Susan Page

Why and how the Voice is a teachable moment right now

On any view, this year’s referendum on whether to establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Voice in the Australian Constitution is a teachable moment. There are concepts of history (What has
been the experience of First Nations peoples in the period since colonisation?); law (How does our
system of government work?); political science (under what circumstances do voters opt for changing
the status quo?); and moral philosophy (what is owed, by whom, to those who have suffered
injustice?). There are very few teachers who would not see the potential for learning. And almost
every teacher would understand the challenges and potential pitfalls of using a real-time case study
to deepen students’ understanding of complex, interrelated issues of deep social concern.

The teaching team, (authors 1-3), with some initial advice from the Director of Indigenous Learning
and teaching (author 4), adapted an existing subject Law and Public Policy to create a new subject
(Referendum 2023: engaging in constitutional change). The idea was to anchor learning about law,
justice, and politics in the real-time debate about whether the Australian Constitution should be
amended to recognise First Peoples through the creation of a new institution in the Australian
Constitution. The overarching aim was to introduce students to the principles of deliberative
democracy by embodying its actual practice in a semester-long subject. In part, we were responding
to the well-documented disengagement, fatigue and sense of disempowerment that has afflicted
students since the COVID-19 pandemic. We wanted our students to understand that they are
important political actors, capable of giving, receiving, and evaluating reasons; that they are active,
autonomous agents whose perspectives matter; and that they have the right to demand justification
for decisions – including from their teachers. The subject we created was available to all students
across the university, not just law students.

We mapped the subject so that early weeks were spent examining the theory and practice of
deliberative democracy in a range of diverse contexts, drawing out connections between law, public
policy and social reform in areas such as gun law reform, end of life legislation, campaign funding,
animal welfare, the environment and intergenerational fairness. Students were encouraged to
debate, discuss and reflect upon ways to effect change, how to engage with opposing ideas, civility
in discourse, argumentation and logic, and political rhetoric – its uses and potential abuses. We then
applied the learnings to engagement with ideas about the Constitution and processes to change the
Constitution, developing an understanding of the social and political processes required for such
change. Students were encouraged to think about what it means to change our Constitution, their
roles and responsibilities as engaged and informed civic actors, and how they could be vectors of
information for their local communities and networks.

The major assessment for the subject was a community engagement project designed by each
student, to inform and engage local communities on the issues around the referendum. This
‘authentic’ form of assessment required students to creatively engage in change processes to
influence constructive debate about the Voice referendum, and to assist their communities to
understand and better engage with key proposed changes to be considered in the referendum. The
subject provided an architecture within which students could create forums for the exercise of
deliberative democracy at the local and community levels, which included discussions facilitated by
students at their mosques, local high schools and churches, as well as student-led information stalls
on campus, TikTok informational videos and engagement, Instagram live sessions, YouTube videos,
public art and even a submission to Joint Select Committee on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice Referendum, under the teaching team’s guidance. The final assessment task was a
reflection on their learning journey and their project.

There was a very high level of interaction between students and the teaching team in relation to the
design of each project: first, students created a project proposal; they then received feedback from
teachers; they then revised the proposal; they then discussed the project and received feedback
from peers; they then evaluated potential challenges (eg negative responses from members of the
public) and role-played how these would be dealt with; they then presented their project formally to
the class. The intent of the subject was not to shift student’s thinking either for or against the
referendum question but to deepen their understanding.

Students were encouraged to think about how other people would or could respond to their
perspectives, and about how respectful dialogue could take place even when people held deeply
personal conflicting views. We were amazed by the student engagement on the topic and the
willingness to be open to difficult conversations. But we were also very mindful of potential
wellbeing issues, particularly for First Nations students. The University’s Centre for Indigenous
Education reached out at one point to make sure were aware of the level of feeling amongst First
Nations students taking the subject.

Students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds also found the subject challenging,
because materials that dealt with the effects of colonialism and settler violence resonated with their
own and their own family’s backgrounds and experiences. The Western Sydney region is extremely
culturally diverse, with people from 170 nationalities, forty-two percent of whom speak a language
other than English at home. The types of community engagement the students undertook is
particularly helpful where government advertisements and other mass forms of communication may
not be effective enough to convey the context and importance of the constitutional change
proposed for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. With more than 100 students enrolled, we
estimate that this subject has facilitated informed conversations about the Voice to Parliament
referendum involving at least 2,000 additional people in the wider community, from all religious and
cultural walks of life, and all ages, many of whom would not be easily reachable by current
campaigning by both sides of the debate.

