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UNSW remains committed to a voice for Indigenous Australians

UNSW Sydney 4 mins read
UNSW has embarked on creating a micro-treaty with its Indigenous communities as part of its continued commitment to responding to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Photo credit: UNSW Sydney

UNSW is creating a micro-treaty with its Indigenous communities to ensure their voices are heard.

In 2023, UNSW responded to the Uluru Statement of the Heart by championing the Voice referendum, and while disappointment with the result was difficult to navigate, the ambition to not lose momentum in walking towards a better future remained.

“We are unwavering in our desire to heed the call of the Uluru Statement of the Heart for Voice, Treaty and Truth,” says Professor Leanne Holt, a Worimi and Biripi woman and inaugural Deputy Vice-Chancellor Indigenous (DVCI) at UNSW.

“And so, earlier this year, UNSW commenced a micro-treaty process to create a space for Dialogues with Indigenous students, staff and our connected Aboriginal communities.”

A micro-treaty empowers Indigenous communities by enabling self-determination, ensuring their involvement in decisions affecting them directly, fostering autonomy, and addressing systemic barriers, promoting cultural inclusivity, and empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, staff and communities.

“We are using the language of treaty because it is a pillar of the Uluru Statement, and the process of community Dialogue and then negotiation and agreement is a healing and empowering process,” says Prof. Holt.

Dr Cara Cross, a Goori Dubay/Galbaan (woman) from the Worimi and Biripai nations and Executive Officer of the DVCI Division at UNSW Sydney, started working with Prof. Holt to think about UNSW’s Indigenous Strategy and next steps soon after the Voice referendum.

“We saw the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report which anticipated the Accord placing an emphasis on First Nations Australians being at the ‘heart of the education system’,” says Dr Cross.

“We determined that our Indigenous Strategy should sit at the heart of UNSW’s Strategy. Rather than being something developed for the Indigenous community, we wanted our communities to be given a voice to create the strategy. And the micro-treaty process of Dialogues allows for that, ensuring community are involved in decisions that affect them.”

The Dialogues will follow the methodology used by Scientia Professor Megan Davis, a Cobble Cobble woman from the Barrungam nation and Pro Vice-Chancellor Society at UNSW, in creating the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

    1. “This UNSW work on a micro treaty, under the leadership of DVCI Leanne Holt, is pioneering. It enables Aboriginal people connected to the University to have a voice on many matters that concern them. The process of consultation is key to any successful process, and our communities have overwhelmingly endorsed this as a good idea. This approach is completely consistent with UNSW's commitment to the Uluṟu Statement from the Heart,” Prof. Davis says.

      “The need for a voice for communities didn't dissipate after the referendum. It's as urgent today as it was on October 14, and there are many ways to give Aboriginal people a voice – this is one very innovative and nation-leading way.”

      UNSW Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Attila Brungs, says, “By UNSW engaging in discussions for a micro-treaty with the University’s Aboriginal communities, we demonstrate our continued commitment to the Uluṟu Statement from The Heart.

      “By establishing a micro-treaty, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, staff, alumni and our Aboriginal communities gain a meaningful voice in shaping the dynamics of their relationship with the University now and into the future.

      “The Australian Universities Accord Final Report called for First Nations people to be at the heart of Australia’s higher education system. The micro-treaty exemplifies this intent, empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through self-determination in higher education, leading to real societal change and impact.”

      What is a micro-treaty?

      The micro-treaty process involves Dialogues within communities where they identify their priorities, needs and hopes. The community will then enter into a negotiation with UNSW representatives to create commitments (rather like the articles of macro-treaties) from the University in the form of a micro-treaty.

      As a community-led process the outcomes will be varied, but commitments could include:

      • acknowledging and recognising the sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – crucial for establishing a foundation for equitable relationships
      • cultural respect and recognition – which can contribute to cultural preservation and revitalisation
      • education and research – the recognition of Indigenous knowledge and its continued contribution to society today as one of the oldest living knowledge systems in our world
      • social and health development – ways that the treaty can support social, health or economic development for Indigenous communities
      • reconciliation and healing – engaging in the process can be a step towards reconciliation and healing, fostering a sense of justice and fairness.

      UNSW’s Indigenous communities

      The micro-treaty Dialogues will be led by a Representative Council comprising Indigenous undergraduate and postgraduate students, professional staff and academic staff, along with alumni and members of UNSW-connected Aboriginal communities across NSW.

      Initial discussions have commenced with communities from Kensington (Bidjigal), Paddington, Sydney (Gadigal), Canberra (Ngunnawal, Ngambri), Albury, Wagga Wagga, Griffith (Wiradjuri), Port Macquarie (Biripai), Coffs Harbour (Gumbaynggirr), Fowler’s Gap (Wilyakali), and Walgett (Gamilaraay, Yuwaalaraay, Ngayiimbaa).

      “Having communities come together to look at self-empowerment through education and research will be very powerful,” says Prof. Holt.

      “In the process, the community will be sharing their voices, expertise and knowledge, and how they would like to see themselves positioned into the future.

      “A micro-treaty means the communities will have an authentic voice in outlining what the commitments will be. And through a process of negotiation they will define their relationship with UNSW.”

      When will the micro-treaty be complete?

      Prof. Holt says, “UNSW is hoping the micro-treaty will be ratified at the end of the year, and there will be specific actions and targets under each commitment that the University will undertake in response.

      “It means we will be able to see how the treaty makes a difference, because we can measure and track the commitments. And we will have continued to build respectful and reciprocal relationships with our communities that have real impact,” she says.

      “Self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through higher education will take a collaborative effort. A micro-treaty provides a way that true collaboration can be achieved through an equal balance of power, active listening and community engagement.”

      Looking to the future

      UNSW actively supported the process of the First Nations Voice from its early days, including through the Indigenous Law Centre and the Uluṟu Dialogues. The University is committed to continuing this support and working together with our Indigenous communities to create a better future.

      “Initiating the micro-treaty process solidifies UNSW’s leadership in empowering Indigenous people through self-determination in higher education,” says Prof. Holt.

      “Universities can have an amazing impact on society, and UNSW is allowing Indigenous communities to have a voice in the direction of the University. We hope that other university communities will take note and follow our lead to seek treaties with their own Indigenous communities.

      “The micro-treaty will be the first of its kind in Australia. And this Reconciliation Week, where the theme is ‘Now More than Ever’, we want to say now more than ever we need to continue to walk together towards a better future.”

Contact details:

Media enquiries

For enquiries about this story and interview requests, please contact Samantha Dunn, Communications Officer, UNSW External Engagement.

Phone: (02) 9065 5455


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