Blog | 9th May, 2024

Yoorrook: Key things we heard in the Land, Sky and Waters Hearings

Learn about the most recent hearings in Victoria's truth-telling process

The Yoorrook Justice Commission is an opportunity for us all to learn more about the history of our state and the land we live on.

Yoorrook is Victoria’s truth-telling process – and the first of its kind in Australia. It was set up by the First Peoples Assembly of Victoria and the Victorian government, to provide an official record of the impact of colonisation and ongoing injustices experienced by First Peoples in Victoria.

The most recent hearings focused on Land, Sky and Waters, with testimonies from First Nations elders, scholars and experts as well as senior government Ministers. Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan was also asked to give evidence, becoming the first state leader to come before an Indigenous-led truth-telling commission.

We all have a role to play in this powerful truth-telling. In the words of Professor Eleanor Bourke, Wergaia/Wamba Wamba Elder and Chair of the Yoorrook Justice Commission: “When we understand the past and how this connects to the present, we have the power to create real and lasting change.”

In this blog, we cover some of the key things we heard in the Land, Sky and Waters hearings. Scroll down or click each heading below to learn more, plus find more resources here.

1. Colonisation in Victoria started with a violent “squatting rush”

2. Water injustice is ongoing

3. First Nations deliberately excluded from land royalties

4. Victorian government looking into benefit sharing from renewable energy

5. Native Title is not delivering land justice

6. Treaty is one solution, but government can be doing more now

Header image: Tati Tati and Wadi Wadi Traditional Owner Brendan Kennedy on the banks of the Murray River. You can watch him give evidence at the Yoorrook Justice Commission, alongside Water Minister Harriet Shing, here >>


Colonisation in Victoria began in 1834, when the Henty brothers established a permanent European settlement on Gunditjmara country, in what is now known as Portland. Yoorrook heard evidence of the violent theft of land, water and resources that followed.

Historian and professor Richard Broome described the spread of settlers as likely the “swiftest expansion within the British empire of any occupation of land.” By the 1840s, squatters had established 700 stations and brought over millions of sheep. Professor Henry Reynolds described this “squatting rush” as unlike anything else in the “history of European colonisation.”

There are 49 known massacres in Victoria (this map shows the recorded massacres in Australia), but as Professor Marcia Langton explained “these records are the tip of the iceberg … it is unlikely most of the killings were recorded.”

Yoorrook heard estimates that 60,000 people may have lived in Victoria pre-European contact. By the early 1850s, it was less than 2,000. The ongoing impact of these massacres and the dispossession of First Nations land and waters was explored throughout the hearings.

Professor Bill Pascoe speaks about the scale and impact of massacres below.

You can read more in the ABC here >>


The hearings explored the idea of Aqua Nulius – that when settlers arrived in Victoria, they didn’t just steal land that belonged to First Nations, they also stole water. This dispossession has had ongoing impacts on the ability to care for Country, practice culture and generate wealth.

The Commission heard from Water Minister Harriet Shing that despite the state government receiving $83 billion in water revenue over the past decade, none of that wealth has been passed on to Traditional Owners. On top of this, Traditional Owners hold less than 0.18% of water entitlements across the state.

Minister Shing acknowledged that funding has been inadequate and that the current system of management and water entitlements “continue to disadvantage and cause harm and injury to Traditional Owners.”

But as Will Mooney from the Murray Lower Darling Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) pointed out, the Victoria government has also “made a very clear statement” that they don’t support re-allocation of water entitlements through the water market. If the government is serious about addressing the long legacy of water injustice, this needs to change.

In the words of Tati Tati and Wadi Wadi Traditional Owner Brendan Kennedy: ” We don’t want acknowledgements, we want you to reconcile the truth in your heart … Water back to Traditional Owners is what needs to happen and that is what we want to see happen from the government.”

Read more in the National Indigenous Times here >>


Yoorrook heard evidence of how Traditional Owner groups had been deliberately cut out of billions of dollars of land use revenue, from industries like native forest logging and grazing.

