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4th National Indigenous Empowerment Summit

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

‘Framing Indigenous empowerment with human rights: using the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples for real change’

Wednesday 12 June 2024

Good Morning All 

My name is Katie Kiss. I am a proud Kaanju, Biri/Widi woman from North Queensland. I was born and raised on the lands of the Darumbal peoples in Rockhampton, in Central Queensland. 

Before I begin today, I pay my respects to the traditional owners of Meanjin where we meet today – the Turrbal and Yuggera peoples. I thank your ancestors and elders for their custodianship and stewardship over the generations, and I appreciate their care for me while I am on your beautiful country. 

Thank you to Aunty Maroochy for the Welcome to Country today. 

I acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people joining us here today. 

And thank you to Third Sector for inviting me to this 4th Indigenous Empowerment Summit. 

On 3 April 2024, I commenced in the role of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission. I think I’m in my nineth week now. 

Today I thought I might briefly talk about my role, and outline my tentative 5-year agenda, which I am in the process of finalising. 

In order to inform my agenda, I will seek input from First Nations individuals, communities and organisations and non-Indigenous stakeholders who work with our communities. 

So, I will be calling for input soon, in a variety of forms – there will be some face-to-face consultations - but with limited time and resources I won’t be able to get to everyone, everywhere. 

So, contributions can also be made via a survey or a submission – we will be opening those for responses soon. 

After outlining my agenda, I will talk in more detail about some of my key priorities. In particular about the importance of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

You may know it as UNDRIP or ‘The Declaration’. 

I will talk about how the Declaration is a useful framework through which to analyse and advocate for some of the most acute human rights issues in our communities today – the rights of our children in contexts such as education and juvenile justice, and the right to economic empowerment through community control and self-determination. 

Behind any approach to enhance our ability to achieve outcomes in those areas – or ANY areas of policy reform or rights advocacy – is the need for governments to transform the way they engage with First Nations peoples at every level. This key underlying principle ultimately ties together all advocacy regarding the rights of First Nations people. 

So, in terms of my role:

As the Social Justice Commissioner, I have three key functions (set out in legislation):

  • to monitor the exercise and enjoyment of human rights by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • to promote discussion, awareness and respect for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people


  • to examine policy and legislation to see whether they recognise and protect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This includes monitoring the enjoyment of our native title rights too. 

This position was created in 1993 in response to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and the National Inquiry into Racist Violence. 

Five Commissioners have served in this role over the last 30 years. I am the sixth. And I am truly standing on the shoulders of giants. You probably know some of the names of those who went before me: Mick Dodson, William Jonas, Tom Calma, Mick Gooda and June Oscar. 

All of the previous Social Justice Commissioners have focused on areas of cultural and system reform - to support transformative societal change in the interests of First Nations Peoples. And I will do the same. 

Nine weeks in, my agenda is not yet finalised, but I have identified six high-level priority areas, or goals, that will help me to frame my work over the next five years.

The first goal: is to promote the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

A key focus for this goal will be to raise awareness and build capacity of First Nations people to engage with and utilise the Declaration, in order to elevate and empower First Nations people to advocate for our rights and hold governments and service providers accountable.

It is a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity, wellbeing, and the individual and collective rights of the world’s Indigenous peoples. 

It was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007 – and as one of the four countries that initially voted against the adoption of the Declaration, Australia changed its position and endorsed it in 2009. 

The Declaration doesn’t introduce new or additional rights for Indigenous peoples compared with non-Indigenous peoples. 

It is an instrument which sets out how the major binding treaties that Australia has already signed and ratified, apply to Indigenous peoples. 

That is, for example, acknowledging that the right to culture will look different for Indigenous peoples compared with non-Indigenous peoples. 

In November last year, the Joint Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, under the leadership of Senator Pat Dodson, conducted an Inquiry into the Application of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Australia. 

The Committee made six recommendations in its report, among them is to design and implement a national plan to progress the Declaration. I intend to engage the Government with a view to progressing this as soon as possible.

