Commissioner Sue-Anne Hunter delivered the key-note address at the Opening of the Legal Year on Wednesday 1 February 2023. Commissioner Sue-Anne Hunter is a proud Wurundjeri and Ngurai Illum Wurrung woman currently holding the titles of Deputy Chair and Commissioner with the Yoorrook Justice Commission. Commissioner Hunter has generously allowed for the publication of her speech on our site and it is viewable below. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Commissioner Hunter for delivering this powerful and poignant address.
I am honoured to speak to you all today at the Opening of the Legal Year in Victoria.
My name is Sue-Anne Hunter. I am a Wurundjeri and Ngurai illum wurrung woman and the Deputy Chair of the first truth telling commission in Australia – the Yoorrook Justice Commission.
I want to begin by telling you a story that is deeply connected to my family, and the work of Yoorrook. It is the story of Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve. My nan, Jessie Nevin, was the last female born on the reserve before it closed in 1924.
Coranderrk lies among beautiful rolling hills just outside Healesville in the Yarra Valley, with creeks that still house platypi, and manna gums that soar high into the sky.
It was established as an Aboriginal reserve in 1863 after Simon Wonga, William Barak – my 6th Great Uncle – and other Aboriginal leaders successfully campaigned for a piece of land on which they could live, farm, raise their families and maintain their culture and practices.
The government gazetted an area of almost 10 square kms around a meeting place on the banks of the Yarra River and Badger Creek. It was called Coranderrk after a flowering summer plant indigenous to the area.
The reserve was managed by the Scottish preacher John Green, who by all reports, was a kind man who believed that Aboriginal people had the right and ability to decide their own needs.
Coranderrk residents formed a court of assembly and there was enough food, shelter and clothing for everyone, and a level of trust with Green.
In 1872, hops farming was introduced at Coranderrk, and a drying kiln was built on site.
The hops was a success. Aboriginal people showed they could work the land the way Europeans did – equal or better than the settlers who had stolen so much and decimated traditional ways of managing Country.
But this success led to the eventual downfall of Coranderrk.
The Board for the Protection of Aborigines saw profit making potential, and in 1874 Green was forced to resign. White labourers were brought in, while the conditions and pay for Aboriginal workers deteriorated.
Coranderrk residents didn’t have enough time to farm for themselves, and weren’t paid enough to buy the food they needed to survive.
They were unhappy, and called for Green to be reinstated.
But the Board had other ideas. They wanted to close Coranderrk, move its residents up near the Murray, and redistribute the highly valuable lands to White people.
Under William Barak, First Peoples wrote letters, signed petitions, and used their connections to appeal to more progressive politicians and journalists.
Three times they walked to Melbourne – some 60km – to call for greater self-determination and John Green’s reinstatement.
Their unrelenting advocacy led to the 1881 Parliamentary inquiry into the conditions and management of Coranderrk.
Some 21 Aboriginal witnesses gave evidence over the course of two-and-a-half months, and the media covered the hearings closely.
It was reported that First Peoples witnesses presented clear, concise evidence about the poor management of the reserve, the decline in farming and healthy food, of insufficient clothing, and of a system that entrenched their poverty and took away their right to self-determination.
After the inquiry, Coranderrk remained open and conditions improved.
But it didn’t last long.
A few years later in 1886 the so called ‘Half Caste’ Act came in, forcing those considered ‘half castes’ to move off the reserves and assimilate into white society.
It was part of the plan to ‘breed out’ Aboriginal people; to kill off the Australia’s First Peoples once and for all.
And so the population of Coranderrk gradually declined and piece by piece its valuable lands were redistributed to white settlers.
The reserve was closed for good in 1924.
The story of Coranderrk is very close to my heart – these are the lands on which many of my ancestors lived and some of my Country men still reside.
But the story is also important to Yoorrook for two main reasons.
First, the testimony provided by witnesses enabled the creation of a public record, for us to read some 140 years later.
Despite the inquiry being far from perfect, it offered a space for those living on Coranderrk to tell their truth, and to have that truth etched into history forever.
It also ensured a level of transparency and public scrutiny that had not been present before.
At Yoorrook, we are inspired by the bravery of the First Peoples who gave evidence back then, at a time when Aboriginal people and had little-to-no rights under Colonial laws.
Second, it reinforced the need for truth telling to be part of a bigger process in order to create transformational change for First Peoples.
Despite the courage shown by witnesses and the strength of their evidence, little changed in terms of real outcomes for First Peoples.
Truth on its own was not enough.
Truth on its own could only chip away at the edges of injustice when an army of bulldozers was needed.
We are in different times in Victoria today, however.
Over the past decade we have seen the foundations for transformational change gradually being laid, and largely with bipartisan support.
