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  • Writer's pictureSerena O'Meley

First Nations committee teaches Merri-bek Council to listen

At the Merri-bek Council meeting on 12 July 2023, a majority of councillors voted to commit money to 'Yes' campaign collateral for the upcoming Voice to Parliament referendum, without consulting the Merri-bek First Nations Advisory Committee. As a result there are already 'Yes' campaign banners hanging around the city. They looked set to commit even more money to the 'Yes' campaign at their 9 August 2023 meeting, contrary to the express wishes of the Committee which instead wanted Council to, "organise respectful discussions reflecting a mix of views for people to explore the issues while making up their minds."

In response, Cr Sue Bolton (Socialist Alliance), seconded by Cr James Conlan (Independent, formerly Greens), proposed an alternative motion which 1) noted the Committee's statement to Councillors (see below), 2) accepted the Committee's recommendations regarding future consultation, and a self-determination education campaign for councillors, officers and the community, 3) committed resources towards respectful conversations and information sharing about the referendum while reflecting the diversity of progressive views within First Nations communities, and 4) acknowledged the impact that the referendum campaign is having on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander spiritual and emotional wellbeing and offered Council's support to them.

However, in another show of disrespect towards the Committee, Cr Lambros Tapinos (Labor) and Cr Mark Riley (Greens) attempted to amend this motion to reinstate $4,000 towards 'Yes to Voice, Treaty and Truth' campaign collateral so they could purchase more 'Yes' banners. Fortunately, Cr Bolton's motion was carried without this amendment. Another motion put by Cr Bolton - to undertake a review of decision-making processes that have an impact on the First Nations community, including ways to seek their feedback before decisions are made - was also carried.

It's good to see that the Merri-bek First Nations Advisory Committee has prevailed in such a contested environment and that their advice will be taken seriously in the future. It's a lesson about Aboriginal self-determination that certain Councillors on neighbouring Darebin Council are yet to learn.

Merri-bek Council, Coburg Victoria

You can watch the Committee's co-chair, Kim Kruger, read out their statement here [at 1:03:28.]

Merri-bek First Nations Advisory Committee statement to Councillors,

9 August, 2023

We express our disappointment and frustration at not being properly involved in a range of First Nations affairs raised at Council in the last six months. What is the point of a First Nations Advisory Committee if not to provide advice on First Nations affairs?

This happened most recently at the 12 July Council meeting where a motion was put to redirect funds from the Merri-bek renaming project to a ‘Yes’ campaign on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

Our views were sought on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament Referendum at our 28 February meeting where we discussed that in First Nations communities, there are a wide range of positions - Yes, No, undecided and disengaged - so the most important thing is to organise respectful discussions reflecting a mix of views for people to explore the issues while making up their minds.

The committee agreed that Merri-bek Council should support this discussion without holding a position for or against. This would reflect the position of the Merri-bek First Nations Advisory Committee given our diverse views and the views held in First Nations communities.

We find it hypocritical that Council failed to listen to your own First Nations Advisory Committee when you resolved to support a Voice to Parliament. The decisions of those who hold power to not act on advice given by First Nations people is one of the reasons why some Indigenous people do not support the Voice to Parliament.

The rationale for a voice, that is, a say in the decisions that affect our lives, is based on the principle of self-determination. Evidence shows that better outcomes on First Nations issues are the result of proper consultation and Indigenous led decision making. Not just a Voice, but Indigenous led decisions. Council’s own ‘Statement of commitment to Indigenous Australians’ champions self-determination of Wurundjeri Woiwurrung and other local Indigenous peoples. We expect you to uphold this commitment by not excluding us from decision making processes.

We are also disappointed that you were unaware that council officers were already implementing a program of community discussion on Voice, Treaty, Truth based on our advice to support respectful discussion. This work is fully minuted in our Advisory Committee meetings.

We expect Merri-bek Councillors and officers to work respectfully and meaningfully with its First Nations Advisory Committee to progress reconciliation and justice. We acknowledge all the hard work that has been achieved so far but are wary of being taken for granted.

We make the following recommendations to remedy the tokenistic position the First Nations Advisory Committee finds itself in:

  1. Formalise Aboriginal self-determination in Merri-bek’s decision-making process on First Nations affairs by incorporating best practice standards of consultation and decision making with First Nations Peoples into the committee’s Terms of Reference with reference to UNDRIP and the Victorian Charter of Human Rights (Section 19). This should include, at minimum, a commitment by Council that significant Council decisions that affect First Nations communities, come to the First Nations Advisory Committee for advice, before going to Council for a decision.

  2. Implement an Aboriginal self-determination education campaign for councillors, officers and community to ensure better outcomes for First Nations community in Merri-bek.

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