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Inaugural CASWA AGM and Statewide Gathering Conference

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Working together to build capacity

Introduction and acknowledgement

Thank you, Aunty Robyn, and Tryse for Welcoming us to your beautiful Country. 

I pay my respects to the traditional owners of the Noongar Nation of the Wadjak lands on which we meet and gather today, here beside the Derbal Yirigan.  I thank your ancestors and elders for their custodianship and stewardship over the generations, and I appreciate their care for me while I am here on your country. 

My name is Katie Kiss. I am a proud Kaanju, Biri/Widi woman from North Queensland born on the lands of the Darumbal peoples in Rockhampton, and I honour the many who have come before us, our elders – past and present. 

I also acknowledge dignatories and community leaders present today – including those who I have had the privilege to work with and be taught by throughout my journey.

Thanks, in particular to James Christian for the invitation to join you at your Inaugural CASWA AGM and Statewide Gathering.

I acknowledge the former Board and offer my congratulations to those elected to the Board at the AGM yesterday. I wish you all the best in the important work you will do as a Statewide Peak body, supporting your organisations to build stronger communities together.

And most importantly, I acknowledge you – the delegates and members of our Community Controlled Organisations, which we all know are critical to the future well-being of our peoples. 

Our community-controlled organisations, established and led by our communities, and delivering services and programs that meet the needs, priorities and aspirations of our communities, are a demonstration of our right to self-determination and self-governance. 

They create the space for our people to directly influence and be involved in decisions that affect us, and to deliver solutions and programs that benefit us. These are cornerstone human rights principles.

I remember as a little girl sitting in my grandparents' home, a space where community gathered to address the critical issues and talk political strategy. Listening to the yarns of our leaders talking about setting up and running our community-based organisations, our Housing Co-op, our Health organisations, and our community legal services. 

So I have a great appreciation for our community-controlled sector, the work you do, and the support programs and advocacy that you provide to ensure that our people have access to culturally safe and relevant services, and that the human rights of our peoples are realised.

So on the 3 April this year, I was appointed as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.  

James has asked that I speak today about my role and some of the early thinking for my agenda – to be delivered over the next five years; and how we might work together to create the conditions necessary to achieve positive change for our people – because at the end of the day – we have stronger communities – when we are stronger together.

It’s very early in my term – I’m only six weeks in – but I am excited to be here on Wadjak country, with the WA community-controlled sector as one of my first public engagements. 

I look forward to working with CASWA, the other state and territory peaks, and the National Coalition of the Peaks, with Aunty Pat and the national representatives, to push for progress towards the targets that have been set under the National Agreement for Closing the Gap.

I’ll speak more to that in a minute – but I thought I would talk a little about my role and the focus of my agenda over my five-year term.

The Office of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner was created in 1993 in response to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and the National Inquiry into Racist Violence.

We have had five Commissioners since then, all of whom focused on cultural and system reform - to support transformative societal change in the interests of First Nations Peoples. I am the sixth Commissioner to be appointed – and the 2nd woman with the 1st being my Predecessor June Oscar, a Bunuba Kimberley woman from WA.  I also acknowledge that the first Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Dodson, is also from WA, and Mick Gooda also spent many years here – but he is from my hometown of Rockhampton… 

And of course, Tom Calma, led the national conversation on the fight for health equality that was foundational in the establishment of the National Close the Gap Steering Committee.

30 years since the first Commissioner was appointed, some things have changed – largely through the dedication of our old people fighting to ensure better futures for our generations. 

But many things are still the same, just with a new label attached. 

My role and agenda

As the Social Justice Commissioner, I have three key functions that are outlined in the Australia Human Rights Commission Act, 1986. 

They are:

  • 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.

In addition, the Social Justice Commissioner also has a responsibility under the Native Title Act 1993, (s209) to report to the commonwealth minister (the federal Attorney-General) about the operation of the Native Title Act and its effect on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

We heard the Minister last night talk about the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio being seen as one of successes rather than deficits. How good would that be? And of course, that is exactly what our aspirations should be – strengths-based – self-determining – sustaining.

Unfortunately, we have a lot of work to do to get there. 

We can’t do it alone – we need government commitment to work in genuine partnership with us – in our best interests – if we are going to see any real change.

We all know the stats - Our people are the most incarcerated in the world, mostly for minor offences, and our children are dying in jails or in the care of the state who are charged with our “protection”.  Our women are being murdered without concern or question. Mental-health and chronic illness are prevalent in our adult population, and cognitive impairment in our children is becoming more common, yet rarely diagnosed until it is too late.