We have seen greater Aboriginal public service leadership, the establishment of the Victorian Treaty Advancement Commission, and the creation of an elected representative body, the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria.
Last year also saw the signing of a landmark Treaty framework, which could see the start of negotiations for state-wide and individual treaties as early as this year.
This operating environment is essential for Yoorrook, which will make strong recommendations to right the wrongs of the past and end the systemic injustices experienced by First Peoples.
These recommendations need to be accepted, resourced and implemented in full.
Whether or not the foundations hold, and Victoria can create real and lasting change for First Peoples – history will be the ultimate judge.
Until then, we should take courage from those who have gone before us, fighting for the rights of First Peoples, and commit to work harder than we have ever worked before. We must keep the momentum going.
With this in mind, I would like to tell you about the work the Yoorrook Justice Commission is doing.
Yoorrook is an Indigenous led Royal Commission established in May 2021 under the Inquiries Act of Victoria.
Yoorrook’s mandate is to gather evidence on the historical and contemporary injustices faced by the First Peoples of Victoria and to put the true history of Victoria on the public record.
Yoorrook holds all the powers of a Royal Commission – the most powerful form of inquiry in this state – including the ability to compel witnesses and to issue notices to produce.
It is the first time a Government in this country has tasked an inquiry body to investigate and make findings about the past and continuing impacts of colonisation on First Peoples.
This is no small task, and comes on the back of decades of attempts at genuine progress for First Peoples that raised expectations, but failed to deliver better outcomes for First Peoples.
That is the harsh reality.
Today, First Peoples die younger, suffer greater health complications, have poorer access to health and education services, and are more prone to deadly diseases like Covid-19.
Today our people are committing suicide at more than double the rate of non-Indigenous people, one of the hallmarks of the intergenerational trauma that is carried by so many First Peoples.
Today, Aboriginal children in Victoria are 20 times more likely to be removed from their families than non-Indigenous children.
Today Aboriginal men and women are 14 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous Victorians.
These are all issues that are within Yoorrook’s terms of reference.
The truth is the colonial machine, which began by taking Aboriginal land for wealth, has maintained power by controlling and legislating the lives of the Indigenous population.
If there has been progress, it has not addressed the systemic inequalities that maintain this status quo.
I am confident that this time will be different, however; that we have more of the building blocks in place in Victoria for transformative change to occur.
As Commissioners of Yoorrook, we are all aware of the great responsibility that rests with each of us, and the vital importance of the truth telling process – not only for First Peoples but for all Victorians.
We also recognise the significance that Yoorrook holds for other states, territories and the Commonwealth, as they look for their own model for Truth, Voice and Treaty making processes.
At the heart of everything we do is the enduring spirit and guiding voices of Victoria’s First Peoples. The Elders of our communities have led the way through their tireless advocacy to improve the lives of Aboriginal people.
Yoorrook was formerly established at the recommendation of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, and in recognition of the central importance of truth telling as a foundational step towards Treaty.
Yoorrook’s commissioners are:
- Professor Eleanor Bourke AM – Wergaia/Wamba Wamba Elder (Chair)
- Ms Sue-Anne Hunter – Wurundjeri and Ngurai illum Wurrung woman (Deputy Chair)
- Distinguished Professor Maggie Walter – Palawa woman and descendant of the Pairrebenne People of the North East Nation (Tasmania)
- Professor the Honourable Kevin Bell AM KC
- (Formerly) Dr Wayne Atkinson Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung Elder (Dhamalgunya)
Yoorrook is assisted by two senior counsel:
- Mr Tony McAvoy SC – Wirdi man. Mr McAvoy is widely recognised as Australia’s most senior First Nations barrister.
- Ms Fiona McLeod AO SC
And two junior counsel:
- Mr Timothy Goodwin – Yuin man
- Ms Sarala Fitzgerald
Yoorrook – meaning ‘truth’ in the language of the Wamba Wamba – will make recommendations for healing, system reform and changes to laws and policies.
Yoorrook has three core objectives:
Truth: To create a lasting public record based on First Peoples’ experiences of systemic injustice since the start of colonisation; the consequences of those experiences and who, or what, is responsible.
Understanding: To bring all Victorians with us on this journey of deep listening and learning about the true history of these lands; its impact; and the strength and resilience of First Peoples culture, knowledge and traditions that have survived against all odds.
Transformation: To recommend changes to laws, institutions and systems, which can then be taken up through Treaty negotiations, building the foundations for a new relationship between First Peoples, the state government and all Victorians.
One point I do want to address is the fact that Yoorrook is a Royal Commission, which is inherently a colonial system of investigation.
