First Nations diplomacy could be Australia’s key foreign policy tool
14 Nov 2022| and

To maximise global influence, countries need to be sophisticated in deploying diplomatic efforts that project who they are in the world, both with existing partners and in the search for new ones.

This point seems to have been missed in some of the criticism of the Albanese government’s establishment in last month’s budget of an Office of First Nations Engagement, fulfilling an election promise.

The allocation of $2 million to set up the office within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is, in the context of the increase of $900 million to the Pacific aid budget, a rounding error.

But when it comes to getting bang for buck, the office may prove to be an inexpensive strategic asset in Australia’s foreign policy toolkit.

The relevance of the new office to vital diplomatic efforts and geopolitics more generally is perhaps not obvious, and some observers will not grasp the strategic value even of this small allocation. Granted, it is not going to help deter malicious actions by Beijing against Australia, or help us win a war in the Indo-Pacific.

What it will do is support engagement with regional and global partners who are less keen on talking only about shared threats and are more focused on exploring shared values and interests. In particular, it will help our diplomacy in the Pacific—a vital pursuit that is well worth this small investment.

Separately, it will ensure that Australians know that their foreign policy is based on our domestic interests, which range from countering terrorism and foreign interference to strengthening national resilience and trust in institutions.

Indigenous geopolitics is regionally significant. Of the 500 million indigenous people in 90 countries, 70% live in Asia. Indigenous expertise is crucial to building resilience to climate change and preserving the world’s remaining biodiversity.

Indigenous peoples have not been considered important transnational actors but, globally, they have ownership, use or management rights over more than 25% of the world’s land surface and 37% of all remaining natural lands.

Both major parties recognise the need for a combination of hard power and strategic diplomacy that includes First Nations engagement. The creation of the Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda—DFAT’s strategy on Indigenous engagement across trade, aid and foreign policy—in May 2021 under the previous government reflects the bipartisan approach.

The agenda and the new office have a clear strategic rationale.

Having a compelling story about Australia is a critical element of national power. National stories are complicated and Australia’s colonial history is replete with injustice and violence towards First Nations people. We must be able to look our international partners in the eye and make it clear that the Australia they see is the whole package—warts and all.

If we don’t, then we undermine the credibility of our national story and risk playing into the hands of others who seek to distract from their current human rights violations, as Beijing routinely does when it accuses Australia of hypocrisy for raising the grave abuses in Xinjiang.

Such a tactic is aimed at delegitimising the right of others to speak. It will be less effective towards Australia if First Nations people and our history are factored into how we present ourselves internationally.

It is also why two of our Five Eyes partners, Canada and New Zealand, have developed Indigenous foreign policy strategies, which help their regional engagement. Of course, it doesn’t mean Australia should follow all aspects of New Zealand’s foreign and defence policy, which still needs to adapt to play an effective role in the era of strategic competition, but where we can strengthen our hand, we should.

For example, the New Zealand–led Indigenous Peoples Economic and Trade Cooperation Arrangement involving Taiwan, Canada and Australia was ‘an effort to build common economic goals between Indigenous groups but also an attempt to draw Taiwan in from diplomatic isolation’.

This is logical not ideological. It is also smart to take advantage of Australia’s being uniquely placed to participate in different international groupings—from AUKUS and the Five Eyes with our traditional partners to the Quad—and with different foreign policy strategies from the ASEAN Indo-Pacific Outlook to the European Union’s Strategic Compass.

The number of overseas trips by ministers clearly shows that routine and systematic engagement with the region is part of the new government’s strategy. The best approach is being able to talk about both shared threats and opportunities.

The appearance of Pat Dodson as special envoy for reconciliation, and Chris Bowen on climate change, alongside Penny Wong in New York recently showcases key thematic planks of the government’s approach to the rules-based order. It shows that the government and Australia can address multiple challenges at once, even if the most pressing security objective is to counter Beijing’s malicious behaviour.

Australia has approached its relations with Pacific neighbours with some timidity, as it has not wanted to appear to be a neo-colonial power.

This is admirable, but has in practice meant walking on eggshells rather than dealing with reality—with the consequence that neither the threats posed by Beijing nor topics like climate and cultural links have been fully and properly discussed.

While elite capture was the cause, rather than any action of Australia’s, the recent Beijing–Honiara security agreement and the dangers it presented to the region should have been a surprise to no one.

There will be some who think that the office of First Nations foreign policy will mean that every portfolio will have to consider Indigenous issues. It may come as a surprise, but every government portfolio already has requirements under the Closing the Gap policy.

Defence, for example, has a whole-of-organisation approach to Indigenous affairs, including how to navigate negotiating land-use agreements in respectful ways in its areas of operation as well as in recruitment and retention. Among other measures, Defence aims to achieve a 5% Indigenous workforce participation target.

This is not about having our heads in the sand about the threats our nation faces. It is about recognising that we are at our strongest when we counter those threats with everything we’ve got in our arsenal, which includes both military and diplomatic power.

Forming a shared narrative with our neighbours is a way for Australia to build trust, demonstrate shared values and exercise influence. And such a shared narrative will then create increased space for raising the reality of the challenges we face from authoritarian regimes who care only about their domestic interests and not the region’s.