The Higher Education Standards Framework (2021) requires Australian universities to be civic
leaders for the benefit of society. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Voice referendum provides an
excellent opportunity for universities to demonstrate community leadership, by contributing to the
educating students (and staff) in preparation for the referendum. The last referendum held in
Australia was in 1999. Many of our students, whether school leavers or more recent Australian
citizens, are unfamiliar with how referendums work.

In requiring students to use their new and deep understanding of constitutional change and the
Voice to Parliament proposal to engage with their communities, and design and facilitate that
engagement themselves, we are promoting the real-world use of a key employability skills, team
work and engagement, as well as use of soft skills in their discussion of the law and constitutional
change in the community which will ultimately make students far more effective future legal
practitioners and citizens, in Australia, and better able to discuss contentious issues.
The benefits to the students, the legal profession and wider society are also evident as students are
gaining practical experience in taking responsibility not only to advocate for their clients, but to
engage in meaningful and informed discussions regarding real issues in Australian society.

From left to right:
Catherine Renshaw is a Professor in the School of Law at the Western Sydney University. Her research focuses on human rights and democracy in the Asia Pacific. She has been a Visiting Scholar at the Regulatory Institutions Network, Centre for International Governance and Justice, Australian National University. She acts as an advisor to several human rights NGOs in the Asia Pacific region. Catherine has ongoing research interests in Myanmar and Southeast Asia. Catherine is admitted to practice as a lawyer in the Supreme Court of New South Wales and the High Court of Australia. Fabi Fugazza is a lawyer with extensive experience in civic movements and not-for-profit leadership. She is currently COO and Legal Expert of the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights which hosts several law-based human rights initiatives, and works with the National Justice Project in Sydney, which also does human rights work for First Nations clients.  She teaches human rights law, business law, and human right strategy across Western Sydney University, Sydney University, and Roma Tre University. Tom Synnott is a casual academic at Western Sydney University and Privacy Counsel at Cochlear Limited. Since graduating from Western Sydney University with a Bachelor of Laws (Hons I)/International Studies, Tom has worked at top-tier commercial law firm, Allens, and as a Policy Lawyer and Executive Officer at the New South Wales Bar Association. Tom has experience in privacy and data protection, litigation, and corporate governance. He also has experience with First Nations students and clients, having completed a placement at a community legal centre in Broome and tutored at the Badanami Centre for Indigenous Education earlier in his career. Susan Page is a professor at Western Sydney University and Director of Indigenous Learning and Teaching, a national teaching award-winning Aboriginal educator and Indigenous higher education specialist. Her research focuses on Indigenous Australian experiences of learning and academic work in higher
education and student learning in Indigenous Studies. She has collaborated on multiple competitive research grants and is well-published in Indigenous Higher Education. Susan has held several leadership positions including Associate Dean (Indigenous Leadership and Engagement),Centre Director and Head of the Department and she is currently an appointed Indigenous representative for the Universities Australia Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic committee.

Please read why the AARE executive support Yes on the Voice to Parliament.

Patience, persistence and persuasion: the how-to of Indigenous curriculum practice

‘I can’t breathe’.

As the Black Lives Matter movement gathered global momentum these words became a familiar refrain; forever linked to the African American man whose life was extinguished by police on a city street in 2020. Few recall the same words uttered by an Aboriginal man in a police cell in Sydney in 2015, as his life too was violently terminated. This is but one example to illustrate that much of the truth of Indigenous history and colonialism remains unknown by many Australians thirty years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended that all Australians needed better education on Indigenous Australian history. This lack of knowledge also permeates higher education with many non-Indigenous staff under-confident in Indigenous matters.

Since 2017 the Universities Australia Indigenous Strategies have committed all Australian universities to ensuring university students develop cultural capability through Indigenous content embedded in disciplinary curricula. The work required to achieve this often falls to Indigenous staff, some like myself who have dedicated learning and teaching roles but also other Indigenous colleagues who have more conventional teaching and research roles.

My role: I have been lucky enough, for almost the last decade to be focused on work to Indigenise curriculum or embedding Indigenous curriculum. While this work includes policy work, research and publishing, as well as disciplinary and institutional service, a large part of my role is working with largely non-Indigenous academics in various disciplines on Indigenising their curriculum.

It is in this context that I use my 3P approach that draws on persuasion, patience and persistence.

My practice involves a lot of conversations and talking as I work with colleagues to make new meaning. This dialogic approach is purposeful, and I use it to address ignorance and to collaborate on creating engaging Indigenous curriculum. Through these conversations I aim to (re)animate disciplinary silences (Bodkin-Andrews, et al. 2018) and (re)fill absences in curriculum to produce university graduates who can not only better serve Indigenous peoples and communities but also build a stronger, more just nation.

