The power of Indigenous diplomacy as a strategic asset for Australia

International relations sometimes seems like a game that’s all about controlling and asserting simplistic national-power narratives without acknowledging the complexity of each nation’s stories.

But the key to effective public diplomacy is moving from monologue to dialogue, which means knowing when to speak and when to listen. In Australia, this begins with listening to, and reckoning with, the nation’s Indigenous history and projecting that into the international public sphere.

Indigenous diplomacy needs to be seen as an asset in Australia’s strategic toolkit.

‘International interest in Indigenous culture is very high and people see it as unique,’ says Australia’s first Indigenous ambassador, Damien Miller, in an interview with ASPI. ‘It’s a natural part of our soft power.’

Miller belongs to the Gangulu people, traditional custodians of land in Central Queensland’s Dawson and Callide valleys. His grandmother moved to Rockhampton after the 1897 Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act nullified the political and civil rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In the 1960s his father moved to Brisbane, where Miller grew up.

This painful part of Australia’s history reverberates into the present. There are distinct challenges in reconciling these elements in the national story, and Australia has its detractors globally over its treatment of its Indigenous citizens.

Miller acknowledges, but also challenges, these views: ‘Some have very outdated views of our nation based on cherry-picking the most negative aspects of Australian history. But I would say that this bears no resemblance to the reality on the ground.’

It’s important to tell the whole complex and rich story of Australia—the parts where we succeed and the parts where we stumble, especially in relation to the Indigenous experience.

When we do this, says Miller, ‘Australia’s Indigenous diplomacy is a way of showing the world an open, mature country that can explore the light and the shade of our history.’

A world awash with disinformation has shown how important ideas are. Australia traditionally thinks of soft power as education, sport and culture. Those elements are important, but there’s a harder edge to appreciate.

In the context of the grey zone, where information warfare targeting the political culture and reputation of nations is a key tactic, having a strong narrative about national identity, values and history becomes ever more important.

In Miller’s view, having a compelling story to tell about Australia is a critical element of national power. In his work as minister-counselor for strategic communications at Australia’s Washington embassy, he talks about three distinct chapters of our national story.

The first is our unique Indigenous heritage. ‘I’m just so proud of our Indigenous culture—60,000 years of relationship and stewardship between culture and the environment—it’s an incredible story to tell the world.

‘The second chapter is our European heritage, which brought new ideas and values that eventually grew into a vibrant democratic political culture embracing the rule of law domestically and internationally.

‘The third thing I emphasise is our multiculturalism,’ says Miller. ‘Australia is one of the most successful and unified multicultural nations in history and it’s getting more so over time. It’s this story that makes us so competitive, for example, in attracting the best and brightest around the world to our skilled migration program.’

Key to this narrative is how Indigenous Australia is changing, he says. ‘I talk about Indigenous youth graduating from high school, increasing numbers going to university and forging professional paths, and those re-embracing traditional lifestyles, going into business, becoming strong members of civil society.’

This story of education and empowerment is reflected internationally, with transnational Indigenous civil-society networks on the front lines of global systemic crises from Covid-19 to climate change.

It’s important to note that indigenous peoples have ownership, use or management rights over more than 25% of the world’s land surface and 37% of all remaining ‘natural’ lands. Australian Indigenous interests own or exercise a degree of legal control over close to 80% of the Northern Australian landmass, and considerable areas of sea country.

Indigenous expertise is crucial to building resilience to climate change and preserving the world’s remaining biodiversity. And the transnational, collaborative, non-state-bound nature of indigenous diplomatic networks demonstrates the type of diplomacy the global community will need to manage future crises more effectively.

Miller points to the Kimberley Land Council’s savannah-burning carbon projects, which embrace Indigenous grassfire techniques and have been trialled in Botswana. The program generates around $20 million worth of Australian carbon credit units annually.

Such Indigenous ecological approaches will only become more important. Degradation of indigenous land rights often goes with the catastrophic degradation of carbon sinks like the Amazon Basin. The survival of indigenous communities might be intimately linked to limiting the damage associated with worst-case climate scenarios.

Their ownership of a quarter of the world’s land means indigenous communities are crucial in more conventional geopolitical terms. They often stand at the nexus of resource exploitation, political conflict and economic competition.

On one level, indigenous peoples suffer from similar issues of dispossession, underdevelopment, unemployment, drug abuse, youth suicide and structural discrimination.

On another, international indigenous networks have grown institutionally sophisticated. They’re  embedded in multilateral politics and run media organisations, businesses and sovereign wealth funds with substantial capital and asset holdings. In the United Nations system, important forums for indigenous issues include the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Indigenous groups were a big presence at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow.

Indigenous geopolitics is also regionally significant. Of the 500 million indigenous people in 90 countries, 70% live in Asia.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Indigenous diplomacy agenda, launched in May 2021, is timely. It has four main pillars: shaping international norms and standards to benefit indigenous peoples, maximising opportunities for indigenous peoples in a globalised world, promoting sustainable development for all indigenous peoples, and deploying Indigenous Australian diplomats to advance Australia’s national interests.

The agenda came out of DFAT’s Indigenous peoples strategy 2015–2019, launched by departmental secretary Peter Varghese in 2015. DFAT has used elements of it for decades, says Miller, working through human rights forums in the UN, in DFAT’s human resources policies, and in its promotion of Indigenous voices overseas.

The agenda consolidates and elevates Indigenous diplomacy as a key element of our national diplomacy. Australia, says Miller, is a global leader in this area, along with Canada and New Zealand.

On various postings, Miller has spoken about Australia’s unique reconciliation movement, Indigenous policy and governance models. DFAT and the National Indigenous Australian Agency discuss Indigenous issues as part of their regular bilateral engagement with the US, Canadian and New Zealand governments. He says Australia would like to do more with the US indigenous community and scholars, particularly on economic governance.

Public health is key to supporting social and economic wellbeing, says Miller, noting that Australia has leading-edge Indigenous networks doing community health work that emphasises place-based solutions while building strong partnerships with governments, corporates and not-for-profits.

Australia’s Indigenous nations have their own traditions of relationship-building and diplomacy. Miller says northern Australian Indigenous peoples had historical relationships based on trade and culture with regional indigenous populations—for example, between Torres Strait Islanders and Papua New Guineans and between the people of Arnhem Land and Indonesia’s Macassans.

Miller says these traditions and cultural values have always informed his work as a diplomat. He uses the example of the Gangalu people, who are passionate about organising and promoting community welfare and partnering with others to find solutions.

‘The ancientness of the Indigenous story in Australia gives you a certain perspective: respect for elders, the importance of deep listening, respect for the heritage and stories of others, the importance of finding common ground, being deeply engaged in community life, giving back and showing generosity of spirit.’