Progress and purpose: supporting the First Peoples' Assembly

The First Peoples' Assembly is an independent and democratically elected voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on the shared journey to Treaty in Victoria.

There are currently 31 Members who sit on the Assembly – all Traditional Owners chosen by their communities to represent their hopes, ideas and needs as they seek to ensure First Peoples always have the freedom and power to make the decisions that affect their communities.

A senior staff member at the Assembly who had worked with Allens in previous roles and understood the firm's commitment to its pro bono practice made contact very early in the genesis of the Assembly, and Allens has been privileged to support the Assembly with pro bono legal advice since then.

On 20 October 2022, the Assembly and the Victorian Government reached a landmark agreement on a framework that will enable Traditional Owners of Country to negotiate Treaties across the state, and for the Assembly – as the democratic voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria – to negotiate a state-wide Treaty to deliver structural reform.

The Assembly’s co-chair, proud Nira illim bulluk man of the Taungurung Nation, Marcus Stewart, said the framework sets out the principles that will guide Treaty-making in Victoria and provides Traditional Owner groups with the ability to choose their own pathways and timelines for negotiating Treaties that reflect their particular priorities and aspirations.

'Colonisation saw our freedom, dignity and agency stripped from us. We were driven from our lands, had our families ripped apart and every aspect of our lives – where we could live, who we could marry – was controlled by the State.

This agreement puts the power back into Aboriginal hands so that we can decide how we want to get things done.

The Assembly’s work is complex and sensitive, and regularly throws up novel legal questions. This applies to the Treaty-related work and also Assembly business more generally. The in-house legal team relies heavily on pro bono services so that carefully considered and timely legal advice can be given to the Assembly and its Members as they navigate the intricate and exciting Treaty-making landscape,' said Mr Stewart.

Allens lawyer Isaac Johanson-Blok has been closely involved with the Assembly’s progress and reflected on the opportunity to support its work.

'It's been great to assist the Assembly with its impactful work. Treaty recognition for First Peoples is hugely important, and it's exciting to contribute to such significant reforms. This work has also presented the opportunity to navigate new and interesting legal questions that don't normally come up in commercial practice,' Mr Johanson-Blok said.

While previous attempts at reform have been led by government bodies, Allens Partner Ted Hill says the power to make change now sits in the hands of the people impacted.

'This is a process led by the First Nations peoples. The framework that has been agreed will allow negotiations to occur between the state and a party that is equal to the state, on a level playing field. Creating the framework required the parties to think outside traditional legal structures. It is a historic step towards Treaty,' Mr Hill said.

The October agreement sets the stage for Treaty negotiations to begin as early as 2023. Allens continues to advise the Assembly.