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Putting First Nations Perspectives into Foreign Policy

18 Jan 2023
By Philip Eliason
50th Anniversary Australia-China. Source: Sarah Friend/

Considering a First Nations approach to foreign policy requires more than a simple cultural extension of Aboriginal heritage, however pleasing to foreign dignitaries. The good news is that, with the right leadership, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is equipped to begin a more inclusive process. 

As shadow minister for foreign affairs, Penny Wong said a future Labor government would seek to obtain and incorporate views and advice from Indigenous Australians into Australia’s foreign policy. The challenge is now how to elevate First Nations perspectives, knowledge, and experiences into policy design, diplomatic practice, and international affairs.

Previous governments used Australian Aboriginality in foreign relations in unstructured and event-based ways which included, for example, desert art exhibitions in Paris and the Bangarra Dance Company’s international tours. This has an established momentum in official attempts to describe what Australia is and who Australians are. Extension of this position is not a matter of more of the same. Incorporation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island cultural value into foreign policy requires exploring issues which are decidedly different from inserting the presence of Indigenous Australian culture in Australia’s soft power base.

Keeping the Commitment

At the 2022 United Nations General Assembly, Foreign Minister Wong advanced her undertaking to incorporate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island perspectives into Australia’s foreign relations with Senator Patrick Dodson. She also said in a later speech to the General Assembly “bringing that First Nations heritage to our engagement with the world is part of our foreign policy … I am determined to see First Nations perspectives at the heart of Australian foreign policy … we have much to learn from First Nations peoples.”

Inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander views into Australian national position statements and démarches is a natural development issuing from Australian domestic social and political conditions. Industry, trade union, and environmental organisations’ perspectives are incorporated into policy, and their representatives are regularly included on Australia’s official delegations to negotiate various United Nations instruments and trade agreements.

Engaging with Aboriginal Australians

DFAT has less experience than its Commonwealth departmental counterparts in talking and listening to Australia’s First Nations people. The National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) reporting on the development of “the Voice” – a national pathway to introduce Indigenous voices to policy –  shows improvements to processes for consultations with First Nations people. DFAT does not have an unprepared base. There has been constant growth in methods, style, and critique of talks between the government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Information is there for the taking by DFAT.

Evaluation of these consultations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and resultant programs is also developing rapidly. There are useful ideas in a November 2022 paper titled “A Culturally Adaptive Approach to First Nations Evaluation Consulting.” The authors state that there must be recognition of both European approaches to issues and those which emerge from Indigenous perspectives.

To incorporate Indigenous perspectives into policy and process, DFAT ought to have a substantial point of contact for its Indigenous engagement. DFAT’s Diplomatic Academy could be an avenue for this. The Diplomatic Academy is DFAT’s central platform for forming the practical skills of Australia’s diplomats. It has an aspiration for growth which can help it be the platform for DFAT’s absorption of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and methods for consideration in Australian diplomatic tradecraft.

The Diplomatic Academy is not subject to the daily actions of Australia’s diplomatic practice and is distant from simple displays of cultural events. As a learning centre directly associated with awareness of and information about policy design and its execution, the Diplomatic Academy is not constrained by DFAT’s specific geographical or functional elements. It also supports other departments which send staff abroad to embassies and high commissions.

At present, the Diplomatic Academy focusses on formal, recognised international behaviours to orientate Australian diplomats and other officials heading overseas. Mostly, these activities are a necessary recycling of learning from experienced diplomats and reflect the value of absorbing existing institutional practices and values commonly accepted for engaging with foreign states.

Australia would benefit from playing more angles in statecraft. DFAT operates in a foreign environment where its diplomacy can only benefit from broader ranges of relationship interpretation, including the intersection of culture and diplomacy. Some of these interpretations are natural results of experience. Other approaches might be more deliberately informed by learning about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander reasoning and interpretation of behaviour, values, and intent of others drawn from the knowledge of elders – especially from those in regional and remote areas where, in this case, real value might be absorbed.

The Swiss-Maltese institute Diplo wrote in 1990 of issues related to culture and diplomacy in its International and Intercultural Communication Annual Volume XIV. This covered the cultural orientation of argument in international disputes, Taoism, metaphoric analysis of international dispute mediation, and a Communitarian perspective on communication, peace, and development. This diversity of thinking bodes well for incorporating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives on issue framing, management of contested relationships, and bargaining over resources.

The Diplomatic Academy needs to have a sustained focus to achieve real value from the government’s intent to engage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia in Australian diplomacy. This is more than widening its domestic consultations in position forming. This is a first step, but it simply repeats processes already involved in policy positioning involving Australians of other origins. Australian policymakers should recognise the difficulties regarding consultation with Aboriginal Australia. But with effort over time, results can be earned. DFAT must not be a “blow-in” on this matter. The Diplomatic Academy can elicit clear observations drawn from consultations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians beyond talking about existing policy on, for example, climate change, nuclear disarmament, human rights, labour issues, or environmental protection.

Actions Ahead

First, the Diplomatic Academy could develop its identity as a body for learning to bridge the gap between DFAT’s usual policy process and the integration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander reasoning, feelings, and perspectives relating to foreign policy behaviours and on foreign policy questions. It could convene with other departments on better practice for consulting with diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and interlocutors. It could collect information and create briefings about their methods of dealing with others, dealing with conflict, and creating durable post-conflict solutions – a recurring problem in diplomatic and development practice. In this regard, it would be upstream of the 2021 Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda’s Pillar One dealing with foreign policy. This pillar needs information to be active, and the Diplomatic Academy could have a convening role.

Second, the Diplomatic Academy could develop processes for stakeholder engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Consultation is a fundamental, foundational practice which requires a budget creating predictability, continuity, and repeated multi-year engagement. It might, then, understand and disseminate to diplomats Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander framings of issues and their pathways to and methods of dialogue, as well as views on specific international matters.

Third, learning is a two-way street. The Diplomatic Academy could assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander consultative bodies to access and absorb international issues affecting Australia as a nation and its wealth, security, and social well-being. This needs time and routine, plus evaluation of the efficacy of the diffusion of information back to the base of First Nations organisations.

Fourth, DFAT could include a First Nations representative in its composite delegations to major international talks associated with treaties, conventions, and other instruments likely to affect Australia’s collective wellbeing. This presupposes steps successful in reducing information asymmetry, proper Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation, and other delegates’ ability to engage with and integrate views within the mission’s guiding brief.

Indigenous engagement in Australian foreign relations cannot be left to good intentions, personal best efforts, and unstructured actions if they are to be realised. Success depends on allocation of responsibility, openness to unprecedented ideas, proper allocation of resources, and strong engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

Philip Eliason was the Australian Foreign Minister Hon Julie Bishop’s Senior Advisor on MENA, Africa, and International Security (2017-18). He was also Senior Advisor in 2018-19 to Agricultural Minister, Hon David Littleproud.

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