My second goal is to provide advocacy and guidance on the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart—Voice, Treaty, Truth

In response to a modest request by First Nations People, the Albanese government made an election commitment to implement the Uluru Statement in full. 

Enabling a voice to Parliament, to support self-determination and the participation of our people in decisions that affect them – would have been empowering for our people – and signalled to our people that we are on a path to a reframed relationship. 

But unfortunately, the vote succumbed to negative political campaigning, and mis and disinformation that has put us back years in the journey of reconciliation. You only need to go onto social media or pick up the newspaper to see the blatant racism that First Nations peoples are experiencing as a direct result of the referendum. 

We have a number of states and territories engaging in truth and treaty processes that had bipartisan support in the lead up to the Referendum. Some of those processes are now under threat. 

In Queensland for example, we have seen the withdrawal of bipartisan support by the LNP, and public commitments to repeal enabling legislation if elected in October this year.

An outcome that should have been a celebration for Australia – has instead re-opened and exposed the weeping wounds of our colonial origins and its impacts on First Peoples.

Post referendum, while we are still all feeling bruised and battered, there is a need to reinforce all three pillars of the Uluru Statement from the Heart – Voice, Treaty, and Truth – at the national level.

Structural arrangements to facilitate participation in decision-making would be established through the first pillar (Voice), and outcomes would be realised through the second two pillars (Treaty and Truth). 

Analysis conducted by ANU on the Referendum result suggests that more than 85% of Australians think that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be able to decide for themselves about their way of life”, and don’t support assimilationist approaches to policy and legislative design.[1]

So, despite the referendum result – or how you might have voted - there is still a need to facilitate the establishment of First Nations representative governance arrangements so that we can engage effectively with governments. And government still needs to facilitate and support us to do this. 

I’m hoping to be able to talk with First Nations people across the country about how we take this forward now, and then play a role in helping to do that, if that’s what community want from me.

My third goal is to increase access to justice for First Nations people and communities. 

While the concept of access to “JUSTICE” in its traditional sense is supposed to be positive – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s experience has predominantly featured the criminal justice or youth justice systems – which have been the opposite. 

From my perspective, key to achieving access to justice more broadly is addressing the unfinished business of implementation of the recommendations of key Reports and Royal Commissions. This includes the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Bringing them Home Report. 

Given the national focus and challenges within all jurisdictions concerning Youth Justice, this will be a key focus for my term. In this regard, I hope to work closely with the National Children’s Commissioner, and the jurisdictional First Nations Children’s Commissioners on this matter and engage with key sector stakeholders (including in Youth Justice, Police, Corrections and Child Safety, as well as health, education, housing etc).

My fourth goal is to continue to support the realisation of First Nations health equality,

including by supporting the work of the Close the Gap Campaign and the Coalition of the Peaks in their work to implement the National Agreement on Closing the Gap. 

I attended a forum in Canberra about 6 weeks ago where it was argued by one very senior public servant that the current system works for the majority of the population, but that “niche” communities require additional support to access the system.

Given Australia is grappling with national crises in cost of living, housing, domestic and family violence, mental health, and child safety and youth justice, I would argue that the system is in freefall.

Systemic racism and structural disadvantage exacerbate these system failures for First Nations people, so transforming government, and consequently “the system” is critical to Closing the Gap and achieving better outcomes.

But a system which is better able to respond to the needs of individuals (including the cultural needs of individuals) – and which listens to those it is designed to serve in order to properly establish those needs – will be an improvement for EVERYONE.

My fifth goal is to continue to provide advocacy and guidance to progress Land Justice Reform.

This goal includes the need for reform of the native title system and connected regimes such as cultural heritage and environmental management, including climate change, and leveraging the economic benefits of land rights and newly established and establishing treaty arrangements. 

There’s a lot going on in this space and it’s important that it be considered with a holistic lens and an understanding of how all these regimes and potential reforms fit together. 

