Women of Influence 2018 winner fights for recognition of Indigenous Australians

by Sally Patten

Asked about the day she read the Uluru statement from the heart in May last year, Megan Davis remembers lots of tears. But mostly she remembers exhaustion.

“Looking back we were running on adrenaline because we’d been running the referendum council dialogues for [about] 15 months and we’d been on the road for six months straight,” says Davis, UNSW pro-vice-chancellor, Cobble Cobble woman and this year’s overall winner of The Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence award.

“Part of our tiredness that morning was that we had been up until about 4am writing the Uluru statement. I remember everyone was in tears. It got adopted immediately. I was just really exhausted, but it really was just the culmination of so many incredible people who gave up their weekends to come and talk to us about the constitution,” Davis says.

The Uluru statement proposed a First Nations advisory body to Parliament, with its existence guaranteed in the constitution. In the lead-up to the signing of the document, as a member of the now disbanded referendum council, Davis led 12 regional dialogues with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to determine what “meaningful recognition” meant to them. Getting agreement on the statement was no mean feat.

“It’s rare to get a consensus across First Nations right across the country. People often say, ‘you mob got to be united’. We’re very different mobs, over 200. We weren’t united before Uluru, at Uluru or after Uluru, but we managed to come to a consensus, and that’s the beauty of [the] Uluru [statement].”

The excitement, however, was short-lived. The request for constitutional recognition was rejected by the former Turnbull government five months later, triggering more tears.

“It was pretty gutting,” Davis says. “The worst part I think was having to deal with all the disappointed young people who were just absolutely gutted. They were in tears. They have so much hope about the future of Australia and then something like that happens. I suppose it was their first time in which the state had rejected something so profound,” she says, vowing that the battle for a referendum โ€“ and her influence over the campaign โ€“ will go on.

She rejects Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s commitment legislation out of hand. “We’re gonna keep pushing [for constitutional change]. It’s not the end, and if Shorten’s saying, ‘We wanna legislate’, we’re saying, ‘we want it in the constitution’.

“If you fail, you fail. Go again. Just go again. You just pick yourself up and you try again. We don’t think it would lose at a referendum, and if we did, we’d go again. That’s how the system is built to work,” Davis says.

A new generation

Davis was named as the overall 100 Women of Influence winner and winner of the public policy category at a gala dinner in Sydney on Wednesday night. The awards, which attracted a record number of entries in 2018, are presented by Qantas.

In all, 11 extraordinary women across 10 categories were recognised as part of a new generation of leaders making their mark in their chosen fields, ranging from arts, culture and sport, to local and regional, social enterprise and not for profit, innovation and board and management.

Past winners of the overall award include Moya Dodd, lawyer and soccer official, Ann Sherry, executive chair of cruise company Carnival Australia, Jan Owen, chief executive at the Foundation for Young Australians, and former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.

Sam Mostyn, a non-executive director and one of the judges this year, says Davis has a “formidable mix” of intellect, determination, passion and capability.

“Megan is a voice at the front leading a complex set of issues. She’s fearless. She’s a driving force. She is incredibly respectful of the power of community,” Mostyn says.

“She is and will be this year one of the most influential voices in the national conversation on Indigenous constitutional reform.”

Since the Uluru statement, the first pro vice-chancellor, indigenous, at UNSW and professor of law, has been giving speeches pretty much non-stop. She estimates she has given more than 350 since May last year to a variety of audiences, including law societies, bar associations and companies.

“It’s been full-on, a huge workload this year. I will be continuing to disseminate information to the Australian community, particularly the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, about the constitution [and] the reasons for recognition and reform,” Davis says.

Paying tribute

At UNSW the professor sets the overall strategic direction for Indigenous education and research. Last year she was elected by the United Nations Human Rights Council to the expert mechanism on the rights of indigenous peoples, becoming the first Indigenous woman in Australia to be elected to the body and one of only seven independent expert members.

She also has “a number” of contracts for books on constitutional reform and is working on a project on violence against Aboriginal women. Teaching, these days, is limited to weekends, when she takes intensive courses on indigenous peoples in international law.

Davis doesn’t have to think for long before naming the biggest influence on her life โ€“ her mother. She describes her mum as “brilliant” and “bookish” (any spare money while she was growing up was spent at the second-hand bookstore). She was a single parent who, with little money, managed to bring up five children.

Davis, 42, was born in Monto, Queensland, west of Bundaberg. Her father worked on the railways and her mother was an English teacher. After leaving Davis’ father, the family moved to Eagleby, between the Gold Coast and Brisbane.

“She was always really big about us giving back and was very invested in public good and doing what you can to help people that can’t help themselves. So that was very strongly ingrained in us from a young age. All my siblings are in caring professions,” Davis says.

So what is her view on the thorny issue of Australia Day, these days dubbed by many as “invasion day”? The controversial memorial day is barely on her agenda.

“I suppose my answer as a structural lawyer is, if you change the date, you still have the same disempowerment of our mob. You change the day, it’s lipstick on a pig. My primary concern is structural reform.”

Davis’ neat solution is to hold a referendum on constitutional reform on January 25, so the following day would become a day of celebration for everyone, white and black fella alike. “I think it’s quite a poetical thing to do to bring the two days together and the two issues together,” she says.

The 100 Women of Influence were selected with the help of executive search firm Korn Ferry and a highly respected panel of judges, including Mostyn, who is a director of the Sydney Swans, Sherry and Dodd. The other judges were Mark Scott, secretary, NSW Department of Education; Barry Irvin, executive chair, Bega Cheese; Paul Zahra, retail adviser and diversity advocate; Vanessa Hudson, chief customer officer of Qantas; Financial Review Chanticleer columnist Tony Boyd; Financial Review managing editor Joanne Gray; and Sally Patten, editor of AFR BOSS magazine.

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