You have skipped the navigation, tab for page content
Megan Davis and Dean Widders at the 2020 NRL Indigenous Round launch.

ARL Commissioner Megan Davis is a mad Cowboys and Maroons fan but there is so much more to this proud Cobble Cobble woman.

From her formative years, Megan's passion for reading and her thirst for knowledge set her on the path to becoming a constitutional lawyer and fighting for meaningful change for her people.

The remarkable journey of 'Megsy the know-it-all'

ARL Commissioner Megan Davis's father must have been able to see into the future when he described his daughter as "Megsy the know-it-all" during a childhood largely spent with her nose in a book.

A Professor of Law, the UNSW Sydney Pro Vice-Chancellor who is now helping lead the charge for the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, was setting herself for a life in the political sphere from an early age.

“I read every book – including the encyclopaedias –  in the house, no matter the topic," Davis said.

"My dad said I was 'Megsy the know-it-all', and my Mum on the other hand always liked to challenge my thoughts and opinions."

Little did a young Megan know, her intellect and outspoken nature would serve her well when fronting a room full of politicians to fight for constitutional reform.

She was a middle child among five siblings. Her relationships with her brothers as the eldest sister played its hand in developing her personality.

Truth-telling at forefront of Indigenous Round

"I was always making myself heard and insinuating myself into my brothers’ world as a girl," Davis said.

"I talked about and stood up for sexism and justice from a very young age, except it was mostly about playing games and cricket with my brothers."

This is also how Davis developed a life-long love of rugby league because this was how she connected with her brothers.

She would make peace during times of high sibling tension by talking about the scores in the latest games of the round.

While it now seems easy to have predicted the profession she was destined to reach, it was in high school that Davis decided the road her life would take.

Of all things, she said it was a US police drama that provided the spark. "I loved 'Law and Order' and I still do."

That early passion for justice didn’t stop there, with her love for reading steering her towards 'Matters for Judgement', the biography of Sir John Kerr, the Governor-General who sacked Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975.

"It was something I was obsessed with," she said. "I learnt from that book the controversy that can arise in a constitutional order that has a written constitution and unwritten conventions. It was then that I knew I wanted to do law."

Born in Queensland, Davis is a proud Cobble Cobble woman.

Her family hail from Warra, near the Bunya Mountains in the state’s south-west, which was a spiritual meeting place and the central camp area of the Cobble Cobble people.

They were removed from Warra around the time of Federation and ended up in the Barambah reserve now known as Cherbourg.

Cherbourg is rugby league heartland and many of her family played rugby league on the reserve.

In 1940, her freshwater grandfather made the 340km hike up north to settle and set up their family on the salt water of the Batchalla, Hervey Bay.

Her grandfather (Fred Davis) and great uncle (Harry Davis) eventually moved from the Cherbourg reserve and bought land there, at Urangan, to raise their families and effectively escape the restrictions of the Protection Act – which gave power to government agencies to remove Aboriginal children from their families.

In Hervey Bay the Davis family were actively involved in the rugby league community, including the creation of the Pialba All Blacks rugby league team.

NRL Uluru Statement from the Heart

Davis dedicated 10 years to working and studying law at the University of Queensland, the United Nations in Geneva and the Australian National University, before finishing at the University of NSW, where she would become a constitutional lawyer, Professor of Law and UNSW’s Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous.

Those years of hard toil were driven by her family’s experience with how the law oppressed First Nations peoples.

Professor Davis was tired of witnessing the government's pursuit of symbolic gestures, so she took it upon herself to establish change.

"Australia is notorious for cherry-picking responses to wrongs against Indigenous Australians. The solution is always more symbolism, but never reparation or structural recognition," she said.

"In early 2015, I was one of the few leaders along with Pat Dodson, Noel Pearson and National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples co-chair Kirstie Parker, to meet with Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.

"We told him that the campaign ‘Recognise’ had caused a backlash from mob against constitutional recognition and we asked for a meeting with him and Bill Shorten."

On July 6, 2015, 40 Indigenous leaders from across the country gathered at Kirribilli House in Sydney to explain what constitutional reform looked like to them.

The Kirribilli Statement issued after the meeting put a stake in the ground by removing minimalist reform and symbolism from the agenda, while the leaders recommended there be an ongoing dialogue between First Nations peoples and the government to negotiate the proposal to be put to referendum.

For Davis and Indigenous Australians, this was a win. A small step in the right direction.

A Referendum Council was formed and new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, made its establishment one of his priorities after toppling Tony Abbott in the 2015 leadership challenge.