Finally, my sixth goal is to build the capacity of the First Nations Human Rights Network.

I am really excited to work with our young First Nations people as well as our senior people with experience to build a connected leadership capability. 

Obviously, we already have many very capable leaders, young and old. But the political and environmental conditions – including changes to the way the world engages in a post COVID landscape - have been very hard for building connectedness and coordination in leadership. 

I hope that will change with the meaningful pursuit of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. 

That last priority of human rights capacity-building brings me back around to my first priority area and what I want to frame this talk with – the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

The Declaration is not just an esoteric reference to a statement of aspirational concepts for those of us in ivory towers of policy development. It is actually the opposite. 

The Declaration is explicitly about drilling down into the existing international human rights law that is BINDING on Australia, and looking at what it should mean for First Nations people in practice – what the enjoyment of the rights that most Australians take for granted would look like for First Nations people in real life

As I said before, the Declaration does not introduce any new or additional human rights for Indigenous people. It simply helps to make clear to States who have signed major treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), that the enjoyment of rights under of those key treaties will likely look different for First Nations people. 

The Declaration is guiding governments on how to implement – in practice – the human rights we are ALL entitled to. 

I thought I might talk about Education as a specific policy area – to highlight how the Declaration can be used to guide the change we need. And then talk about it’s intersection with ‘economic empowerment’. 

The right to education is contained in several treaties that Australia has ratified, in addition to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 26). 

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which Australia ratified in 1975, protects the right to education in article 13. 

Article 2 of that same treaty requires that governments ‘guarantee’ that the rights within it will be ‘exercised without discrimination of any kind’, including as to race.

Since then, other key international human rights treaties have expanded upon the right to education as it applies to particular marginalised groups in society. For example:

  • [Article 5(e)(v) of] the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) protects the right to equal access to education without discrimination on grounds of race, colour or national or ethnic origin.
  • [Articles 5(b), 10 and 16(1)(e) of] the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) protect the right to equal access to education for girls and women and requires governments to actively work to eliminate gender stereotyped concepts of the roles of men and women in all forms of education. 
  • [Articles 23(3) and 28 of] the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) protect the right of all children to access education without discrimination. Article 29 of the CRC specifies that the right to education includes obligations on governments to respect and teach respect for a child’s culture.
  • Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) provides a right to ‘inclusive education’ for all children with disabilities. This requires governments to ensure that ALL students have equal access to education in the same environment as their peers, and in an environment that is safe and welcoming, and accommodates their needs.  

Regarding how the right to culture for Indigenous peoples intersects with the right to education, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education has said:

the limited cultural relevance of education systems seriously impedes the realization of the right to education.

And the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has said:

The implementation of the right to education of Indigenous children is an essential means of achieving individual empowerment and self-determination of Indigenous peoples. 

Articles 14 and 15 of the Declaration articulate that Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control our educational systems and institutions providing education in our own languages and with culturally appropriate methods of teaching and learning.

Article 15 of the Declaration states that Indigenous peoples have the right to have the dignity and diversity of our cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations appropriately reflected in education and public information.

Further, in relation to articles 14 and 15, governments are actively required to work with Indigenous peoples to ensure our children have access to education in their own culture and language, wherever possible, and to combat prejudice and discrimination.

 First Nations people are well aware of how important it is to engage in formal, western education as a primary means to achieving social and economic equality, including higher levels of educational attainment and improved employment prospects, higher income, better health and reduced interactions with the justice system.

My predecessor, June Oscar AO, in her Wiyi Yani U Thangani Report, highlighted the importance of culturally inclusive formal education to enabling First Nations children and young people to navigate between, and walk confidently within, both Indigenous and Western worlds. 

First Nations educators have done amazing work in creating positive and inclusive learning environments and bringing culture and language into our education systems for our children. This has engaged our children in a culturally safe environment and enabled access to education in ways which are absent when those options are not available. Which is still a lot of the time, sadly. 

