First Nations people and the security of Australia’s north

Australia’s strategic policy leaders have long been acutely aware of the importance of the nation’s north to economic, ecological and tactical security. The vast expanse of country has been continuously cared for by First Nations peoples for over 65,000 years. Through their cultures and languages, they have deep understandings of the land and its inland and marine waters, an immutable connection to country and historical economic and cultural connections to Australia’s northern neighbours. But consideration of the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their perspectives has been largely absent from the policy agenda until very recently.

To understand the role First Nations people have to play in the north, it’s worth contrasting the historical and present-day experiences of Indigenous Australians living in northern regions with those in southern jurisdictions. While Indigenous citizens across Australia are more likely to experience economic disadvantage and suffer the consequences of institutional (and personal) racism, geographic and demographic differences play a substantial role in shaping the lives of individuals, communities and economies.

Well before European settlement, First Nations people in northern Australia established trade and cultural relationships with what are now Southeast Asian nations, including Macassan Trepang traders of southern Sulawesi and across the Torres Strait to what is now Papua New Guinea and Indonesian New Guinea. These millennia-long relationships present an opportunity to reactivate a new dimension in not only trade, but also regional defence and biosecurity arrangements. Historically, cultural exchanges were also an important part of the trading relationship and it’s worthwhile considering them in the development of free trade agreements.

First Nations people account for 15% of the overall population in the north compared to just 3% in the south. Outside of the major northern settlements, the proportion is even higher—between 15% and 25% across the Northern Territory and northern parts of Queensland and Western Australia. First Nations people make up more than 50% of the population in a third of local government areas. And, according to current demographic trends, Indigenous people will make up around half of the working-age population in the north by 2050.

Historical and more recent political and policy developments have resulted in Indigenous Australians now having ownership or legal interests in over 80% of the northern landmass, including around 85% of the Northern Territory coastline. This makes the Indigenous estate of the north several orders of magnitude larger than its equivalent in the south, and given Australia’s geographic location and geopolitical position, the strategic importance of this land to national security can’t be overstated.

While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in Australian Defence Force tactical units, particularly the North-West Mobile Force, or NORFORCE, is notable, the involvement of First Nations people in the operational security of the north remains substantively underbaked, given their existing potential and resources. In many parts of northern Australia, members of about 80 Indigenous land and sea ranger groups are the only human presence for thousands of kilometres, and their knowledge of these remote areas is unparalleled. From a surveillance perspective, Indigenous land and sea ranger groups are an underutilised security asset.

When considering the capacity of Indigenous ranger groups to support surveillance, it’s important to recognise that the scope of ‘surveillance’ in a national security context must include biosecurity surveillance. Australia’s multibillion-dollar agricultural and tourism sectors, along with our health system, depend on our ability to monitor and effectively control incursions of pathogens and invasive species. Given the sheer length of the northern coastline, and the remoteness and vastness of the northern landmass, providing a level of biosecurity surveillance that delivers adequate protection for Australia’s population and economy through conventional means verges on impossible. As custodians of the land, with knowledge of its form and management stretching from the deep past to the ever-changing present, Indigenous people are an obvious, yet too often overlooked, resource in Australia’s biosecurity arsenal.

Indigenous Australians are increasingly being recognised not only as ‘traditional’ custodians of the land, but as the rightful, legal owners. Third-party settlements and access agreements created by legislation or contracts pertaining to the Indigenous estate have resulted in billions of dollars residing in trusts and other arrangements for which First Nations groups are beneficiaries. Though we are yet to see the large-scale activation of this asset base, Australian jurisprudence, legislation and policy are increasingly following international trajectories in recognising Indigenous rights to land, resources and self-determination.

Optimal activation of the Indigenous asset base (in the north and elsewhere) requires further reform to provide legal rights with respect to the ability to appropriate value from land, water, cultural and intellectual property rights. Currently, the legislated interests of First Nations peoples in their traditional lands, to say nothing of their other assets, is unnecessarily complex and inequitable. These interests range from exclusive possession under fee simple or ‘fee simple–like’ title, to rights that provide a form of shared tenure. In many circumstances, that amounts to little more than a right to interfere in matters pertaining to their lands.

While reform to Commonwealth and jurisdictional legislation will certainly be required in this regard, significant and immediate improvements can be made through less complex measures. For instance, it requires no legislative change for third parties to demonstrate an appreciation of the legal and ethical rights of Indigenous owners as they engage in land-use negotiations, or for those parties to ensure that Indigenous rights are reflected in commercial contracts.

In addition, to be effective counterparties and developers in their own right, traditional owners require the rights and resources, including civil and economic governance arrangements and capacity development, to freely manage their own financial assets on their terms.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that the entire Australian community and economy stands to benefit from the expansion of economic activity in our north. The scale and abundance of natural resources and unique cultural and intellectual property belonging to First Nations communities and organisations, and the proximity of those assets to growing regional minerals, food, energy, carbon and tourism markets, means the region can’t be truly developed without genuine, equitable participation by First Nations people.