Sections of the popular media recently strongly criticised UNSW for providing students with a guide to indigenous terminology. This resource is included in on-line support materials for some courses in UNSW Law. It is therefore appropriate for me to comment on this episode.
The media’s treatment was sensationalist and inaccurate. Claims that students are required to follow “politically correct” dogma are untrue. Reference to the guide itself would have made this quite clear. The “Diversity Kit” of which it is part explains that it is ‘not a prescriptive, fixed set of practices, but a tool that you can use for self-reflection, or with small groups to facilitate discussions.
The guide merely suggests that, in C21 Australia, some terminology is more appropriate and some terminology is less appropriate. It does not, as was claimed, state that it is offensive to say Captain Cook ‘discovered’ Australia. The document states: “most Aboriginal people find the use of the word ‘discovery’ offensive.” That important distinction was too subtle for our critics. Reactions from Aboriginal colleagues and students confirmed the guide’s accuracy.
The guide is not required reading for all students across the University — teachers can choose to include it as a subject resource for their classes, and students can use it, or not, as they wish. One very good reason for providing students with access to such a guide is to try to avoid unfortunate incidents when, unintentionally, non-Aboriginal students have offended Aboriginal students by use of inappropriate terminology in classroom discussion. Terminology guides such as this are commonplace across universities and many public sector organisations and it is absolutely proper for students and staff to have such a resource available to guide them on what is professionally and academically appropriate.
Use of such a guide chimes with both UNSW Law’s Reconciliation Action Plan and with UNSW’s 2025 Strategy in which we commit that “we will acknowledge, respect and celebrate the important place of indigenous Australians at UNSW. Respecting and learning about indigenous knowledge will be integral to the UNSW educational experience.”
However, this explanation of the guide and its use is not enough. The careless way in which the contents of the guide were misrepresented was in itself an indication that the furore over the guide was merely the pretext for something much more significant. This incident is better seen as a rather pathetic renewal of the culture wars, the long battle over Australia’s history and identity. A journalist asked me “what history do you teach at UNSW?” My answer was that I hope students read many different histories, from Windschuttle to Reynolds, and that they make their own minds up about the evidence.
In my long experience as a university teacher, I have learnt two relevant lessons: that colleagues who have tried to impose their politics on students fail; and that some of the very best classroom discussion that I have had have been with students who disagreed strongly with my opinions — and that they went on to get some of the best results.
But this conventional statement of academic neutrality is, in this case, not enough. UNSW Law has a long and proud commitment to indigenous teaching, research and public engagement, and it would be to break the trust of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island colleagues and students to sit on a politically neutral fence when the history of Australia’s colonisation is at issue.
The High Court’s take
I have no claim to be an expert in Australian history, so as a lawyer, I will turn to the account given by our profession’s leaders in the High Court of Australia. In the foundational case, Mabo No2, Chief Justice Brennan repeatedly used the word “dispossession” to describe the process whereby Aboriginal land was taken: “during the last 200 years, the Australian Aboriginal peoples have been substantially dispossessed of their traditional lands … [They] were dispossessed of their land parcel by parcel, to make way for expanding colonial settlement. Their dispossession underwrote the development of the nation.”
Justices Deane and Gaudron went further, describing “the conflagration of oppression and conflict which was … to spread across the continent to dispossess, degrade and devastate the Aboriginal peoples and leave a national legacy of unutterable shame … [The] full facts of that dispossession are of critical importance to the assessment of the legitimacy of the propositions that the continent was unoccupied for legal purposes.”
With this judgement, the High Court dispatched not just the legal fiction of terra nullius, but the historical fiction that the colonisation of Australia was anything but a long story of dispossession in which violence — whether it be the massacre of Aboriginal people or the theft of their children or the degradation of their communities — has been central.
A mature Australia should be able to understand and deal with these shameful aspects of our history. Other advanced democracies have been able to do so in coming to terms with their own histories of colonisation and slavery, and rightly regard Australia’s refusal to acknowledge its own history as a rather contemptible expression of national immaturity. This does not mean wearing a black armband. It simply means growing up and taking responsibility for doing what we can to recognise and put right what was done in the making of Australia. As a Law School, it is our responsibility to ensure that our students are informed about relevant aspects of our history so that they can make up their own minds and choose to be part of the continuing problem or of attempts to put it right.