I have written a lot over the past year and a half on the topic of First Nations foreign policy - from New Zealand's bold first foray into the field in February 2021, to Australia's poorly designed and little-noticed Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda the same year. Both of these were remarkable events due to their efforts to reshape how we think about contemporary foreign policy and international relations, but fell somewhat short of the mark.
Twelve months on, New Zealand's work seems like nothing more than ambitious talk from the Minister, while the failure of Australia's agenda to consult with the First Nations community, or to dream bigger than incremental departmental changes, rendered it effectively useless. First Nations are fundamentally excluded from foreign policy in this country, and elsewhere.
First Nations peoples have so much to offer the world of foreign policy, diplomacy, and international relations. Here on this continent we have been engaged in our own forms of inter-polity relations for tens of thousands of years, including with peoples beyond Australia; all based on our own unique law, culture, history. We operate from a fundamentally different place on political ordering and the role of individuals versus the state, and have our own unique ways of knowing and being.
These approaches can, and do, co-exist with traditional Western understandings of foreign policy and international relations, and the advantages of our relational, interconnected ways of being are manifold. On issues of climate, human rights, land use, and our engagement with our allies, First Nations peoples and perspectives have the potential to provide great insight.
This is why Labor's policy announcement on this this front is both so promising, but also so vital. In her opening remarks for the National Press Club's foreign policy debate in the lead-up to the election, now-Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong announced that, if elected, the ALP would deliver "a First Nations foreign policy that weaves the voices and practices of the world's oldest continuing culture into the way we talk to the world, and the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)". Given the results of May 21, this policy is now the policy of the government.
Such a vision for our country, a long time in the making for Australia, is so much more than a mere change of direction or change in talking points to better include First Nations. It is an actual policy of substance, which does not presume ownership of all knowledge in this space. Alongside the appointment of an ambassador for First Nations peoples, and the establishment within DFAT of an Office of First Nations Engagement, it also sets forth somewhat of an agenda for "doing the work".
Engagement with First Nations communities, leaders, and advocates would be conducted around the country, to hear how First Nations "identities, perspectives and practices" can be incorporated into our overseas engagement, how to "embed First Nations perspectives in Australia's international diplomacy", and to "support a new model of trade which actively includes and advances First Nations people".
Policies developed in line with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), with consultations led by our people, is something almost untested in Australia. With the exception of the Referendum Council's work on constitutional reform which delivered the Uluru Statement from the Heart (something Labor's policy here also seeks to strongly support), First Nations have not been consulted in such a way ever before on issues which affect us. To hopefully seek to do this on foreign policy, if that is indeed their goal, is not only a great credit to Senator Wong and her team in the ALP, but also to our communities, who have been loudly demanding such changes in approach for many decades.
Another aspect of what the ALP has proposed is an extension of First Nations peoples beyond Australia. A state's foreign policy reflects its values and identity on a global stage. As Senator Wong said, "foreign policy starts with who we are" and should "reflect the reality of modern Australia, including First Nations identities, perspectives, and practices". This does not just mean delivering on the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full (Labor being the only major party to commit to this). It also means engaging with First Nations peoples in our region on issues of mutual importance, and where cooperation will bring the most benefit.
Engaging with countries such as New Zealand and Canada, each with their own vibrant, sovereign First Nations, on issues such as treaty, reconciliation, supporting UNDRIP, and First Nations participation not only strengthens us at home, but abroad. Fostering cooperation with our Pacific neighbours and allies on shared challenges, and to promote First Nations foreign policy, is of benefit to all of us.
While much more detail and specificity is needed, and something I'm sure we will get in due course, the ALP's First Nations foreign policy shows a commitment to work respectfully with First Nations in this country, in line with the party's commitment to the Uluru Statement. It also represents a commitment to listen to First Nations, and let us lead the way on the issues which matter to us. This is what should be at the heart of not just any First Nations foreign policy, but also any First Nations policy, period.
To quote myself and my colleague Julie Ballangarry last month, advancing First Nations peoples' interests at home and abroad will only be possible when we are fully embraced by Australia. The ALP's First Nations foreign policy is a new direction in that regard. There are of course the usual caveats about governments and political promises - as always - but what this moment represents is a hopeful advancement in the way we not only think about foreign policy, and First Nations policy, but also how we think about Australia.
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