For Wurundjeri and Ngurai-Illam Wurrung woman Sue-Anne Hunter, truth telling has been a long time coming.
Ms Hunter, 50, is one of five commissioners and the deputy chair of the landmark Yoorrook Justice Commission, which finally gets down to business this week, starting conversations with elders on a listening tour around Victoria. The official launch of the commission follows decades of calls from around Australia for a formal truth-telling process investigating past and continuing injustices experienced by Indigenous people, and months of delays hampering the start of the inquiry, announced by the Victorian Government in May 2021.
Ms Hunter, who grew up in Melbourne (Naarm), says that understanding her own family’s history has been key to preparing for her work on the commission.
“I bring their strength, their pain, their resilience – everything.”
Ms Hunter is a descendant of esteemed Aboriginal rights activist William Barak, a Wurundjeri ngurungaeta (tribal leader) who successfully campaigned for the 1881 Coranderrk Inquiry, the first state government inquiry into the treatment of Victorian Aboriginal people. Her grandmother was the last woman to be born at the Coranderrk Aboriginal Station, which closed in 1924. The women’s birthing tree she was born under still stands, outlasting the mission that once surrounded it.
Her forebears have left “big shoes to fill” in the pursuit of truth and justice, Ms Hunter says.
“We’ve been asking for this for a very long time. Not just me, but those that walked way before me, and we don’t forget all those people.”
The commissioner says she feels “blessed to know [her] history.” In her 20-year career working as a family therapist and a social worker in child and family services, Ms Hunter has assisted members of the Stolen Generation striving to find the stories of their own family, ancestry and country.
Recognising these historical injustices, the commission launch last Thursday was held at the Stolen Generations Marker in Fitzroy, which commemorates those affected by the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families.
Ms Hunter says that in the course of her work, particularly with child services and young people in detention, she’s seen plenty of evidence of continuing institutional injustice and racism.
Questioned about the eight month delay on the commission commending work, Ms Hunter points to the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
In January, amid media reports of “infighting” among the commission’s top staff, Yoorrook’s CEO Josh Smith and the head of his office, Alexandra Krummel, resigned from their positions. On the circumstances of the resignations, Ms Hunter declines to elaborate other than to say that the commissioners were put into a team as “five people that didn’t know each other,” but that she trusts and stands beside her fellow commissioners.
She also emphasises the need for the process to take the time required to get things right for future generations.
“Our vision is to see a transformed Victoria based on truth, justice and grounded in First Peoples’ enduring spirits and cultures,” says Ms Hunter. “That’s a really big vision, so what we have done is taken our time to make sure the cultural foundations of the commission are strong.
“We need to get this right for our people.”
The evidence gathered by the Yoorrook Justice Commission will form the basis of its recommendations to the Victorian government for social, educational and institutional reform. These recommendations will also inform treaty negotiations between the state government and the First Nations Peoples’ Assembly.
The deadline for the commission’s interim report is in June and its final report is due June 2024.
As she sets out on the first phase of the listening tour, Ms Hunter brings with her reminders of what’s important. As her phone’s screensaver, an image of her Wurundjeri ancestor Annie Borate, sister of William Barak keeps her focused on the task ahead, she says.
“The truth lies with our people and their stories guide us.”
“All of Australia is watching to see how it goes.”