What does a First Nations foreign policy really mean?

Gavin Choong – Monash University – Melbourne Hub Delegate

In his election victory speech, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese committed, ‘in full’, to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The Statement proposes a suite of reforms, including the constitutional recognition and empowerment of Australia’s First Nations peoples by allowing them to have a say in the laws, policies, and programs affecting their communities.

Appropriately, and fitting into Labor’s broader policy commitments to Indigenous affairs, the Australian Government has also recognised the importance of embedding Indigenous voices in our international engagement. For the first time in our country’s history, a call was made for an Ambassador for First Nations People. The role holder would steer the development of a First Nations foreign policy, with significant implications for ‘national security, economic trade, development, and government corporate policy’.

So why, now, do we need a First Nations foreign policy, and how might it look?

For starters, there is exceedingly low representation of Indigenous Australians in international affairs spaces. This echoes the persistent political exclusion First Nations peoples have been experiencing since before the Federation of Australia. It also fails to reflect the ‘80,000 years of diplomatic practice’ practiced by Indigenous Australians.

Indigenous approaches to inter-polity relations continue to exist today, surviving generations of dispossession of land and culture. A clear example of this is the Welcome to and Acknowledgement of Country, based upon the central notion of ‘reciprocity’. This protocol was traditionally practiced within First Nations communities to greet peoples from different areas. The inbound traveller would often yield a message stick and wait for custodians of the land to grant permission to enter and offer safe passage before encroaching upon foreign country.

Land, it is clear, plays a central role in Indigenous Australian political order. According to the worldview of First Nations peoples, everything from humans to animals, plants, rivers, and mountains were brought into existence by the land itself through ‘The Dreaming’. Distinct from European-derived understandings of international relations, Indigenous peoples see country as the ‘foundation for socio-political [order]’. As Wiradyuri man and Research Fellow in Indigenous Diplomacy at the Australian National University, James Blackwell, rightly puts, a First Nations foreign policy will ‘change the way we think about…national interest, the nation’s relationships and responsibilities, and even the way we think about our country’.

National Interest

It has long been acknowledged climate change remains the ‘defining issue of our age…the central challenge of our century’. Indigenous peoples will, unfortunately, be among the first to face the direct consequences of global warming despite contributing the least to greenhouse gas emissions.

A First Nations foreign policy puts those who will be hit the hardest front and centre. This includes communities living in the Torres Strait, just north of Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula, who fear their islands will soon be lost to rising sea levels. By incorporating a First Nations perspective in our approach to international relations, these communities have an opportunity to steer regional adaptation and mitigation action through their climate change experiences and traditional knowledge.

Aotearoa New Zealand, with past experience in allowing Indigenous values to shape foreign policy, provides a clear example of the impact this may have. In an address made earlier this year, Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta outlines how key Māori values – Manaakitanga (reciprocity), Whanaungatanga (kinship), Mahi tahi and kotahitanga (solidarity), Kaitiakitanga (intergenerational wellbeing) – play an important role in her country’s resilience approach. Indeed, this correlates closely with Aotearoa New Zealand’s commitment to provide $1.3 billion in climate finance to developing countries over the next four years.

Relationships and Responsibilities

As of late, increased international attention has been paid to the Indo-Pacific, reflecting the geoeconomic and geostrategic significance of the region. The Australian Government has also taken the opportunity to reset our approach in the Indo-Pacific throughout the past year, and a First Nations foreign policy is likely to play an important role in furthering our regional engagement.

A clear example of this is the New Zealand-led Indigenous Peoples Economic and Trade Cooperation Arrangement involving Taiwan, Canada, and Australia – Canada and Aotearoa New Zealand being two of our Five Eyes partners with Indigenous foreign policy strategies. Particularly in the case of Taiwan, First Nations cooperation plays a vital role in overcoming diplomatic isolation facing the island. As Taiwan’s sole representatives to the United Nations, its Indigenous communities are the ‘island’s international relations lifeline’. Continued engagement with these First Nations peoples has key cultural, political, and economic implications, and adds a new dimension to already highly contested claims of sovereignty.

Australia’s commitment to include Indigenous voices in our international affairs goes beyond the Indo-Pacific and may serve as an inspiration to another of our Five Eyes partners – the United States. Founded on Indigenous land and sharing a colonial history, the United States is able to draw upon successful models of First Nations inclusion in foreign policy like that introduced in Aotearoa New Zealand and, hopefully, Australia. Furthermore, by including Indigenous Australians in our international engagements, we are able to strengthen our ties in regions we are not as well connected to such as Latin America.

Our Country

Last year, the Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda was released by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with the vision of ‘elevat[ing] indigenous issues in the work of the…portfolio’. It outlined four primary pillars of focus – Foreign Policy, Trade and Economic Policy, Development Policy, and Corporate Policy. The Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda, however, fell short by casting Indigenous Australians as ‘victims’ and ignoring their ‘sovereign agency’. This reflects a long struggle for self-determination (Article 3, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People) which First Nations peoples around the world have faced for centuries. The Australian Government’s current commitment to a First Nations foreign policy seems to be an improvement, seeing as it will be co-designed with Indigenous Australians as ‘genuine partners’.

In the past, Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong has said ‘foreign policy starts with who we are’. Undeniably, our country has a brutal colonial past – the effects of which still persist today. While this is irreversible, our approach to international affairs can and should be adapted to reflect the ‘reality of modern Australia, including First Nations identities, perspectives, and practices’.