Inclusion of languages, a visible and meaningful presence of our elders and our cultural representations, an appreciation and understanding of the importance of our knowledges, and the reinvigoration and reconnection to Country as part of formal education are critical factors in making education accessible and meaningful to First Nations children and young people. 

In practice, the right to education, and all the intersecting aspects of this right, requires teachers to be properly supported to deliver Indigenous content, to be trained in trauma-informed approaches, and for schools to actively create and maintain trauma-sensitive and anti-racist environments. 

There is also a critical intersection with the right to inclusive education in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that is often overlooked when we talk about equitable access to education for First Nations children.

Articles 21 and 22 of the Declaration specify that governments must pay particular attention to groups within our communities at higher risk of having their rights breached. This includes ‘elders, women, youth, children and persons with disabilities’. The Declaration, and the CPRD requires governments to ‘take measures, in conjunction with Indigenous peoples, to ensure that the learning needs of these groups are accommodated, and that they enjoy the full protection and guarantees against all forms of violence and discrimination.’

When we look at what happens in schools now for children and young people with disability, particularly First Nations children and young people with disability:

  • First Nations children and children with disability are suspended and expelled at disproportionately high rates. 
  • First Nations children with disability are suspended and expelled at disproportionately even higher rates.[2] 

Exclusionary discipline measures like suspensions and expulsions are directly linked to a higher likelihood of entering the criminal justice system. Dr Scott Avery calls this ‘matriculation to incarceration’. Otherwise known as the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’.

Indeed, within our youth justice systems, there is a disproportionately high number of First Nations children.[3] There is also a disproportionately high number of children with disabilities such as ADHD, Autism, dyslexia, FASD, cognitive impairment, and PTSD. If all incarcerated people had the opportunity for diagnosis, the rates would undoubtedly be even higher.[4]

These disproportionate rates also exist in adult detention.[5]  

The ‘behaviour management’ systems used in our education systems must become part of the significant cultural reform needed in those systems across all states and territories, so that First Nations children with disabilities and trauma backgrounds are not discriminated against, the way they currently are. 

This requires a significant lens shift in how we, as a society, view ‘behaviour’ and an acknowledgement that what we have been doing within this aspect of our education systems is discriminatory. 

I urge educators hearing this to take your commitment to decolonising our education system one step further – drawing on established behaviour support models that do not focus on control and compliance, but promote a trauma-informed, neuroscience-based understanding of what ‘concerning behaviour’ actually is, and a collaborative, problem-solving approach to helping each individual child access the learning environment. 

When used in schools, collaborative models like this result in dramatic reductions in suspensions and expulsions. When used in youth justice settings, they have resulted in reductions in behavioural incidents, reductions in safety concerns of youth justice centre staff, reductions in recidivism. 

The right to education is one of the social and economic rights - the enjoyment of which is critical to being able to realise other rights such as wealth creation, economic empowerment and self-determination.

If we do not approach our children’s rights to things like education, health and housing with an appropriately intersectional lens, then we know that the opportunities will be narrower and harder to seize later. 

We need governments, businesses and the mainstream public to understand and view our right to self-determination as intrinsically linked to our rights to education, health and housing. 

Without genuine partnerships and without listening to First Nations people and communities about what makes education relevant, engaging and accessible to our people, and then facilitating those solutions, governments will simply not be able to meet their Closing the Gap targets, or any other targets. 

It is our knowledge and our voices in the governance spaces that are essential to being able to transform the outcomes in policy areas like health and education.

To date, where Australian governments have sought to progress ‘equality’, they have done so overwhelmingly through assimilating First Nations people into western structures which do not take into account our inherent cultural differences and the historical dispossession and deprivation we have suffered for 235 years.  

Real self-determination has never been tried and this sits at the heart of why attempts by governments to address our visible disadvantage have continued to fail. 

This was what the ‘Voice’ referendum was aimed at – ensuring that we have a say in decision-making processes on matters that affect us. 

