“Labour will deliver a First Nations foreign policy that incorporates the voices and practices of the world’s oldest continuous culture into the way we speak to the world and into the work of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade“, pledged to the current Australian Foreign Minister, Penny Wong during a pre-election speech in May.
Now, months after Wong’s promise, the true enormity of carrying out such a task is barely clear.
Below, we unpack exactly what the phrase “foreign policy” means here, and the complexities that can arise when trying to incorporate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander practices into how the Australia interacts with other countries.
Read on to find out why such a policy is a priority and how Australia can ensure it creates substantial change.
Australia is proudly home to the oldest culture on the planet.
Our foreign policy must express the full measure of who we are.
— Senator Penny Wong (@SenatorWong) July 13, 2022
What does the term “foreign policy” even mean?
Foreign policy refers to the strategy and approach of a government or country when dealing with other nations.
The values and ideals of each country are different; therefore, what each government prioritizes in its foreign policy approach will also be different. The goal of a country’s foreign policy is usually centered on defending its national interests and then spreading the importance of those national interests to others. As a result, the principles that Australia has long held close – for example, building strong allies and promoting a prosperous Indo-Pacific – are crucial elements of the country’s foreign policy approach.
So how would a First Nations foreign policy be different?
The First Nations component of Wong’s Promise refers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities of Australia.
As the oldest continuous culture in the world, Indigenous Australians have an incredibly rich heritage that dates back tens of thousands of years. This shared culture among Australia’s First Peoples continues to shape Indigenous identity today, with storytelling seen as the beating heart of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tradition. The implementation of a First Nations foreign policy would ultimately integrate First Nations perspectives and practices into Australia’s international diplomacy.
What would a robust first nations foreign policy really accomplish?
The advantages of such an approach to foreign policy are twofold.
According Male Wiradyuri James Blackwell — researcher in indigenous diplomacy at the Australian National University – the unique way Indigenous Australians view philosophy, human nature and the very existence of the universe adds exceptional value to conversations on a range of foreign policy topics.
“Such approaches have immense value when reconsidering how to address issues of mutual importance to the world such as climate change and natural resources, but even things such as conflict resolution and management global economy,” Blackwell told Global Citizen.
Second, it provides Australia with a commonality and advantage when engaging with countries with their own sovereign First Nations peoples, such as Canada, the United States, Indonesia, the Philippines, Mexico and Colombia.
“By focusing and centering a First Nations position, Australian international relations will become more representative of who we are as a nation and the ‘place’ we occupy on the world stage as a settler state on First Nations stolen (and unsurrendered) land,” adds Blackwell. “It has the potential to reform the way we conduct our affairs…and about relationships with other states.”
Are there any countries that have already tried to achieve this goal?
In February last year, New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, the first Maori woman in the post, presented a bold foreign policy plan that deeply incorporated the Maori worldview. The principles of benevolence, goodwill, interdependence, respect for the land and shared aspiration were now seen as the absolute cornerstones of the national approach to international affairs.
Last month, Wong applauded his New Zealand counterpart after they first met in person.
“We can learn a lot from your country,” said.
She added: “I read some speeches by Foreign Minister Mahuta in preparation for this [meeting] where she was talking about concepts, Maori concepts, that were important to her foreign policy. They were extraordinarily powerful. These are not speeches I could still deliver.
The ultimate success of New Zealand’s new foreign policy approach is yet to be revealed.
What do leaders need to consider to be successful?
Although the notion of a First Nations foreign policy seems ideal, experts in the field have warned the risk of perpetuating the exploitation of indigenous peoples. Many cite decades of Australian policies that take advantage of Indigenous culture and knowledge or simply fail to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“The kinds of policies that fail are those that prioritize an extractive relationship with First Nations and First Nations peoples, seeking to ‘undermine’ us just for the benefits we provide, rather than seeking to work in partnership with us,” Blackwell explained.
For a First Nations foreign policy to succeed, Blackwell says three things are essential.
“First Nations peoples need to be real partners with government, rather than stakeholders to be consulted after the fact. Secondly, we need to be involved in real co-design and consultation with our communities across Australia, and thirdly, we need to be engaged in the process from start to finish, and even beyond, and have mutually respectful dialogues throughout the process.”