Oceania | Company | Oceania
First Nations peoples have the opportunity to play a much greater role in Australia’s foreign policy.
Australia is in the middle of an election campaign where something incredibly rare is happening. Due to the recently signed security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China, foreign policy has become a major issue electoral question – with Australia’s approach to relations with its Pacific neighbors now becoming a major public concern. Although the development that has led to this is heavy, political parties having to address an issue that is not usually the one they campaign on, and the Pacific Islands themselves having their high profile in Australia, are of real positives.
However, in all talk of Australia’s role in the Pacific, there is one pillar of engagement that is currently underutilized by Canberra, one that also doesn’t seem to be on the main parties’ radar. policies – this is the knowledge and perspectives of the First Nations people of Australia. Indigenous perspectives are able to create more common bonds within the Pacific family.
The idea of the Pacific family has become central to Australia’s ‘Pacific Step-Up’ – its bid to re-engage in the region due to China’s increased presence. Yet more often than not, Canberra can come across as an overbearing parent insisting it knows what’s best for the Pacific, rather than displaying the cooperative affinity and empathetic relatedness the concept should imply. By correcting this approach, First Nations peoples have the opportunity to play a much greater role in Australia’s foreign policy.
A new issue paper for the Australian Feminist Foreign Policy Coalition entitled “Indigenous foreign policy: a new way forward?– written by Julie Ballangarry of the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University, and James Blackwell of the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University – highlights how First Nations peoples have been “excluded from the contribution of Australia’s foreign policy and considerations which, given their unique perspectives, come at the expense of Australia’s international engagement.
Ballangarry and Blackwell write that First Nations peoples have “ways of being where individuals, rather than a state, share collective but individual responsibilities for law, protection of the country, relationality and reciprocity. [that] are very different from Western inter-political relations. The authors argue that this perspective can bring new insights into how Australia conducts its international affairs. This is particularly important as Australia is a Western-dominated society in a non-Western region of the world.
The term “Country” in Native English (always capitalized to emphasize its meaning) has a distinct meaning from a Western conception of a landmass governed by a political entity, with certain cultural attributes. For First Nations peoples, land is a broader spiritual and philosophical idea that connects people to the land and to nature itself. People and the natural environment are one; humans are not better or above the environment, rather they are part of the ecosystem and must be in harmony with it. The land and the oceans surrounding it are not human possessions, which is a perspective that may prevail in modern states formed by colonization.
The idea of ’country’ is complementary to the concept of ‘Blue Pacific’, which is central to how the Pacific Islands have come to project themselves into the world. Instead of “small island states”, Pacific Islanders wish to be understood as “major ocean states.” The Blue Pacific is a recognition that the ocean is the primary influence on the Pacific way of life. He points out that Pacific peoples have a spiritual connection to the ocean – it has shaped their history, values and culture. Pacific Islanders see themselves as guardians of the ocean.
Where Australia fails in its relationship with the Pacific Islands is in this space. Pacific island countries have made their relationship with their environment a priority for their human security. They recognize that there is a fragility in the environment that requires human responsibility and a keen understanding of the interdependent relationship humanity has with it. With its failure to take climate change seriously, Australia has demonstrated a lack of empathy with Pacific security (as well as its own), ultimately weakening regional ties.
As Ballangarry and Blackwell write, “First Nations expertise in protecting the country is something that Australia and the global community can benefit from in the face of climate change and related challenges, and represents an area significant potential for inclusion”. This inclusion refers both to the role of First Nations peoples in shaping Australian policy, but also to Australia’s inclusion in its own region.
The challenges posed by climate change require a change of consciousness. Pacific island nations have been at the forefront of this shift in consciousness, but Australia has struggled to adapt to the new realities. Yet, by giving Aboriginal people awareness and understanding greater prominence in policy-making, Australia has the opportunity not only to better serve the region’s environmental imperatives, but also to make strong contributions to its Pacific relationship buildingas well as its broader strategic objectives.