Remarks at UNSW’s Sorry Day flag raising ceremony

Thank you, Professor Baldry. I too would like to begin with an acknowledgement that we stand on the land of the Bedegal people.

Our campus sits just down the road from an ancient campsite unearthed beneath the Prince of Wales Hospital in 1995. It was then that archaeologists learned that this land has been a place to gather, share, and learn for at least 8,000 years.

This is a land of deep history and dreaming. It connects us today to one of the oldest civilisations on earth.

So, when I say that I pay my respects to the Traditional Custodians, and to Elders both past and present, I say it in full acknowledgement of the limits of these small words. Ten years since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s national apology, it strikes me that days like today are of incalculable importance if we are ever to wholeheartedly reckon with Australia’s past.

As Professor Baldry has said, today—and on Sorry Day tomorrow—we tell the truth of Australia’s history. We acknowledge the cruelty of terra nullius and the languages and culture lost because of it.

We acknowledge the families torn apart and the children forced to endure unimaginable abuse. And we acknowledge, with deep regret, that the legacy of this past continues to affect Indigenous communities today.

In his Redfern address in 1992, Prime Minister Paul Keating framed the reconciliation challenge as ‘a fundamental test of our social goals and our national will: our ability to say to ourselves and the rest of the world that Australia is a first-rate social democracy, that we are what we should be—truly the land of the fair go and the better chance.’

While the promise of a true ‘fair go’ still eludes many Indigenous communities, for others, that ‘better chance’ has been possible. And it has been possible, in no small part, because of places like this. Universities are where generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have come to find their voice.

• the late Judge Bob Bellear, the first Indigenous judge appointed to any court in Australia;
• Pat O’Shane, Australia’s first Indigenous barrister and first woman and Indigenous person to lead an Australian government department;
• Judge Matthew Myers, the first Indigenous judge in an Australian Federal Court;
• Damian Miller, Australia’s Ambassador to Denmark, and the first Indigenous Australian to serve as the head of an overseas mission;
• Associate Professor Kelvin Kong, Australia’s first Indigenous surgeon;
• Jenna Owen, the first Indigenous optometrist in NSW and second in Australia;
• Professor Paul Chandler, the first Indigenous Dean of a mainstream faculty at an Australian university;
• Gordon Hookey, Brenda L. Croft, Frances Belle Parker, Clinton Nain, Brook Andrew, Teho Ropeyarn and Lucy Simpson, award-winning Australian Indigenous artists;
• And the four current Indigenous judges in Australia…

…all have one thing in common. They are all UNSW graduates.

A core commitment of the 2025 Strategy is ensuring that, with each generation, we add to this list of Indigenous pioneers. Currently, UNSW has 404 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

This represents just 0.7 per cent of our student population, which is significantly shy of our three per cent target. But we are making gains. This year, the UNSW Law School will surpass 100 Indigenous law graduates.

Nura Gili’s Winter School has had more than 1,000 local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander high school students through its doors. We have implemented a new PhD program in Indigenous Studies, and we have begun funding 10 new residential student scholarships. As I said, there is a great deal here to be proud of. But there is still far to go.

Our task won’t be completed until our students and academic and professional staff are an accurate reflection of the population we serve. It is important to me that UNSW becomes the number one choice for Indigenous students and staff because of our welcoming and supportive culture, our outstanding research, and the wonderful teaching and learning opportunities we provide.

Driving this work is Professor Megan Davis, one of Australia’s most influential and powerful Indigenous leaders, and UNSW’s first Pro Vice-Chancellor, Indigenous. Professor Davis has been a leading advocate and adviser to government on constitutional reform, and we witnessed the culmination of her work in the powerful ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’.

One year on, she has been back in northern Australia this week to lead a new push for recognition, urging the government to reconsider the proposal of a ‘Voice to Parliament.’ Please join me in congratulating Professor Davis on her tremendous work, and in welcoming her to speak.

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