There are some benefits in Yoorrook being set up as such a powerful form of inquiry.
But there is also an irony that a colonial institution is being used to investigate injustice dating back to colonialism.
But Yoorrook is also fundamentally a very different type of inquiry because it is, above all, about truth telling and justice.
Yoorrook seeks to embrace this difference in order to fulfil its obligations.
For one, Yoorrook is Indigenous led. 3 out of 4 of its Commissioners are First Peoples.
More than a third of Yoorrook’s staff are First Peoples.
Two out of four of the Counsel assisting are First Peoples.
Our hearings are conducted in a less formal setting with Commissioners, witnesses, the State and Counsel in a round-table style format.
We have travelled across the state to take evidence from people on Country, and visited sacred places, former missions and massacre sites that are important to the history of our people.
I hope the evidence we gather will help non-Indigenous Victorians understand the true significance of where they live, work and play.
This year, we plan to conduct prison visits to gather first-hand evidence from Aboriginal women, men and young people in our custodial system.
Yoorrook has expanded the notion of evidence to include things like artwork, poetry, cultural artefacts and music. This will help contribute to a rich cultural tapestry of evidence of the State’s true history, unlike any other public records held by the State.
Internally, the Commission is working hard to ensure that every step of the process is culturally safe and respectful, and that extensive support is available for all those who choose to engage with Yoorrook.
It is the Commission’s recommendation that the stories and evidence we are gathering will not be treated in the same way as other Royal Commissions.
Instead, it will be afforded the special protection of Indigenous Data Sovereignty to ensure that Indigenous peoples maintain ownership and control of how their information and data is used long after their story has become part of the official public record.
Current focus of Yoorrook
The current focus of our enquiry is on the injustices experienced by First Peoples within Victoria’s child protection and criminal justice systems.
In December, we held hearings in which about 50 witnesses gave evidence, including Aboriginal leaders, experts and community members.
We heard first-hand accounts of the devastating lifelong impacts of child removal – on the child, their family and Community, and the way this trauma is often passed on to future generations.
One witness told the commission how at the age of 5, she and her five siblings were removed from their family and split up across different homes. The witness was never told she was loved or needed as a child.
These early experiences affected her relationships, ability to trust and have faith as an adult. When she had children, she found it difficult to show them affection because she was not given affection as a child.
We were told about the lack of understanding and respect for Aboriginal family structures and approaches to raising children that do not match the white, middle-class expectations of many in the child protection system.
We heard about the deeply concerning cycle in which too many Aboriginal children enter the child protection system, only to move into the youth justice system, and then the adult criminal justice system.
We heard stories of First Peoples being incarcerated for crimes of poverty, as well as the disproportionate use of tasers and strip searches on Aboriginal people, including children, by police.
We heard witness after witness call for genuine self-determination for First Peoples, and widespread reform of both the child protection and criminal legal systems to address the injustices faced by First Peoples.
I cannot thank the witnesses enough for the bravery they showed in telling their truths and helping grow the evidence base that Yoorrook needs to make strong recommendations – which will go to both the Victorian Government and the First Peoples Assembly of Victoria.
Since the hearings commenced, the Government has made promising announcements including changes to public drunkenness laws, bail laws and reform of the child protection system.
We will wait to see how these proposed changes are enacted and the extent to which they address the injustices and flaws in the system identified by witnesses.
Yoorrook will hold two further rounds of hearings later in February and March, also focused on the child protection and criminal justice systems.
Then in the middle of 2023, Yoorrook will deliver a Critical Issues Report outlining the systemic problems within these two systems and the impact this has had – and continues to have – on First Peoples.
Yoorrook will then make recommendations for reform; to help right the wrongs of the past.
The International Commission of Jurists Victoria (ICJV) is assisting Yoorrook by providing its expertise on the type and scope of reparations that have been implemented in truth telling commissions around the world. This is invaluable work that the Commission will be greatly assisted by.
By recommending ways to address ongoing systemic injustice and redress past injustice, Yoorrook is working to support the treaty making process currently underway in Victoria.
Following the delivery of the Critical Issues paper, Yoorrook will shift its focus to land justice. Details around the scope of this work will be announced at a later date.
There is so much work to do. But we can all take pride in the fact Victoria is leading the nation.
It is an honour to be here today, at the County Court of Victoria, speaking to an audience that includes many legal professionals and members of the legal community.
While Yoorrook and the truth telling process might exist outside the sphere within which many of you work each day, we are all working towards the same thing: justice.
We must never lose sight of that.
I hope you will follow the work of Yoorrook with keen interest, and when the time comes, play your part as Victoria seeks to address the injustices experienced by First Peoples under the law.
Only by working together can we create a better, fairer future for all Victorians.