Welcome Address at UNSW Indigenous Strategy Launch, Leighton Hall

Thank you, Merlin, and thank you Auntie Maxine Ryan for that powerful and personal welcome to country. It’s very humbling for me to be welcomed to country at the beginning of events such as this. Just last week it was local La Perouse elder, Dr Peter McKenzie, who welcomed us for the official unveiling of our new Martin Luther King Jr. bust on the Library Lawn. He too spoke of the pride he feels in welcoming visitors, sharing his country, and telling the story of his connection to place. His generosity and wisdom were moving, and especially so, in the context of celebrating Dr King. I too would like to acknowledge that we stand on the land of the Bedegal people and draw inspiration from their story.

I pay my respects to the Traditional Custodians of this land, and to Elders both past and present. And I say this knowing the limits of those words coming from me. Words, and paying respects are important. But they must be accompanied by action. It is for action that we are here tonight. I would also like to acknowledge Mrs Gabrielle Hollows, Founding Director of the Fred Hollows Foundation. Mr Roy Ah-See, Chair of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council. Mr Chris Ingrey, CEO of the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council. Judge John Nicholson, Former NSW District Court Judge. And all of the important members of the UNSW community who are here tonight. Three years ago, our 2025 Strategy made clear our commitment to making UNSW an exemplar in advancing a just society. To me, advancing a just society means pooling our people and our resources around solving the grand challenges that our global society faces. But it also means looking at our immediate context, and at what we can do on a national and local level to promote equality, equity, and access for all. It is accepted that Indigenous disadvantage is one of the most intractable social issues facing Australia today.

This Indigenous Strategy we launch tonight is the result of asking ourselves what it is we can do, as a university – as a servant of our community – to not only imagine a future where this is no longer the case, but make that a reality. Yesterday, I helped to launch the Gonski Institute for Education here at UNSW, and reflected on the links between education and empowerment. Education and the acquisition of knowledge have been fundamental to breaking cycles of economic and political disadvantage and bridging the gap in equality worldwide. And here in Australia, I am of the firm belief that education is a critical factor in the truth and reconciliation process. The Uluru Statement from the Heart, which has been republished in our Strategy, defines the crux of the challenge as ‘the torment of [First Australians’] powerlessness.’ Our Indigenous Strategy is about UNSW, through the power of education and research, aspiring to shape a future where this torment is no longer felt. As I wrote in the foreword, the Strategy first of all relies on us understanding and celebrating the Indigenous history of our campus. This is Bedegal land, a place with a strong connection to many of the waves of law and policy that have impacted upon First Nations peoples.

The people living at the La Perouse Aboriginal mission in the 1930s were among the first Aboriginal civil rights activists. And after UNSW was established, our UNSW people played a similarly pivotal role during the self-determination era of the 1960s and 70s. For almost 70 years, UNSW has conducted important research and advocacy in areas as diverse as Indigenous health, education, history, law and politics. Most recently, the research produced here, under the leadership of Professor Megan Davis, led to the Uluru Statement. It is a source of great pride that UNSW was able to support this historic and influential piece of work. We also take pride in the fact that UNSW education has empowered generations of First Nations leaders. People like 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. And Associate Professor Kelvin Kong, Australia’s first Indigenous surgeon, to name just a few. It is clear UNSW is already a leader in cultivating and encouraging Indigenous excellence. This year, the UNSW Law School will surpass 100 Indigenous law graduates. Nura Gili’s Winter School has had more than 1,100 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. Today, we have more than 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. I acknowledge this represents just 0.7 per cent of our student population which, I emphasize, is significantly shy of our three per cent target – but we are making gains.

The three pillars of this Strategy put a coherent structure around the work we have done to date, and lift our ambitions to do even more. The Strategy will ensure everyone who studies or works at UNSW leaves the university with a deep understanding of the cultural footprint of Indigenous Australia – including and especially our international students. It will see us develop our own workforce, education, and research plans to increase Indigenous student and staff recruitment and retention. It will also spark the ambition of many of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and staff to take their experience at UNSW and give back to their own communities. Thank you.

Tonight is the product of a great deal of work by many dedicated people—first among them, Professor Megan Davis. Or, as we now have the right to call her, ‘Australia’s most influential woman.’ And I again congratulate you on receiving that well deserved award from the AFR. We appointed Professor Davis as our inaugural Pro Vice-Chancellor, Indigenous last year, because we knew we needed a strategy that was bold and ambitious, and could lift the work we were already doing to a whole new level. We knew Professor Davis was the person to make that happen. Professor Davis’ legal advocacy work and success in achieving a consensus of First Nations in the Uluru Statement, have shown her to be a truly extraordinary leader. Her team in the Office of the Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous has been outstanding in bringing this Strategy together. Professor Davis wasn’t able to attend the Town and Gown last week because it coincided with the AFR award ceremony, but her absence meant we got to hear from Gemma McKinnon, whose powerful words left an impression on everyone at that event, and who I know has been a key contributor. Congratulations also to Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Academic, Professor Merlin Crossley, and everyone – staff, students, community members – who has made a contribution towards formulating what, I hope, we will look back on as an important milestone in UNSW’s engagement with our local Indigenous history, culture and people, and to our commitment to champion Indigenous excellence, and grow the next generation of First Nation’s leaders.

This strategy will, I am sure, receive the whole-hearted support of the UNSW community to ensure it has a truly lasting impact, not just on our university but on the broader society Australian society. Celebrated Indigenous activist, the late Dr Evelyn Scott, reflected on this idea when she led a march of 250,000 people across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of an apology, in the year 2000. Dr Scott asked all Australians to share in the dream of leaving our children the ‘rich and valuable heritage’ of a 65,000-year culture that is thriving in a country at peace with its conscience. If we succeed in applying the UNSW Indigenous Strategy to our daily work, to our teaching and to our research, I believe we have a real chance to share in that dream; to contribute to closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It is now my pleasure to introduce Professor Megan Davis, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Indigenous.