Persuasion: The skill of persuasion can be required in a range of circumstances, both individual and institutional, at times requires more effort than others. I often use persuasion to challenge existing thinking and open dialogue with colleagues. Below are some examples of how I use persuasion.

  • Colleagues unconvinced Indigenous content needed in curriculum

Persuasion might be required to support colleagues who don’t think there is space in their curriculum or who want to embed Indigenous curriculum into their courses but who don’t quite know how. We talk about the possibilities, about resources that might be sought or approaches that could be taken. On other occasions persuasion is required to help manage fear. Some of my work is persuading teachers (and administrators) to continue rather than be immobilised by uncertainty or by occasional negative feedback.

  • Serving on Committees

Persuasion may be required at institutional level to convince a committee of the need for policy change to support Indigenous curriculum implementation or to create an award to recognise staff achievement.

  • Convincing Indigenous colleagues their work is valuable

Conversely, sometimes I find myself persuading Indigenous colleagues that their work is valuable and valued, although it may seem invisible in their school, department, faculty or university. Support your Indigenous colleagues who are often doing amazing work under difficult circumstances (Locke, et al. 2021, Thunig & Jones, 2020).

Patience, along with traits such as openness, respect and curiosity, are considered important for student learning but is less often considered as a teacher trait or considered necessary for organisational change. The academy is a place where patience -and its associated requirement of time – is not necessarily considered as a virtue. Academic time is constrained by things like timetables, semesters and increasingly by workload formulas, as well as performance and productivity requirements. The time I spent in conversations with colleagues requires patience and time.

Wasting time? I am aware though of the commodification of time that represents money – the idea that time is money, and the increasing compression and control of time. Consequently, I worry about whether I am I using my time wisely, if conversations that are so integral to my work are a useful way to spend my time, or if I am simply wasting time. These reflections are associated with feelings of guilt, being rushed, and can be a source of stress.

Or an investment? Using my conversations with academic colleagues as a point of reference, the topics we discuss are very similar and they fall into two major categories – fear of getting ‘things’ wrong and a lack of confidence in whether Indigenous curriculum is something the individual should be doing. Although the topics of conversation are similar, each individual experiences them in their own way – similar to students really. It is difficult to know at the outset whether the time will be ‘wasted’ or how many of those single hours taken for meetings it will take for confidence to build or understanding to develop. In this respect, I consider the time spent as an investment, recognising that any productivity gains, within the Western constraints of modern educational spaces, in this deeply interpersonal work, require that patience.

Persistence is both the overarching and underpinning factor, without which patience and persuasion have limited capacity to galvanize change. The ability to persist and the act of persisting in the face of adversity and indifference is critical. Across the sector, Indigenous persistence has been the key to creating space, initially for Indigenous people in universities and more recently for advocating for change in curriculum.

No opportunity lost: Resolve is required to have the same conversation with different colleagues – justifying the need to Indigenous curriculum despite existing national and institutional policy commitments, knowing that it is often the second or third conversation which causes a shift in thinking that will ultimately result in change and better curriculum for students.

Groundhog Day: Persistence also manifests as the capacity to return to teaching Indigenous studies classes, for example, knowing that there will be resistant students, racist comments and misinformation to address. Like Groundhog Day, each year, each semester delivers a fresh set of learners who will not know that you have heard these same arguments regularly or be unaware of the hurt that can be caused by even inadvertent racism. It’s been a while since I taught in a classroom myself but not so long since I have tended the wounds of Indigenous tutors enraged or cut to the quick by student comments.

The Key to Sustainable Indigenous Curriculum Development

Indigenous academics feel the strain of advising their colleagues on Indigenising curriculum and are sometimes captive to university quality and workload processes, which fail to account for the nature of this work (Bullen & Flavell, 2017).

The work of developing Indigenous curriculum is part of a role which I enjoy immensely. It is less so for many Indigenous academics who are attempting to develop their own careers while juggling the dual demands of servicing the needs of (sometimes) unknowing non-Indigenous colleagues and the teaching of Indigenous studies where they are confronted with (and by) challenging and uncertain students.

Professor Susan Page is an Aboriginal Australian academic whose research focuses on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ experience of learning and academic work in higher education and student learning in Indigenous Studies. Her current role is Director of Indigenous Learning and Teaching at Western Sydney University. She has collaborated on several competitive research grants, received a national award for Excellence in Teaching (Neville Bonner Award) and is published in Indigenous Higher Education. She recently co-edited a special edition of the journal Higher Education Research and Development, Ō tatou reo, Na domoda, Kuruwilang birad: Indigenous voices in higher education.