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Centring First Nations Within Australian Foreign Policy

17 Feb 2023
By Darren Godwell FAIIA
Doorstop held in the Australian Consulate General in New York on the 21st of September 2022. From 21 to 23 September 2022, the SDG Action Zone will take place during the High-level Week of the UNGA. Senator, the Hon. Penny Wong, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs attended. The seventy-seventh session of the General Assembly under the theme, “A watershed moment: transformative solutions to interlocking challenges. 
© Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The current Australian government made a campaign promise to embed Indigenous perspectives, experiences, and interests into foreign policy. For Australia to be more effective in Indigenous policies, it should adopt a more balanced approach.

When Lieutenant James Cook set forth from Great Britain in 1768, he held two sets of orders. One talked of the solar eclipse and charting new lands. The second, a secret set issued from the English Admiralty, covered matters of international affairs and matters of state. They noted, “You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take Possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain.”

The orders set the grounds and means for entering into relations with other sovereign peoples that Cook encountered. This standard of “consent” and from whom the consent must be sought and given are pretty clear. Also of note are the boundaries and limits of acquisition: “convenient situations.” This was not a blanket charter to grab as much as Cook could find or claim – certainly not an entire continent that was arbitrarily acquired through abstract declarations made upon a small island in the far north in Zenadth Kes, otherwise known as the Torres Strait.

In supplementary materials sent from the 14th Earl of Morton, Lord James Douglas spoke specifically of any encounters with other peoples and civilisations: “They are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit. No European nation has a right to occupy any part of their country or settle among them without their voluntary consent.”

In concert, these documents present as lawful orders and guidance as to the intent and spirit of those orders. The hinge in both documents is the concept of consent. In international law at the time, consent wasn’t the only means to annexation – other means included war, conquest, and occupation.

To date, no First Nation in Australia has entered into a treaty or an agreement between parties that would meet any definition of consent. For the duration of Australian colonial and modern history, the path to a just and honourable threshold of consent from the Natives has eluded non-Indigenous Australian officers, statesmen, diplomats, prime ministers, and governments.

The colonial experience was not the same for all involved. For some, significant generational wealth was created. For others, the experience of colonisation has been deadly, dispiriting, and downright lethal. For some Indigenous peoples, moving beyond colonisation is not a lifestyle choice but, in fact, is a matter of life and death.

A new direction

In the absence of First Nations consent, how is Australian foreign policy to centre Australia’s First Nations? In the last days of last year’s federal election campaign, Wong spoke of First Nations interests, the proposal for a “Voice to Parliament,” and the possibilities of new government and new policies. A centrepiece of the speech was a commitment to appoint an Ambassador for First Nations. When launching the recruitment process for the ambassador last year, Wong stated that:

The Ambassador for First Nations People will lead work to embed Indigenous perspectives, experiences and interests into our foreign policy, including to help grow First Nations’ trade and investment.”

“The Ambassador will also lead Australia’s engagement to progress First Nations rights globally.

At last year’s United Nations General Assembly, Foreign Minister Penny Wong outlined to a global audience:

The new Australian Government is determined to make real progress on the national journey of healing with Indigenous Australians, the First Peoples of our continent. As Foreign Minister, I am determined to see First Nations perspectives at the heart of Australian foreign policy.

The Australian delegation also included, for the first time ever, an Indigenous member of Parliament. Senator Pat Dodson accompanied the minister, and they both spoke passionately on that mission of the importance of Indigenous inclusions and development of the architecture to support increased Indigenous outcomes.

Embedding perspectives and experiences may be a straightforward expansion of existing policies for Indigenous employment, cultural diplomacy, and Indigenous engagement. The task of embedding Indigenous “interests into our foreign policy” is going to require a step change. The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper had only one mention of Indigenous interests, and that was in relation to international human rights. So, to go from one passing mention to being “centred” in foreign policy is no mean feat in just six years. It may require a far greater level of consultation with many more Indigenous interests in multiple portfolios. It will especially mean direct engagement with Indigenous interests outside of the public sector.

There is a trapdoor though. Senior officers of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) will have to address any lingering “assimilationist” tendencies that may undermine new policies of Indigenous inclusion. Additionally, the DFAT relationship with the National Indigenous Australian Agency, within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, is presenting as awkward. There’s a danger that a bifurcated approach may present as indecisiveness and create confusion.

There are also legitimate unanswered questions about whose interests DFAT is representing, compromising, or dismissing in the name of the national interest. Whose Indigenous interests? What are the means by which to test and arrive at these Indigenous interests?

Indigenous sovereignty

The principle of Indigenous sovereignty means that “only Traditional Owners can speak for their country.” This is an immutable law. For example, only Wiradjuri speak for matters on Wiradjuri land and the interests of the Wiradjuri nation. Within that nation, the Lore and Laws of the Wiradjuri are maintained and practiced as per the leadership of Wiradjuri. Senior Lore Men and Lore Women, knowledge holders, control, decision-making, and responsibilities are all the domain of the Wiradjuri. No other people have any rights to interfere. No nominee of any other Indigenous nation has any authority over Wiradjuri people, lands, waters, spirits, and responsibilities. Upholding this principle of Lore is central in Indigenous interests.

This principle, its practice, and its preservation are likely why Western-styled, representative democracy functions less effectively in Indigenous interests. To illustrate, if a bunch of Navi peoples (yes, from Avatar) show up to an Aboriginal community meeting in Dubbo, as Indigenous peoples, they have a right to attend a meeting of Indigenous peoples. At this meeting, there’s a vote, and because of the greater number of Navi in attendance, the meeting elects a Navi person to represent the Aboriginal peoples of the region in future deliberations. That all sounds legitimate, and maybe it was even legal. However, it isn’t consistent with Indigenous Lore or Laws. It fails the test that “only traditional owners can speak for their country.”

As it centres First Nations into foreign policy, DFAT must reconcile this deep Indigenous governance and cultural and legal practice with the Australian national interest. This means identifying and engaging with the sovereign nations upon whose country they are proposing to work. It’s in Australia’s national interest and critical to Australia’s standing on the international stage to become effective on this front as quickly as possible.

Darren Godwell FAIIA is chief executive officer at i2i Global. Darren is a descendent of the Kokoberren peoples of north Queensland and was made a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in 2022 for his efforts to advance Indigenous interests in matters of trade and investment. Darren and his company i2i Global have supported DFAT’s efforts to bring Indigenous commercial interests forward into Australian trade negotiations.

This article is part one of a two-part adaptation of Darren Godwell’s 14 February presentation to AIIA Queensland titled “Who comes first? Centring First Nations within Australian foreign policy.”  Part two will focus on promoting Indigenous trade and investment. The full text of Darren’s speech is available HERE.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.