ceded, and they have consistently called for a treaty process that delivers self-determination for Victoria’s First Peoples.

This bill addresses the key aim of reducing the rates of Aboriginal children in the child protection system in quite a few key ways. Firstly, it recognises the importance of retaining close connections to culture and family. We have seen throughout history the effects of separating the ties between Aboriginal children and their community, and we do not have to look far back into our past to see this play out. It is indisputable that the harms and trauma of the stolen generation are still being felt today. This degrading and inhumane policy of forced separation was in effect until the 1970s, leaving a devastating mark on too many families and communities. Last year the Andrews Labor government opened the stolen generations reparations package, but we still have a long way to go before we can truly come to terms with the deep scars left on our community.

Secondly, this bill enshrines the importance of self-determination in decision-making. When Aboriginal people and organisations are involved throughout the process it leads to better outcomes. We know this. It is a key binding principle that will be enshrined into the framework of child protective services in this state and will mean decisions are guided by informed and community-led approaches. Keeping Aboriginal families strong relies on a deep understanding of and respect for Aboriginal culture. These principles have been co-designed with the Victorian Aboriginal Children and Young People’s Alliance representing Aboriginal community controlled organisations, which is extremely important.

This bill explicitly incorporates the five aspects underpinning the intent of the Aboriginal child placement principle. This includes prevention, participation, partnership, placement and connection. Our country has an exciting opportunity to live our values when it comes to fairness for Aboriginal people in this country. We are seeing the same conversation about Aboriginal self-determination carry out federally around the referendum which will be held later this year for the Voice to Parliament. I am proud to support the yes campaign because Aboriginal people deserve a greater say in this country when it comes to issues that affect them. It is all about recognition and consultation, and if it is successful it will mean that our country will finally enshrine a Voice to Parliament in our constitution, which will have a say on issues that affect them.

I am proud that Victoria is the first Australian jurisdiction to commit to and action all elements of the Uluru Statement from the Heart: voice, treaty and truth. We are working hand in hand with the Aboriginal community in Victoria to fully realise the potential of Indigenous communities and to support and protect them and recognise past wrongs. I want to particularly mention the co-chairs of the First People’s Assembly of Victoria, Aunty Geraldine Atkinson and Marcus Stewart. In Victoria they have led the way on voice, treaty and truth, making massive progress on all three pillars of the Uluru Statement from the Heart in a very short period of time.

A truth-telling process is underway now, crafted by the community with wide-reaching powers under the Yoorrook Justice Commission, and the Treaty Authority and independent umpire to facilitate negotiations through the treaty process which was passed by this Parliament just last year will mean that we can begin to level the playing field when it comes to fair and frank negotiations between the state of Victoria and First Peoples.

I want to acknowledge and thank the traditional owners and registered Aboriginal parties in my electorate of Ripon. This includes the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation, which covers central Victoria, including what we now know as Creswick, where I live, as well as Clunes, Dunolly, Maryborough, St Arnaud and parts of the Loddon shire. Their connection to country runs deep and spreads across tens of thousands of years. I want to turn to the words of Aunty Fay Carter, a Dja Dja Wurrung elder, who said:

I’d like the rest of the world to know that Dja Dja Wurrung still exist. We are still here as a People. We are proud and value our Culture. We honour our Martiinga kuli, and everything that we do, we are doing on behalf of our Martiinga kuli, who didn’t have the voice that we have today.

I also acknowledge the Wadawurrung Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation whose CEO and traditional owners I have had the pleasure of meeting with and look forward to working with into the future. Their lands stretch across what we now know as Ballarat, Beaufort, Skipton and everywhere in between. I acknowledge the Barengi Gadjin traditional owners covering areas of the Wimmera Southern Mallee region of Victoria, including Navarre, and the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, whose lands stretch far from the coast to as far north as Ararat in my electorate. Each of them represents and fights for Aboriginal children on country, and I am guided by my conversations with them and others when I come to this place. In just August last year I attended the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children’s day event in Maryborough, organised by Kymberley, Maryborough District Health Service Aboriginal hospital liaison officer. What a beautiful day it was, with art, storytelling, history and dance. I was extremely heartened to see such a wonderful display of connection to country, and I know that the day meant so much to the Maryborough community.

That is what this bill is all about, protecting Aboriginal children and keeping their ties to community, country and family strong. We are recognising that the child protection services have not been fit for purpose for too long, and we are doing something about it. This will be achieved in part through the statement of recognition, which will highlight the impact of past policies on Aboriginal people and was designed in partnership between Aboriginal stakeholder groups. It also furthers key promises and strategic directions under the Wungurilwil Gapgapduir: Aboriginal Children and Families Agreement 2018. This agreement, meaning ‘strong families’, between the Aboriginal community, Victorian government and community service organisations is designed to address the issue of over-representation of Indigenous children in care. Since 2018 the Victorian government has invested over $160 million of new investment to implement the initiatives that came out of this agreement. No-one is saying this is easy, but it must be done. We cannot expect different results without delivering the necessary reforms to strengthen the relationship between the Victorian government and Aboriginal people in Victoria.

When thinking about what I wanted to speak about today, my mind turned to the inaugural speech of Mutthi Mutthi and Wamba Wamba woman Victorian senator Jana Stewart, who is a dear friend of mine and an incredible person. When she came to Melbourne she began working at the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency before becoming a family therapist. She spoke of her experiences during this time which cemented her understanding of the impact of trauma and secure attachments developed by children, and she learned how fundamental it is to a child’s success in life to have a healthy and happy childhood. I think of those children across my electorate whose connections to country, to family and to community are being developed at such a young age, including the 66 kids out of 1000 students at Maryborough Education Centre that proudly identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and the many others at Wedderburn College, St Arnaud Secondary, Beaufort Primary School and everywhere in between.

It is no secret that we still have a long way to go in closing the gap for Aboriginal children. Whether it is housing, education, health, employment or so much more, we must be doing better as a state and as a country to afford Aboriginal people the same opportunities and rights that we all enjoy. That is what makes this bill so important: it is part of a broader story of Aboriginal self-determination, justice and equity. Protecting cultural heritage, improving justice outcomes and strengthening Aboriginal organisations to deliver for their communities is not the whole picture. We must re-imagine the way we work together for a fairer, more just and more equal society, working across coalitions of Aboriginal organisations, First Nations people and communities. We are on the path to achieving this, but we must continue to pursue every opportunity to secure Aboriginal self-determination in Victoria. It is clear what can be achieved when the community, working with Aboriginal community controlled organisations, demands better outcomes for Aboriginal children. I am thrilled to be part of a government that is genuinely coming to the table time and time again on these issues. I commend this bill to the house.