We find ourselves “constantly responding to crises born from trauma and hopelessness”.  Conditions created by the society in which we live, where the ideal of human dignity is barely recognisable.

We are stuck in a whirlwind cycle of responding to a system that perpetuates inter-generational disadvantage - that manifest in “widespread addiction, suicide, family violence, lateral violence, poverty and incarceration”. 

The systematic dismantling of our families has resulted in many traumas for our people, with the most recent, the devastating suicide of a ten-year-old BABY boy who could not face the tomorrow he was entitled to. 

I acknowledge that this is very raw for many of you in this room today, with that little boy coming from this place. 

These are just some of the ongoing challenges and entrenched threats to our existence and our survival that our people are faced with. 

This is the consequence of systemic failure and structural discrimination that our people are required to navigate every day, in every aspect of their lives. 

My predecessor, June Oscar, spoke of the systematic dismantling of the social fabric of our communities. Just like we see on the movies of old England, in the wake of colonisation, our villages have been burnt to the ground. And ever since our people have been working to rebuild.

Over the next five years of my term, I am hoping to work with our people, key stakeholders, and governments, to rebuild the social fabric, to rebuild our villages, and to create the conditions that are needed to realise our rights.

Whether you voted yes, or no, or didn’t vote at all, the Voice Referendum has had a big impact on our communities – in particular a significant and obvious rise in racism. The question for us now is how do we move forward?

To inform my agenda for my term, I want to hear from our people about:

  • the issues they feel are most urgently in need of attention
  • what our communities need to use the mechanisms available to them to realise our rights
  • and what expectations our people have of the Social Justice Commissioner role. 

I also want to hear what is working so that we can keep building on these things, but also so that we can secure these efforts.

I know there are so many success stories at the ACCO level. We need to make sure that those successes are understood and the relevant factors in the success are identified and highlighted. Then those learnings can be considered, and the approaches tailored to other circumstances by communities who can see parallels. But that can only be done when decision-making power is shared. 

I want to hear where governments are doing this well, and what can be learned from those instances. 

My Team and I are planning a listening tour, a survey and submissions process for our people to provide input. 

As a starting point, I have identified six high-level focus areas or goals that will help to frame this work. They include:

  1. 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 use the Declaration to advocate their rights and hold governments and service providers accountable to their responsibilities.

The Joint Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, under the leadership of Senator Pat Dodson, made six recommendations in its report on the Inquiry into the Application of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Australia. Among them is to design and implement a national plan to progress the Declaration. I intend to engage the Government about this with a view to progressing this as soon as possible.

  1. To provide advocacy and guidance on the implementation of the three pillars of the Uluru Statement from the Heart—Voice, Treaty, Truth

Whether we agree with the Referendum or not, the three pillars of the Uluru Statement from the Heart - Voice, Treaty, Truth - are necessary to advance the rights and recognition of First Nations Peoples.

While the Albanese government made an election commitment to implement the Uluru Statement in full, we need to take the power back, and work together to determine the next steps.

On the back of the Referendum, the relationship has been further strained. The political narrative and the media’s promotion of mis and disinformation has created division and disunity amongst our people, and between our people and the broader population.

We need a reframed relationship that is grounded in Truth, Justice and Healing.

  1. To increase access to justice for First Nations communities

Firstly, we don’t need more inquiries, more recommendations, or more reports.

We need to address the unfinished business of implementation of the outstanding recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Bringing them Home Report, Productivity Commission Reports, and 30 years of Social Justice and Native Title Reports.

Given the national focus on Youth Justice, changing the narrative and approach in this space will be a key focus for my term. 

I hope to work closely with my colleague, the National Children’s Commissioner, as well as the soon to be appointed National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children Commissioner and those in the States and Territories on this, and to engage with the key sector stakeholders in the Youth Justice, Police, Corrections and Child Safety spaces, as well as health, education, housing etc to move the debate from one where our people are the problem, dehumanised and criminalised, to one that highlights our capacity to lead the response, and treats our people with dignity, and nutures and develops our children rather than punishes them for circumstances out of their control.

  1. I will continue to support the realisation of First Nations health equality

Including by supporting the implementation of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap. 

While all four Priority Reforms are critical to success, Priority Reform 2 – Strengthening the Community Controlled Sector is – as it always has been – crucial to delivering culturally safe and relevant supports and development programs that respond to priorities identified by us – not by government.

