Interview series – Because of her, we can

11 Jul 2018
Professor Megan Davis

This week UNSW has been celebrating NAIDOC Week (8 – 15 July) with various activities around campus. This year’s NAIDOC Week theme, ‘Because of her, we can’, highlights the pivotal role Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women play as political and social leaders, spokespersons and role models. Over the coming months, Inside UNSW will profile some of UNSW’s Indigenous female staff, both academic and professional. To kick off, we spoke with UNSW’s PVC Indigenous, Professor Megan Davis.

How significant is NAIDOC Week to Australia and all its communities?

NAIDOC Week traces its origins back to the 1938 Day of Mourning. It is a week that is very much rooted in the Aboriginal rights movement. The Day of Mourning was one of the first major civil rights gatherings in the world and between 1940 and 1955 the Day of Mourning was held annually on the Sunday before Australia Day. This became known as ‘Aborigines Day’ and eventually it was decided it should be a day of celebration. From 1955 onwards this is what NAIDOC Week has represented.

The 2018 NAIDOC theme - “Because of her, we can” - celebrates the essential role that women have played - and continue to play - as active and significant role models in the community, local, state and national levels. Which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have been (or continue to be) role models for you? What impact have they had on your life?

I attended the University of Queensland and was fortunate to have Jackie Huggins there at the Aboriginal Unit. Jackie knew a lot of my family and she was very involved in reconciliation work. It was Jackie who recommended me to work at the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action (FAIRA) in Brisbane in my final years of Law school. It was the work with FAIRA on Aboriginal rights that led to me applying to the United Nations Fellowship. Jackie saw potential in me.

One of my first role models was a woman called Jackie Oakley who was a senior bureaucrat at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) in Canberra. I met Oakley on my return from Geneva and my Fellowship with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Oakley provided me with many opportunities to use the skills and knowledge garnered through the United Nations, including selecting me to provide legal advice to ATSIC Commissioners during the drafting of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

I also admire Sonia Smallacombe from that period. She was working at ATSIC and gave me opportunities such as contributing to a WIPO study. When I was elected to The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in New York, Sonia was there working with the UN Secretariat.

Obviously one of the great role models for me is Patricia Anderson; an extraordinary leader, and an extraordinary woman who I have learned so much from. I have been with the UN as an expert for almost a decade but ‘Aunty Pat’ taught me a lot with her quiet diplomacy. In regard to our work on the Referendum Council, the constitutional dialogues and the national convention that delivered the Uluru Statement From the Heart, me, Aunty Pat and Noel Pearson have forged a very close bond.

All of this influenced my work as a lawyer and legal scholar. Working with the UN and my experience with the Commonwealth bureaucracy in the legal branch of ATSIC taught me a lot about structure and power. One of the things I learned during the dialogues is the way governments have adopted this framework of ‘deficit discourse'; they want to talk about strengths and not talk about the bad things – they only talk about the positive things. And that's always a problem for someone like me, who's a law reformer. To reform the law, you need to be able to identify what the problems are, what the gaps are, and the challenges. I strongly believe you can't make changes if governments don’t believe there is a problem.

You have 15 nieces and nephews - what do you hope to achieve in your lifetime that will help pave the way for them and for generations to come? What impact do you hope to have?

I love all the Davis kids very much. I hope all my nieces and nephews will grow up knowing their history and that they are loved by and secure within their extended families. Being loved, and being able to love, is integral to human development.

I hope they will all play rugby league, even the girls, and grow up to be leaders and reformers in their communities. I think the Uluru Statement sets down a very sophisticated sequenced approach to reform for generations to come. One thing I teach them is: leaders are readers. Mum surrounded us with second hand books and we read profusely. I encourage them to read widely, from history to literature to pop culture.

How does your life and work at UNSW – including your work on the Indigenous component of the 2025 Strategy contribute to that?

I am hoping that UNSW will foster generations of resilient critical-thinking Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholars who will influence government, advocate for their peoples and research important areas that advance the truth of our past, present and future. My work has always been driven by the exigencies of my peoples’ needs in communities. The design of the constitutional dialogues which I led from UNSW Law and the Indigenous Law Centre was about ensuring any form of constitutional recognition was ground up and not top down.

What’s a little known fact about you?

I am obsessed with weather. I love storm season in South East Queensland and I love snow. I also enjoy books about Genghis Khan, the Battle of Hastings and watching professional bull riding.

If you could walk in anyone’s shoes for a day, whose would they be and why?

I don’t know. As a child I read profusely and had a number of female figures I was fascinated with including Florence Nightingale, Helen Keller, Rosa Parks and Henry Handel Richardson. For my confirmation name I chose “Joan” because I was obsessed with Joan of Arc as a child, too. Maybe Joan of Arc for a day.


Photo by Gary Heery
Professor Megan Davis  2017
UNSW Art Collection, Commissioned by Vice-Chancellor's Office, 2017