Describing the 5 Rights

The 5 rights are presented here in a logical sequence likely to be the one most frequently applied to engineering projects. However it is important to realise that all five are interconnected, and any one may turn out to be the beginning point for any particular project. They were developed by the ALTC project team with Jade Kennedy


The key factor here is learning how to be confident that the people with whom you are engaging in conversation are the ‘right people’.

While it is important to find and connect with the ‘Right People’ – doing so will be complex, difficult and at times quite opaque. A general focus is on ‘elders’ – however these are not always readily distinguishable from ‘olders’. And each term and group members will need to be explored with care. Elders are acknowledged for their contributions to community, their knowledge and leadership and their ability to influence decision-making.

Each community has different lines of relationship, and no two communities are ever the same, nor will they stay the same in any one place. While this may seem complicated think of the local sports club, P&C society or political party!

Questions here include

  • Do we have the Right People for our project goals at this time?
  • How do we know?
  • What steps have we taken to assure ourselves of this?
  • What risk assessment have we done to be ready in the event that things have/are changing and we no longer have access to the ‘Right People’?

Key to success is transparent honesty about actions and intentions, avoiding reliance on ‘useful’ but inappropriate links.

Also included is valuing the people on their own terms – which will need to be discovered. Be prepared to be quizzed, and challenged.


This has four components.

  • ‘meeting places’ where discussions and negotiations occur

Meetings – will be affected by factional issues. When planning where to meet, take into account the people with whom you want to engage. One community had three possible locations – Health Centre, Community Centre and Lands Council. While everyone could access them all, planning a meeting in any one these clearly signalled a factional bias. Reaching out to the community as a whole required using a ‘neutral space’.

  • an ‘artefact place’ – when the project is based on a physical location

If the project involves a physical ‘place’ there will be sensitivities about it. Listen carefully. Respect what is said about the place – avoid expressing personal opinions about it. Observe it carefully – there is much to be seen that will probably not be evident on first viewing.

  • intergroup connections place/s

when an ‘artefact place-based’ project involves significant boundaries to be crossed consider how Aboriginal traditions dealt with such crossings and work out how to model that as far as possible.

  • Place for the work of the project

Most of the work about an ‘artefact place’ will occur on campus, not on site. Keep in mind the fact that the project itself will, to some extent sensitise participants to the importance of ‘place’, since that is part of what they will be working with.

It is vital to be highly sensitive to all these issues of ‘Place’ as it influences all that follows. The aim is to find, and ‘climb over’, the invisible wall of ‘taken for granted’ social/community mores.

Questions may include –

  • Where are all the possible places?
  • What is the appropriate place for this project? Is there more than one?
  • How do we use it respectfully?
  • If we enter other peoples’ places what is the appropriate behaviour of acknowledgement?


It is important to know the needs and timeframes of everyone involved. Being alert to the sensitivities of timing involves a lot of waiting and watching.

Patience is the watchword. Knowing the needs and priorities of the people you are meeting is vital. If they are ‘elders’ they are unlikely to be young and very likely to have needs you must find out about [e.g. ‘no meetings at 7pm to avoid interfering with a favourite TV program.’ Provide transport – a sign a courtesy. Know when – and where – they feel most comfortable.

It is likely that some meetings will begin later than you intend. And it is also likely that not all meetings will go as you intend. Allow more time than you need. Bear in mind the sequence of group development – identified by Tuckman as Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Mourning.

In Aboriginal traditions the Forming phase carries particular weight. It can take a long time to get to the point. Complexity theorists know that ‘the beginning shapes everything’ so allow the beginning to take its course and focus on what is being shaped by the combination of your patience and willingness to wait, and their interest in understanding the intentions behind your proposal.


Elders are entitle to respect – their knowledge may have no parallels in western or engineering contexts but it is vital and valuable and must be treated as such. You speech must be clear and concise, without condescension. If you are experiencing a sense of not being understood, do not impose meaning. Check for understanding – and wait for it to arrive. Eyesight, and hearing may not be what they once were. Allow for time to translate language from your terms and phrases into theirs.

An Aboriginal leader involved in the Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service once described his solution to his difficulties in working with the legal jargon of white lawyers. “I hear the big words” he said “and then I listen to what follows. The meaning will always follow on from the big words.” Reversing this strategy means that good use of language begins with familiar words and terms, and only when necessary adds relevant professional terms and other jargon. Think about – rehearse – how to describe your goals without using language that is specific to your profession.

Appreciate the absence of education. The referendum acknowledging that Aboriginals are ‘people’ for the purposes of society in Australia was held in 1967! That is well within the lifetime of many people you will work with. Be alert to any unexpected prejudices you may discover about educational standards within yourself.


In some respects this is the most difficult word/concept of all. However paradoxical it may seem, it is true to say that there is, and is not, ‘One Right Way’. On many occasions it is simultaneously possible to get things ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – this may be because you have dealt with one group and got things ‘right’ only to find it is ‘wrong’ for another. The Hindmarsh Island Bridge case – – is an example of this. It has a long and well-documented history, and continues to be an example of the complexity of such issues.

Stephen Covey wrote about the important concept of ‘beginning with the end in mind’ – see This seems a viable parallel for the concept of ‘the right way’ since what you want to achieve will emerge from your management of all of the factors relevant to achieving Aboriginal engagement.

Beginning with the end in mind helps shape the ‘Way’ you operate when attending to the other four ‘Rights’. Complexity theory include acknowledgement of ‘an interconnectedness of everything’. Buddhism suggests ‘our existence only becomes meaningful through interaction with, and in relation to, others’

Mary Graham describes Aboriginal thinking on this issue in this manner –

The Dreaming is a combination of meaning (about life and all reality), and an action guide to living. … The land, and how we treat it, is what determines our human-ness. … the relation between people and land becomes the template for society and social relations. Therefore all meaning comes from land.

You are not alone in the world.


All five ‘rights’ must be aligned to achieve outcomes that will benefit all parties. While any one factor is misaligned or absent, there is unlikely to be an acceptable resolution.

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