Unfortunately, government priorities and agendas are too often driving the responses and programs delivered by our organisations in order to access funding. And that is where we are lucky enough to be able to secure the funding in the first place.

It is for this reason, that I am particularly interested in Priority Reform 3 under the National Agreement that is focused on transforming government. 

I attended a forum in Canberra last week where it was argued 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, child safety and youth justice, I would argue that the system is in freefall.

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

If we are to see progress against the targets, if we are going to progress the Priority Reform areas, and if we are going to see a realisation of the rights articulated in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, governments need to flip the script on their business as usual. 

They need to create systems that support responses to the priorities identified by our people and our representative and community-controlled organisations.  And they need to be directing funding to and invest in our organisations to deliver those programs – through long-term sustainable funding, and through a framework that is invested in the success of our organisations – both from an outcomes perspective – and a governance sector strengthening perspective.

While strengthening the community-controlled sector is critical – government must see this in the context of being in our best interests – not in theirs.

Governments need to develop their own capacity to question the systems at play, to genuinely value our knowledge and experience, and partner with us. This is hard because to do it effectively requires a power shift on their part. It requires curiosity, insight, bravery and strength.

I am concerned that the system continues to promote an approach that is based on “divide and conquer”.  We need to stay focused on our priorities, and not get distracted by efforts to divide and conquer us.

I did my first interview with Patricia Karvelas last week – she ended the interview with “your success is our countries success”. We need government to see the world this way!!

  1. I will continue to provide advocacy and guidance to progress Land Justice Reform

This includes the native title system; and connected regimes such as cultural heritage and environmental management, including climate change, and supporting our people to leverage the social, cultural and economic benefits and opportunities from our lands, as well as the newly established/establishing treaty arrangements. 

And finally,

  1. To build the capacity of the First Nations Human Rights Network

I am excited to work with young people, and our senior experienced people to build a connected and future focused leadership capability.  This includes reinstituting old ways of doing business and learning from our elders; and increasing our advocates knowledge of human rights so that we can effectively use the international human rights framework to progress and realise our rights here at home. 

With only five years in this role – I won’t be able to solve all the challenges we face, but I hope to make a good dint. And I can’t do this role in isolation from our people, and our communities.

If we are to even scratch the surface on some of what I have outlined today, we all need to be working together, supporting each other, and teaching those working with us – our six million allies - to do the same.

During COVID-19 we saw the nation unite in a way it has never done before. Prioritising and protecting vulnerable First Nations communities from the potential devastation of the global pandemic. The rapid and focused response by governments, informed by affected communities, was heartening and reassuring. Some of you here might have been part of that.   

It gave a glimpse of what is possible when we work together. I know that ACCOs are experienced in collaborating and partnering, and I think that one important bonus of strengthening the capacity of the sector is that that experience can be shared more broadly.

In this regard, the role of CASWA and your equivalents is crucial. 

I hope that in my five years as Social Justice Commissioner I can work with ACCOs and that we can learn from each other. 

I want to hear from you what is needed on the ground and what policy changes I can advocate for; and how I can assist in bolstering the sector’s capacity in ways that practically help your work and enable you to use your expertise and experience on the ground to advocate for change at all levels. 


So – I call on each and every one of you here today, to think about how you can engage with the work of the Commission and my Office; and how I can support YOUR capacity building. 

It is my privilege to be a part of this Gathering and I sincerely hope to hear further from you as organisations and as individuals with particular professional (and personal) experience. 

I can’t deliver funding or immediate policy change. And I can’t force governments to genuinely partner with our organisations. 

But together we can move towards a more self-determining future for our children and grandchildren – a future in which our own expertise and experience is valued and understood as the key to solving the challenges we face; and to create the conditions where the inherent dignity of our people – of ALL people – is truly respected and upheld. 

Before I close, I wanted to give a plug to my colleague, the new Race Discrimination Commissioner, Giri Siviraman, who has the responsibility of delivering the National Anti-Racism Framework. Giri is very keen to engage with our mob, and he is currently conducting consultations and engagement – through face-to-face or virtual consultations, or by completing an online survey. You can find information on the Australian Human Rights Commissions social media pages – on both facebook and LinkedIn, or on our website at

When I kick off my listening tour you will also be able to find information there on that – so friend us.

Again, thanks for having me at your gathering and I look forward to working with you all over the next five years. 


Ms Katie Kiss

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

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice