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Voice. Treaty. Truth. with Elle Davidson and Chloe Sullivan

Elle Davidson, Indigenous Engagement Leader, GHD

A qualified Town Planner and Balanggarra woman from the East Kimberley, Elle is passionate about supporting Aboriginal communities to connect with local projects and facilitating genuine and culturally responsive engagement. Elle is passionate about celebrating culture in the built environment as a physical representation of reconciliation.

Chloe Sullivan, Social Sustainability and Engagement Consultant, GHD

Chloe is a social planning and engagement consultant at GHD who works on a variety of built environment projects. She is passionate about working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for positive project outcomes. With an undergraduate degree in anthropology, and a Master of Human Rights, Chloe brings a unique rights-based approach to her work in the planning and engagement space.

Voice. Treaty. Truth.

Each year, Australians have the opportunity to learn more about Indigenous culture through NAIDOC Week celebrations, held in July (7-14 July 2019). The theme for this year is ‘Voice. Treaty. Truth’ with a focus on promoting the call for a constitutionally enshrined voice for Indigenous people. In 2017, over 200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates gathered at Uluru to develop a collective position for the future of Australia called the Uluru Statement from the Heart. In this article, we explore some of the direct links between the NAIDOC Week theme and the engagement industry, and provide some tips on how to genuinely engage with Indigenous communities.


Enabling Indigenous communities across Australia to have a voice in decisions that are made about their people, their land, and their way of life is an important step towards reconciliation.

Historically, Indigenous communities have not been given a voice in decisions that have affected them. This has occurred as a result of their active exclusion from decisions, with an approach of ‘we know what is best’. Indigenous communities feel they have never been asked, and some feel they have never been heard. This has left many Indigenous people with a sense of distrust in the engagement process. Engagement with Indigenous stakeholders should be approached differently.

  • Engage early: The engagement process should begin well before project outcomes are confirmed. Building relationships prior to project specific engagement will help to establish mutual trust.
  • Ask the question: Before thinking about the engagement methodology, ask the community how they would like to be engaged, and the outcomes they would like to see. This will assist in creating an engagement program that is culturally appropriate, and guided by the community.


A treaty is a political mechanism used to agree on future decision-making and sovereignty. It is an important concept that all Australians should understand and engagement professionals are encouraged to learn more through research and discussion.

The principles of decision-making and sovereignty can be applied in engagement practice by ensuring that the Indigenous community has a real opportunity to influence the outcomes.

  • Co-design: Embark on a journey of co-design in developing and implementing the engagement strategy and approach, including how and when to work with the community throughout the project lifecycle. As practitioners, we shouldn’t make assumptions about how the community would like to be engaged whilst acknowledging that the capacity and interest of communities varies.
  • Establishing negotiables: This is a key consideration for all engagement, however it is vitally important when consulting Indigenous communities given the historic distrust. Ensure that explore the project negotiables in detail and communicate these transparently with Indigenous stakeholders.


Truth-telling is an important movement in the reconciliation journey across Australia and was a focus of National Reconciliation Week in 2019. We are increasingly seeing a focus placed on open and transparent dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian communities. On a large scale, this relates to how we discuss our shared history, and our current challenges. However this also relates to how we interact on an individual level. This movement towards truth-telling is important to apply in the way we approach engagement with all stakeholders, but in particular the Indigenous community.

  • Be transparent: After years of mistrust there is a need to approach all community engagement with transparency and be driven by a genuine intent, not merely to satisfy mandatory criteria. Be certain of how their voice will be incorporated or impact project outcomes, and communicate this to the community.
  • Don’t be afraid of the hard conversations: Engagement with Indigenous communities can be challenging. It can be an emotional and thought-provoking experience for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike. It is important to share in this truthful dialogue, and not be afraid to discuss topics that may usually be shied away from in the professional context.


As engagement practitioners, we are in a unique position to advocate for the inclusion of strategic Indigenous engagement across our projects. Indigenous engagement should become a standard and specialised aspect of engagement methodologies. However, to navigate the complexities of inter-relations, practitioners need to have a level of cultural competency. We are seeing a strong rise in the uptake of cultural competency training across businesses and government agencies. Cultural awareness is an ongoing journey, and there is always more to learn.

This learning journey will give you confidence in developing engagement approaches and methodologies that are informed by cultural understanding.