Internal government memos from the early 1990s showed how Royalties Agreements were intentionally legislated to exclude Traditional Owners. Environment Minister Steve Dimopoulos confirmed in his evidence that none of the $1.5 billion raised had been distributed to Traditional Owners.

As Commissioner Travis Lovett said: “How can we build intergenerational wealth when we are continually shut out of the system?”

Minister Dimopoulos also flagged the Victorian government was reviewing the Public Land Act, with a view of giving Traditional Owners greater management over their Country. He acknowledged that: “the best conservation is First Peoples-led custodianship over public lands for the benefit of all Victorians.”


During her evidence, Energy Minister Lily D’Ambrosio flagged that the Victorian government is intending to establish benefit sharing arrangements so Traditional Owners can receive profits from renewable energy projects on their land.

Acknowledging the huge value of resources and wealth that had been extracted from First Nations land, Minister D’Ambrosio said that it was “horrifying and unforgivable that we have allowed this situation, for many of us to benefit from [resource extraction] at the expense of First Peoples. And it continues because we have not fixed it.”

Minister D’Ambrosio also agreed that the Victorian government should be funding programs to “enable self-determination by First Peoples and Traditional Owners in the energy and resources sector.”

Traditional owners to get Vic renewable project profits

Canberra Times

Indigenous Victorians will receive profits from renewable energy projects on their traditional land, according to an ambitious government plan.


Powerful testimony from First Nations witnesses shone a light on the broken system of Native Title in Victoria. Rapid colonisation not only dispossessed First Nations of land, but deliberately wiped out evidence of their connection to that land. As a result, very few First Nations in Victoria have been granted Native Title.

As Rainer Matthews from First Nations Legal & Research Services explained: “The great irony of the Native Title framework is that the more dispossession you have then the less availability there is of a remedy.”

While joint management has offered some Traditional Owners the opportunity to be on Country, it is a far cry from self-determination. As Gunaikurnai woman Aunty Marjorie Thorpe explained:

“We went into the agreement of joint management but we don’t get to say no, ‘These are areas that you shouldn’t burn, these are the areas that need protecting.’ … Right now we can’t say no to burning which we know is just another way of extracting a resource, which is the timber resource in East Gippsland in the forests where the logging is supposed to have stopped.”


It was powerful to hear government Ministers acknowledge the damage of colonisation and the barriers that continue to perpetuate this. In her evidence, Premier Jacinta Allan said: “the state must work to address this through self­-determination. I recognise in this government’s commitment to self­-determination and Treaty that better outcomes are achieved when First Peoples are empowered to take control of their affairs.”

Premier Allan and many government Ministers pointed to the state’s Treaty process as a solution. However, as the Commissioners pointed out, there are other tangible actions the government can be taking now.

As Commissioner North put it: “We have had many expressions of genuine acceptance of the past, but no effective ways of addressing them, despite those good feelings. Treaty is one answer. It is not the only answer.”

Co-chairs of the First Peoples Assembly, Rueben Berg and Ngarra Murray, explained the importance of Treaty while also stressing governments “shouldn’t just wait for Treaty to activate.” Plenty can be done now, including removing barriers for specific law reforms.

What next?

The Land, Sky and Waters hearings have wrapped up. Yoorrook will now turn its focus to health, education and housing and will hand down its final report by mid-2025 to the First Peoples’ Assembly and the state’s governor general. These findings will help inform Treaty negotiations, which are kicking off this year. You can learn more about the Treaty process here >>

Engaging with Yoorrook and learning more about the stories and experiences that are being shared is one powerful action you can take now. You can watch more highlights from the hearings and read evidence and submissions here >>

The Land, Sky and Waters hearings also underscored a number of tangible actions the Victorian government can be taking now, including: reforming the Public Land Act to give Traditional Owners a greater say over what happens on their Country; ensuring Traditional Owners share in the wealth generated from new renewable energy; and redress schemes to acknowledge past injustices.

Together, we can hold our government accountable and show there is widespread support for transformative change First Nations are calling for.