Voice, treaty, truth - Q&A with Professor Megan Davis

25 November 2020

UQ graduate Professor Megan Davis (Bachelor of Arts ’97; Bachelor of Laws ‘99) has dedicated her career to achieving constitutional reform for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

This story has been reproduced from the original Contact Magazine article.

The Cobble Cobble Aboriginal woman from south-west Queensland was the first Indigenous Australian to sit on a United Nations (UN) body as Chair of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, and was instrumental in the development of the Uluru Statement from the Heart – which she read aloud at the National Constitutional Convention in 2017.

The Uluru Statement represents a historic consensus of Indigenous leaders in seeking constitutional change to recognise First Australians through a Voice to Parliament.

The 2014 UQ Indigenous Community Impact Award recipient is now a Professor of Law, the Balnaves Chair in Constitutional Law, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous) at the University of New South Wales; a Vice-Chair of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and a Commissioner of the NSW Land and Environment Court.

She sat down with Contact to reflect on her time at UQ, and to discuss how the university community can help positively influence the concepts of the Uluru Statement.

Q: What were the key things you learnt as a UQ student and how have you applied them in your daily life?

A: I loved every minute of being a UQ student, including my time living at Duchesne College. The breadth of subject options was extraordinary, and the critical-thinking skills I gained have served me well for a varied career – from the NRL Commission to sitting on an environment court, and from the Uluru Statement process to the United Nations.

It was such a beautiful Bachelor of Arts degree, which included everything from the history of music to the history of the Queenslander, Roman history and ancient history, Latin and French. It was a great classical education that set me up for life.

I learnt to ask for help when I needed it. Around the time my dad died, UQ’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit was a saviour, and a home, for me.

Q: What have been your proudest career milestones?

A: When I started on the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, I was nominated by the Australian Government and had to go through an election. You had to persuade around 32 UN member states to vote for you: it’s a pretty vulnerable thing to expose yourself to so much scrutiny. But, getting global validation of your knowledge and skills is a good thing.

Another proud aspect was the Uluru Statement National Constitutional Convention, when we read the statement out and everyone endorsed it. It was an exhausting process for two years, and I’m very proud of the consensus we struck and the legal work we did to prepare people for the dialogue.

Q: What are the key concepts of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and likely future directions for Australia?

A: The Uluru Statement follows almost a decade of constitutional recognition work in Australia. It’s a process that is unprecedented in Australia’s history. It was the first time a constitutional convention was convened with, and for, First Nations people.

As the leading constitutional lawyer for the Uluru Statement, I designed the deliberative constitutional dialogue process, in which we conducted 13 regional dialogues and a national convention. This process was a significant response to the exclusion of Indigenous people from the original process that led to the drafting of the Australian Constitution. We engaged through the dialogue with over 1200 delegates, who were appointed on behalf of their First Nations, so we had the most proportionally significant consultation with Indigenous peoples ever undertaken.

After decades of Aboriginal advocacy for constitutional reform, we were able to come up with a consensus law reform proposal for the Referendum Council. That framework is what we call ‘Voice, Treaty, Truth’.

Our first priority is a constitutionally enshrined Voice to the Australian Parliament. That Voice is a right of Indigenous people to be at the table when laws and policies are discussed about them and their communities.

Voice is significant because it was more of a priority in our communities than Treaty or agreement-making.

It was determined by the First Nations that you cannot enter into any treaties with the state as First Nations peoples if we don’t first have recognition of our Voice. The bulk of our people require enormous amounts of support and resources to get to the threshold of entering into what they call treaties or agreements. That is why the second part of the law reform that follows Voice is the creation of a Makarrata Commission, which will supervise agreement-making across the Federation.

The third reform is Truth, or truth-telling. This is something that has been done for decades from the Bringing them Home Report (1997) to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Truth-telling was not deemed by any First Nation person in the constitutional dialogues as something that has to be done by a truth and reconciliation commission. They would rather it to be done in their own communities – alongside the Australians they live among – at their own pace.

Key to reforms is the concept of ‘constitutional enshrinement’. There’s a lot of pressure from old bureaucrats and politicians to say “do it in legislation”, but it’s not the same thing. The insecurity of legislation and insecurity of parliamentary terms is precisely why Aboriginal Affairs is in the state it’s in.

Another Uluru Statement concept is the notion of an ‘invitation’. We have a population who have lived on our country for more than 200 years and there has never been any formal grappling with that original grievance; the dispossession. There has been no conversation about reparations for that, or the human rights atrocities that followed, nor has there been any real recognition that the legal way the land was dispossessed is not so straightforward. It wasn’t even Terra Nullius – that’s just what we chose to apply as a metaphor for what happened back then – so addressing the original grievance is the key for our people to move forward.

It needs to be resolved in order for us to flourish, for our health and wellbeing to get better and for us not to be so dislocated from the Australian people and Australian state.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is very open to the reforms and we still have a lot of work to do.

Q: How can the UQ community help to positively influence the goals of the Uluru Statement?

A: The Uluru Statement has been issued as an invitation to the Australian people to walk with us on this journey.

We want you to take this first step and provide a little patch within the Constitution that provides us with some power that no government can claw back. We are trying to elevate our business out of the realm of politics. Until we lift ourselves out of that place where ideology decides what will happen to our people – not what is best – things won’t change.

We don’t want people to feel guilty; we just want people to vote YES for this very functional, conservative reform. Then we can work together on what the rest looks like. If politicians feel Australians are behind this, they are going to let it happen.

Makarrata means ‘coming together after a struggle’. The Uluru Statement is a coming together after a struggle. It’s really important for UQ, with its footprint of influence, to take leadership on the Uluru Statement, endorse the words, and encourage its community and its stakeholders to walk with us.

Q: With so many competing issues in society at the moment, how can the Uluru Statement stand out and maintain progress?

A: The Uluru Statement is a solution for the Black Lives Matter issue. If you look at the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, there were two prongs. The first response to reduce the numbers of Aboriginal people dying in custody was to build in mechanisms once they come into contact with the police, to ensure that duty of care was taken seriously.

The second response involved work around self-determination and the empowerment of communities. The Royal Commission said you need to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people power over their own lives, and went down the self-determination, recommendation route. So, there’s a lot in the Royal Commission report that has synergies with the Uluru Statement. The Statement is an Australian story; it’s an Australian legal reform, but also utterly consistent with the Black Lives Matter movement that has come out of America.

When we were working on the Uluru Statement, the issues of child removal and incarceration were key. These issues did not emerge overnight with the Black Lives Matter movement, but they occupy the minds of our people. One of the problems with us getting reform in these areas is that we have no structural power to compel police or authorities to adequately respond to some of these issues. We have no power to make amendments and changes to state-based administration requirements around police investigations or coronial inquiries. Without that reform we are still just chipping away.

Australia’s COVID-19 response has demonstrated the power of expert knowledge. When we need to close down the country because of the pandemic, we turned to the health experts. When we want to come out of lockdown and start an economic recovery, we turn to the expert economists. If we want to shut down Aboriginal communities, we also go to the experts. Our communities were already shutting down in late January through community control, land councils and grassroots people and organisations.

Those people on the ground deserve credit. I think this demonstrates to the Prime Minister precisely what the Voice to Parliament is. You are going to the source of expertise to solve the problem. We just want our mob providing that advice to Parliament.