The work of the council was to consult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as to what form of constitutional recognition could be meaningful.

An Indigenous sub-committee of the Referendum Council was then formed for their first meeting in Sydney. There they would decide what the roll-out of a "dialogue" process would look like.

"We decided we must engage the cultural authority of the land and traditional owners, via land councils across the country," said Davis, who in 2018 won top honours for her work on public policy and constitutional reform in the Australian Financial Review/Qantas 100 Women of Influence Awards.

"We recognised that communities were suspicious of and sick of 'consultation' because it is done so loosely by bureaucrats.

"The word 'dialogue' and the process of dialogue was chosen as a more interactive way to engage participants, placing them and their views squarely at the centre of the discussion."

Indigenous stars raise their voice

Davis designed the dialogues, tested the methodology at Melbourne University and travelled across the country to roll out 12 "First Nations Regional Dialogues", plus an information session held in Canberra.

"I felt tremendously proud at how strong, patient, clever, kind and generous all of our people were that I met at the dialogues," she said.

"The good faith in their involvement and the seriousness in which they applied themselves. Our mob were serious about change and that change being led by our people."

Two weeks after the last gathering on Thursday Island, the work of the dialogues was endorsed at the National Constitutional Convention, which was held at Yulara and Mutitjulu near Uluru in 2017.

The dialogue process was repeated with 250 delegates. This was where the Uluru Statement from the Heart was born.

Substantive constitutional change and structural reform, the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution, a Makarrata commission, to supervise agreement making, and truth-telling would make up the key elements of the Statement.

"It was like was nothing I had ever experienced before," Davis said. "It was a very nervous period. I was very anxious but.

"Aunty Pat (Patricia Anderson, co-chair of the Referendum Council) and I had a few meltdowns and strolls in the garden at Uluru.

"My fondest memory is finishing up writing the Statement with Noel Pearson late into the night, until 3am. Another one was reading the Uluru Statement to the conference room and the Statement being unanimously supported by the floor.

"It was the culmination of 20 years. I had worked very hard for this moment. Every book, every journal article and every speech and every minute away from my mum and my siblings."

Despite the fulfilment of a consensus among First Nations peoples and the Statement coming to life, Professor Davis and the Referendum Council still had to put it to those who implement the change.

This was when the first major roadblock was encountered. At the 2017 Garma Festival, Australia’s largest Indigenous cultural gathering, the Statement was presented to the country’s leaders but rejected shortly after.

Prime Minister Turnbull said an Indigenous body "would inevitably become seen as a third chamber of parliament".

Latrell Mitchell leads the Indigenous All Stars war dance in February.
Latrell Mitchell leads the Indigenous All Stars war dance in February. ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

"Contemporary liberal democratic governance is particularly inept at reform and vision," Davis said.

"Politicians are happy with the status quo. The status quo delivers them power and they do not want to share that power with Indigenous peoples.

"Turnbull knew full well the voice was not a third chamber of parliament. He is a politician and he deliberately muddied the waters to avoid dealing with the substance."

She said despite the outcome she didn’t feel defeated. "I have low expectations of politicians. They are limited by party politics and party discipline.

"They are confined to the ritualism of set political pieces and few are courageous enough to rise above that."

There is a current process set up in which Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Ken Wyatt, is designing a voice to bureaucracy, meanwhile Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would decide on a referendum after the voice design work was completed.

Fast forward three years and Davis remains as determined as ever, repeatedly challenging and knocking at the door of those in power.

The Voice work continues to resonate in her role on the Commission.

"Embedded into the ethos of the Commission and the NRL is to listen to the Voices of our stakeholders before acting. This helped the game through COVID and will continue to," she said.

"And on Indigenous matters, listening to our elite player group and the Australian Rugby League Indigenous Council means the board can make the right decisions fully informed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community."

While she is continuing her work on the ground, having organised an Uluru Youth Summit at the end of 2019, where more than 60 First Nations emerging leaders gathered in Cairns for a four-day conference.

The trip provided the next generation with learnings and the history of the Uluru Statement, while they got the opportunity to make a trip to Yarrabah to pay their respects to the old Aboriginal campaigners.

"I felt such pride. They were clever, inquisitive and respectful," Davis said.

"I want them to get the confidence to step up to the plate and drive this reform home. I don’t want them campaigning in 20 years. I want them to be the 'Voice', and I can retire and watch them from afar."

 

Tanisha Stanton interviewed Megan Davis for a major assignment as part of her Media (Communications and Journalism) degree at UNSW.