Marcia Langton – speaking out for change
Marcia Langton


Marcia Langton – speaking out for change

November 19, 2019

2019 Alumni Award Winner – Education

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Human Geography and Anthropology 2005
Associate Provost, University of Melbourne


Distinguished Professor Marcia Langton AM, a prominent public intellectual and academic, grew up listening to great Aboriginal orators and experienced firsthand the power of a well-honed argument. She is now one of Australia’s most respected Indigenous leaders herself, giving a voice to Indigenous peoples across the country, and still believes education is the most powerful tool for change …

Professor Langton says she has believed in the power of education since she was a primary school student in rural Queensland. She knew some members of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and recalls, ‘they were setting out to change the constitution and convince Australians to treat Aboriginal people equally.’ 

After her childhood spent living in isolated towns and a native camp, Professor Langton moved to suburban Brisbane and started high school – and the power of an education really began to take hold for her. She says, ‘The Aboriginal movement was starting to become noticeable and I heard conversations about Aboriginal rights. I met Kath Walker – the Aboriginal poet laureate who later changed her name to Oodgeroo Noonuccal – and Neville Bonner, the first Aboriginal person elected to the Australian Senate.

‘Senior Aboriginal people in the Brisbane community, like Oodgeroo and Neville, were great orators. From them I learned the importance of being able to respond to complex issues with the right words, good ideas and a well-argued case. That is why I pursued higher-education degrees – and why I still believe that education is the most powerful tool for change; for economic empowerment; and for the successful advocacy of intransigent human rights issues, such as the rights of Aboriginal people.’

Indeed, Professor Langton encourages all young people to seek higher education: ‘In the face of the climate change crisis – the most pressing global issue affecting life itself – their ability to be persuasive will be indispensable in convincing hardened anti-science protagonists of the facts surrounding climate change. Higher education will hone the tools necessary for this existential struggle.’

As it has done for her. With a BA (Hons) First Class in Anthropology and History from the Australian National University and a PhD from Macquarie University in Human Geography and Anthropology, she says, ‘I met my primary PhD supervisor at a Maori conference in New Zealand in 1982 and was impressed that an academic geographer was able to argue human rights issues in relation to the impact of mining on Aboriginal communities.’

Professor Langton has since produced a large body of knowledge in the areas of political and legal anthropology, Indigenous agreements and engagement with the minerals industry, and Indigenous culture and art.

While at Macquarie University, she asked Emeritus Professor Richard Howitt to be her PhD supervisor: ‘I had confidence in his ability to understand my research topic and my arguments about the misrepresentation of Aboriginal customary land tenure.

‘With Professor Howitt’s supervision, I went on to argue a case for a new way of seeing the Aboriginal land tenure systems that I had learned about in Cape York – understanding them in their own right; not through the lens of the obscure concerns of a very old-fashioned anthropological mode of distancing Aboriginal peoples from the universal institutions of humanity, particularly law.’

The timing of her degree was also pivotal: ‘When I enrolled at Macquarie University in 1991, it was a year before the Mabo case was decided in the High Court of Australia. It took me many years to complete my thesis because the Mabo decision changed the relationship between Indigenous and settler Australians in such a fundamental way: the High Court recognised that we had our own land laws and that these continued to apply, dismissing the idea of terra nullius. The rest is history.’

Professor Langton’s association with Macquarie University has continued since her PhD. Most recently, in September 2019, she delivered the Patyegarang Oration and was a guest of the Department of Indigenous Studies led by Professor Bronwyn Carlson. Reflecting on this association she says, ‘I have every confidence that the students I met and spoke with at these events will make the world a better place. They hardly need convincing of the need to become educated as many had set themselves extraordinary goals.

‘Some were keen to apply themselves to preserving and strengthening Aboriginal cultures and languages. That this is now possible is evidence of the power of education over the last two generations to change the attitudes of Australian institutions such as universities and academic disciplines.’

And changing attitudes in her forthright way, inspired by those before her, has become not just a trademark for Professor Langton, but something she has been duly rewarded for. Awarded the Order of Australia in 1993, she also received the Neville Bonner Award for Indigenous Teacher of the Year in 2002. She was elected a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women, and named one of Australia’s top 40 public intellectuals.

Professor Langton has held roles on the Empowered Communities project within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and on the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians. Most recently, together with Professor Tom Calma, she was appointed to co-chair the Senior Advisory Group driving the co-design process that will provide an Indigenous voice to government. Something Langton has described as the conversation the nation needs to have.

In a joint statement with Calma, she explained that her role is to ‘listen to Indigenous Australians about their aspirations and to develop in partnership with them models for a voice that will ensure Indigenous Australians are heard at all levels of government – local, state and federal.’

Indeed, for Professor Langton, rectifying the absence of an Indigenous Australian voice is key to making the radical changes needed in order for Indigenous Australians to have the same opportunities as other Australians. Relentless in her pursuit of these aims over successive governments, she is driven to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are represented fairly. 

So what does this Alumni Award mean to her? ‘This award is a powerful acknowledgement of the role of education in Aboriginal cultural survival and our future. Australian universities have played an important role in these matters in recent decades, not least Macquarie University, which has made a significant contribution to Indigenous studies and encouraged and supported Aboriginal students in higher education, including a younger me. I am very grateful for that and proud to accept this honour.’

Words: Megan English

Comment (1)

Submit a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>