The real difference will be made when governments embrace the need for a new relationship between First Nations peoples and Australian governments. 

Where we already see positive outcomes for our communities, we can inevitably tie that to the community-controlled sector – where our organisations are in charge of delivering services to our own people in a culturally secure way. 

But we need to see a transformation in the way government engages with First Nations people at a structural, systemic level. So that these examples become ‘the norm’ for how governments do business and provide services for First Nations peoples at every level. 

Truth and Treaty processes are already underway in Victoria, Queensland, with a Voice established in South Australia. First Nations groups in those states have already started the work of establishing representative structures for agreement-making, and working on how the essential truth-telling components will happen.

Additionally, for over 30 years, native title groups across the country have been working to establish representative structures within a western legal framework. 

Our native title groups and First Nations professionals have unprecedented experience in land rights and agreement-making with third parties and governments as a basis of economic development. Unfortunately, some of this is negative, but highlights some of the pitfalls and potential flashpoints for these kinds of processes. 

Treaty negotiations are an opportunity for governments to transform the relationship they have with First Nations and to start to address the unfinished business by transferring some control over decision-making to our representative structures. 

If this opportunity is taken, then the agreement-making within the Treaty processes can support First Nations peoples to leverage the Indigenous estate for economic empowerment and through that, social and economic advancement. 

If we look to Aotearoa (NZ) and British Columbia in Canada – the Indigenous peoples in both jurisdictions have leveraged significant economic advancement through their treaty negotiations.

The Maori economy is worth $80 billion – and includes Indigenous control over health, youth justice and a prosperous cultural tourism industry. 

One of the nations with a Treaty with the British Columbian government in Canada is the Tla’amin Nation, located just north of the city of Powell River, 130km north of Vancouver. 

At the recent AIATSIS Summit we heard from Dillon Johnson, an elected leader of the Tla’amin Nation about how that Treaty process played out, the lessons learned, and relevantly for this talk, the constantly growing economy that the Tla’amin Nation have built on the back of the Treaty. 

Their economic development planning involved extensive community consultation. Their economic development goals focus on:

  1. reclaiming traditional economies and pursuing new ones consistent with cultural values and driven by community engagement; 
  2. promoting and increasing support for Tla’amin businesses and entrepreneurs; and 
  3. enhancing job creation and employment opportunities for Tla’amin people.

The Tla’amin Nation is responsible for self-government in the areas of delivery of health services, education, land management and public works. 

And the Tla’amin Nation is now one of the biggest employers in the region. 

When you look at the business and economic planning of the Tla’amin Nation,[6] it is not dissimilar from the kind of planning and service provision undertaken by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities with land rights and community governance structures in place. Just on a bigger scale, and with more support and coordination from state and federal governments. 

Despite having grown exponentially over recent years, largely due to the Australian Government’s introduction of the Indigenous Procurement Policy, the First Nations Australians’ stake in the economy in dollar-terms is still disproportionately low. First Nations businesses currently earn more than $1 billion per year. This sounds like a large sum. However, it is a drop in the ocean compared to the profits of just the Iron Ore, Coal Mining, and Oil and Gas extraction industries, estimated to be $115.5 billion in 2024.[7]

Importantly, as the ANU First Nations Portfolio Murru waaru (On Track) Economic Development Series has highlighted, there is a need to move from ‘economic development’ to ‘economic empowerment’ when we discuss these issues in relation to First Nations people in Australia. This highlights the need for self-determination in our economic development. 

We cannot simply provide opportunities for some of our First Nations people to join the existing western economic frameworks and industries as they are. 

Ultimately, our economic empowerment cannot be just about fitting into the mainstream – that will not bring about sufficient change. It must be about designing our own economic base that can bring about the social, cultural and political future we all want. We need a fundamental change in the way government does business with First Nations peoples in order to support and facilitate us doing this – to facilitate economic empowerment and self-determination. 

The international human rights framework supports our right to have governments make these fundamental changes. The Declaration spells out these rights:

  • We have the right to self-determination, to social and cultural development, and to our own institutions and to freedom from assimilation, discrimination and the destruction of our culture. 
  • We have the right to own, use and develop our country and to be compensated for deprivation of our means of subsistence and development. 


  • We have the right to be actively involved in developing and determining economic and social programmes affecting us and – as far as possible – to administer such programmes through our own institutions. 

So, to wrap up: the link between work on Treaty arrangements, self-determination, and economic empowerment (and through that, sustainable, secure economic advancement) is direct. 

It’s a big agenda that I laid out at the beginning of this speech, but it is all interconnected – tied together by the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples and the foundational human rights that it enunciates. 

It is also tied together by the need for transformation of Government and the way governments do business with First Nations.

This can happen, and I would urge everyone here today to get to know the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and think about how it can guide your work, and how you can use it to be a part of driving this necessary governance transformation forward.

I also ask each of you here today to think about how you can influence your local members and your state and federal governments to maintain the momentum and commitment to the delivery of the three pillars of the Uluru Statement - Voice, Treaty and Truth – because in terms of “practical reconciliation” these three ingredients are essential.

Thank you. 


[1] Prof N Biddle, Prof M Gray, Prof I McAllister, and Prof M Qvortrup, Detailed analysis of the 2023 Voice to Parliament Referendum and related social and political attitudes, Centre for Social Research & Methods, Australian National University, 28th November 2023, at: (accessed 11 June 2024).

[2] Research paper here: Graham, L.J., Killingly, C., Laurens, K.R. et al. Overrepresentation of Indigenous students in school suspension, exclusion, and enrolment cancellation in Queensland: is there a case for systemic inclusive school reform?. Aust. Educ. Res. 50, 167–201 (2023). . See article for summary: QUT study by Professor Linda Graham found, for example: 

  • NSW government data shows that schools suspended 22.1 per cent of Aboriginal students with a disability, including autism, dyslexia or ADHD, in 2020, compared to 4.9 per cent of all students. 
  • Aboriginal students were twice as likely as non-Indigenous classmates with a disability to be suspended.
  • The problem is national, with Indigenous students in South Australia making up just 6.6 per cent of school enrolments, yet accounting for 15.5 per cent of suspensions and 20.3 per cent of exclusions.
  • The study shows that one in three Indigenous students was slapped with suspensions, compared to one in nine of their classmates, between 2013 and 2019. And 6.1 per cent of Indigenous students were expelled, compared to 2.2 per cent of other students.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students were the most over-represented in suspensions for disruptive and disengaged behaviour, including truancy, in Queensland in 2019.

[3] notes between June 2019 and June 2023, approx. 60% of children in youth detention across Australia were Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. 

[4] See also eg FPDN media release regarding Disability Royal Commission, particularly calling for the need for intersectional qualitative data on Indigenous people with disability in detention: Also, this BOSCAR study finding young people with disability are overrepresented in the youth justice system in NSW: This study also found ‘Factors such as age of initial engagement with disability-related services, remoteness of residence, and frequency of child protection contact were strongly associated with the likelihood of a young person with disability having criminal justice contact before the age of 18.’ See also Select Committee on Autism (2022) Services, support and life outcomes for autistic Australians, chapter 16, and referenced submissions,

[5] For example, see ‘ADHD in the Correctional System’, estimating that ADHD is 5 times more prevalent among children in youth detention and 10 times more prevalent among adult prisoners than the general population See also eg ‘Risk of Criminal Justice System Interaction in Young Adults with ADHD: Findings from a National Birth Cohort’, and ‘ADHD in the Criminal Justice System: A case for change’ . See also Select Committee on Autism (2022) Services, support and life outcomes for autistic Australians, chapter 16, and referenced submissions,

[6] For example here:


Ms Katie Kiss

Ms Katie Kiss, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice