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The Contribution of Indigenous Australia to our Diplomacy

International relations

Speech by Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson

Location: Charles Darwin University, Northern Territory

Thank you very much indeed Ruben [Bolt, Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Leadership and Regional Outreach, Charles Darwin University] for that warm welcome.

Let me start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the Darwin region, the Larrakia people, on whose land we are gathered today, and by paying my respects to the Larrakia elders past and present.

I also acknowledge Aboriginal, Torres Strait, and other indigenous people joining us today, whether here in person or online from across Australia and I think it’s fair to say in these circumstances, perhaps even around the world.

Let me also acknowledge Professor Ruth Wallace, Dean of the College of Indigenous Futures, Arts and Society and Director of the Northern Institute. I want to acknowledge too that there are members of the consular corps here in Darwin with us — it is lovely to see you.

Let me also say, it is wonderful to be in a live audience with real people, and I know all of you bring a real commitment to what it is that we’re going to talk about today, as we discuss the enormous contributions of Indigenous Australia to our diplomacy.

I also want to acknowledge that our department is currently conducting sorry business for a former Indigenous colleague, who made her own very special contribution to Australian diplomacy, and the Indigenous and non- Indigenous business sectors.

I am honoured to have just been part of a yarning circle—my first ever yarning circle—and I’m very grateful for the warm Welcome to Country offered today by Richard Fejo.

As winter’s grip tightens on Canberra, and believe me it is, it’s a pleasure to escape to the Top End, and I’m grateful to Charles Darwin University for the opportunity to speak.

This pandemic has taught us many things over the past fifteen months or so.

But one inescapable conclusion brought home again and again is that we’re part of a global community.

In a time of intensifying strategic competition—and with environmental problems as vast as the state of the world’s atmosphere and the health of the oceans pressing on us—it’s never been clearer that sound policymaking has to be broad enough to encompass not only Australia’s national domestic priorities, but also our regional and global context.

We’ve long had a conversation in this country about the contribution Indigenous Australia makes to our national life.

When I was growing up, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were, in many ways, excluded from full participation in this country — whether formally, in the time before they were counted towards Australia’s population in the Constitution, or informally, in the sense of institutions and practices that denied access to the rights enjoyed by others.

Much has changed since then—some things have evolved for the better, others have languished—all while some conversations have deepened and Indigenous voices have increasingly been sought out and listened to.

Today, I’d like to talk about how Australia’s international diplomacy is increasingly shaped by Indigenous cultures and people.

I wanted to speak about this here in Darwin because the Northern Territory, and northern Australia more broadly, presents Australia’s face to the world in such a unique way, and shows so clearly the interaction between Indigenous Australia, our near region, and indeed the world beyond.

Our nation’s north is home to many of our most important export sectors, and some of our most famous national icons.

It’s a place where Indigenous Australia and First Nations peoples, are very much to the fore—and where a connection to country thrives—and we’ve seen very strong evidence of that today.

Government sets Australia’s overseas policy, of course, but at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade we have the task of representing our nation abroad, staffing our overseas missions, building relationships with foreign governments, helping open markets to our exporters, supporting Australians in trouble.

I joined DFAT in 1985, in what feels, sometimes, like a different world.

Then Australian diplomats were overwhelmingly male.

On that metric, things have changed a lot, and I’m proud to say that we’ve come close to reaching gender parity in our senior leadership.

In 1985, Australian diplomats were also — not to put too fine a point on it — generally white.

Just 12 years after the abolition of the White Australia Policy, perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising.

Slowly, we’re getting closer to reflecting Australia in all its diversity.

And over this time, our diplomats have gradually come to better understand and take pride in Australia’s Indigenous peoples and cultures as we do our work overseas.

We have been helped immeasurably by a growing number of Indigenous colleagues, including at senior levels, in our ranks who have helped guide us with unfailing patience and commitment.

In 1985, Australia’s diplomatic service—I think it’s fair to say—in many ways looked more like that of its British counterpart than something uniquely Australian.

This was before Mabo and Wik, before governments committed to Closing the Gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Now, you might say—and you’d be right—that we still have a lot to do before we are a just, equitable, and reconciled Australia.

There’s no way one can credibly argue that Australia has, in 2021, healed the wounds of our history.

But when I look at the Australian foreign service today, I see an organisation that is increasingly representative of the Australia it serves, not only in our staff, but also in the value we place on Indigenous people and cultures in the work we do.

This isn’t an accident, or an incidental evolution, but a deliberate agenda to firmly position Indigenous Australia in our international life.

After all, Indigenous people were not just the first explorers, navigators, farmers, engineers, astronomers, and artists on this continent. They were also the very first diplomats: hundreds of pre-colonial nations, interconnected but unique, negotiating and trading with each other and the world beyond.

Today, DFAT has an Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda to give Indigenous Australia a systematic place within our overseas engagement, and to more effectively advance the interests of indigenous peoples, both in Australia and around the world.

In his Annual Australian Leadership Lecture last month, Noel Pearson identified three key ingredients to modern Australia:

  • the ancient Indigenous heritage that founded human civilisation on this continent;
  • the British institutions built upon it;
  • and the gift of multicultural migration that continues to deliver so many riches to our country.

In many ways, this is the modern Australia DFAT seeks to represent.

Today, our overseas missions proudly display the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags.

In Canberra, where we do much of our business, we deliver acknowledgements of country in Ngunnawal, the language of the traditional owners of the Canberra region.

We have institutionalised respect for our nation’s Indigenous cultures.

Recounting this progress does not, of course, deny that many very significant challenges remain in Australia for Indigenous people, including in closing all important gaps like life expectancy and educational attainment or on issues such as deaths in custody.

Today, though, in 2021, the fact is that the status of our Indigenous people is a foreign policy issue.

When we raise human rights concerns with foreign governments or in the United Nations, sometimes others respond by questioning us on our own record. This is part of the openness and transparency in the international human rights system that we support.

But it is also internally, within DFAT, that we’re working to better harness the contribution Indigenous peoples and cultures bring to our diplomacy.

Some of our closest partners, like New Zealand and Canada, are going through their own parallel but unique processes — a point of discussion between our Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, and her recently appointed New Zealand counterpart, Nanaia Mahuta, comparing and contrasting our different approaches.

In DFAT, we’re seeing how Australia’s First Nations are a key element of how we define and express ourselves globally.

We believe that fostering a foreign service that properly represents the diversity of Australia isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s a genuine competitive advantage.

Right now, we face a more contested region, one where it’s harder to assure Australia’s security and prosperity, while also grappling with global challenges such as COVID-19.

In this context, we need to bring every national asset to bear, which includes promoting all that Indigenous Australia has to offer.

We need to understand and influence a great diversity of people throughout our region and world; we need to come at complex problems from every angle.

And we need to contribute to advancing Australia’s wider reconciliation journey, which will make us a stronger nation.

Indigenous diplomacy is not a new or novel idea — it’s been part of our work for many years now, and as I was just hearing in the yarning circle, it has a very important local and broader Australian meaning.

Our Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda though represents an evolution of existing policy.

This new Agenda, however, is about elevating indigenous issues in our foreign policy, taking a more systematic approach that ensures we bring to bear the full capacity of Indigenous Australia in our work, while contributing to Australia’s reconciliation journey.

The Agenda—I have a copy here and I’m sure they will be available for everyone and of course online—has been led by our Indigenous policy expert, Sheena Graham, a Ngadju woman from Western Australia.

Sheena has worked on a wide range of issues, from Australian’s overseas aid program to multilateral negotiations at the United Nations; and at all times, she’s viewed her work through the lens of an Indigenous woman.

Sheena knows first-hand that DFAT has the potential to help unlock opportunities for indigenous peoples around the world — if we take the right actions.

Bringing this kind of personal experience to the international stage is hugely valuable, and why Indigenous people and perspectives are front and centre of this Agenda.

Ken Wyatt, Minister for Indigenous Australians, described this approach well last year when he said, and I quote:

“When governments walk alongside with Indigenous Australians — we realise better policy development, better programme delivery and importantly better outcomes for our people through working together — co-designing the solutions that work.”

This is true for foreign policy just as much as for domestic policy.

The Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda recognises that in a more interconnected world, opportunities and challenges for indigenous peoples will transcend borders; that shocks like COVID-19 have disproportionate impacts on indigenous groups; but also, that when indigenous people are empowered, they will generate solutions, not just to their own challenges, but also those faced by the world as a whole.

Our Agenda has four pillars:

  1. First, in our foreign policy, to shape the international system, and its norms and standards, to benefit indigenous people;
  2. Second, in our trade and economic policy, to maximise the opportunities for Indigenous Australia and indigenous peoples everywhere in a globalised world;
  3. Third, in our development policy, to promote sustainable development for all indigenous peoples;
  4. And finally, in our corporate policy, to best utilise our Indigenous staff and make DFAT more culturally-competent.

This kind of comprehensive approach is already being put into action through the Pacific Step-up, one of the Government’s highest foreign policy priorities.

This is a whole-of-government effort to deepen our engagement and cooperation with the nations of the South Pacific.

As part of the Step-up, we’ve developed an Indigenous Engagement Plan, a project led by Ella Scott, a graduate of our Indigenous employee development program.

Ella’s personal drive and experience was crucial: she’s passionate about paving the way for the next generation of Indigenous people, and building-up the connections between Indigenous Australian and Pacific Islander peoples, based on long-standing cultural connections.

She’s now putting this into practice as an Australian diplomat in Nuku’alofa, where she’s using her perspectives on family and social structures to form connections with Tongans, especially women. And anyone who is paying close attention to politics in the South Pacific in neighbouring Samoa will know how important that is.

The Indigenous Engagement Plan covers the breadth of our work in the Pacific: from bilateral relations to internal corporate policy.

It supports deeper and more direct engagement between Indigenous Australian, Australian South Sea Islander, and Pacific Islander peoples by embedding their unique perspectives in Australia’s strategic and diplomatic work in the region.

To return to the Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda more broadly, though, let me explain each of its pillars.

The first pillar, shaping the international system — and its norms and standards — to benefit indigenous peoples, is central to our foreign policy.

We work closely with the National Indigenous Australians Agency, and I know there is a representative of their agency here today, to support Indigenous representatives to participate in international meetings that affect them.

Australian diplomats will seek to include indigenous issues and indigenous voices in mainstream international dialogues and meetings, from the bilateral, to the regional and multilateral.

We will take a more strategic approach to shaping international norms and standards to benefit Indigenous Australians by influencing the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous People, the UN Human Rights Council, and other UN treaty bodies.

And we’ll encourage international organisations, like the UN, to adopt their own strategies that institutionalise an awareness of indigenous issues in their policymaking.

While this kind of work is the duty of all our diplomats, our Indigenous staff often bring to the task an exceptionally effective skillset that advances Australia’s priorities.

When one of our legal experts, Emily Hill, was working on human rights at the UN in Geneva and New York, she drew on her insights as an Indigenous woman to boost our influence in dialogues on indigenous issues.

Amongst her broader work, she acted as a highly effective interlocutor between the visceral lived experiences of Indigenous Australians and the dense legalese—I’m sure you can imagine it—of UN processes.

Moreover, she leveraged her personal perspective to speak with authenticity when Australia’s experience with Indigenous rights was discussed, and to liaise between the Government and Indigenous representatives to make their UN engagement as impactful as possible.

In a separate part of the UN system, Australia, represented by Craig Ritchie, CEO of AIATSIS, was the co-chair for the steering committee that oversaw a very successful UNESCO Year of Indigenous Languages in 2019, and we continue to be committed, as we now transition into the Decade of Indigenous Languages.

In a different context, our first Indigenous Head of Mission, Damien Miller, has spoken about how his family’s experience under the Queensland Protection Act informed his work as Ambassador to Denmark, Norway, and Iceland.

He used Australia’s Indigenous rights journey, the National Apology, and practical measures like Reconciliation Action Plans to connect with indigenous peoples in Greenland and Norway.

Back in Australia, Damien helped develop education courses that build awareness of Indigenous history, identity, and stories.

Most of our outgoing Ambassadors and High Commissioners now undertake these courses.

Julie-Ann Guivarra, our first female Indigenous head of mission, when she became Ambassador to Spain, similarly talks about the value Indigenous diplomats bring through their different lived experiences, expertise, and perspectives when it comes to analysing other countries’ politics and economies.

Now our Ambassador for Gender Equality, Julie-Ann, who has family ties to the Torres Strait(1) and the Yarrabah community near Cairns, reflects on how the last two decades have seen a marked rise in the importance of our Indigenous cultures to our international identity and how the rest of the world sees us.

This is why we invest in our own reconciliation efforts and in telling Australia’s story to the world.

Our Indigenous public diplomacy program is managed by Michelle Bedford, a Jaru woman from the Kimberley, who advises our overseas posts on promoting Indigenous cultures and voices.

We emphasise participation and exchange—connecting cultures and people—rather than just passive representations of Indigenous cultures.

Scholarship programs like the New Colombo Plan, in sending Indigenous student ambassadors out into our region, are an important part of this.

So is the sharing of knowledge — the knowledge of Indigenous artists, scientists, professionals, and entrepreneurs.

Our Indigenous Speaker Series, for instance, has sent leading Indigenous Australians to 17 countries around the world, including, in late 2019, when brothers Jason Guwanbal, Larry Larrtjanna, and Vernon Gurruwiwi, who carry Yolngu songlines, performed in Malaysia.

As well as promoting Indigenous voices, Australia’s soft power—our ability to influence through force of attraction—must also be about openness and truth telling regarding our history.

So, for Australia, in our diplomacy, we must be honest about our past — in particular, how colonisation and further acts of dispossession have led to the gaps we now must close.

This is not something we should shy away from; in fact, being up front about it means Australia can do more to influence global efforts to empower indigenous people.

The rest of the world is more interested in us, and in particular Indigenous Australia, than we sometimes realise.

The world’s oldest living culture is something we’re right to promote.

This is also what the second pillar of the Indigenous Diplomacy Strategy is about: creating more opportunities for Indigenous businesses and entrepreneurs through trade.

Jobs and business ownership have a transformative, multigenerational effect on incomes and life outcomes.

We know that for every $1 of revenue certified Indigenous suppliers generate, there’s over $4 in social return.(2)

As the Indigenous business sector grows in Australia, we want many of those small and medium enterprises to become exporters, benefitting from access to global markets.

Like Gumatj Corporation from Nhulunbuy in Arnhem Land, whose 100 per cent Indigenous-owned training centre and mining operation is generating economic returns for local Yolngu people.

I welcome the fact that Indigenous businesses are becoming increasingly involved in international trade and investment issues, including by making submissions on free trade agreement negotiations.

We’re working with the Indigenous Network for Investment, Trade and Export, appropriately called ‘IGNITE’, who are at the forefront of connecting Indigenous Australians to the global economy.

Founded by Darren Godwell and several entrepreneurs, IGNITE is linking with global policymakers and entrepreneurs to create opportunities for excellence in Indigenous trade and investment.

To inform our trade policy, we’re also seeking to better understand the Indigenous export sector and the particular opportunities these businesses want to pursue.

And, of course, a very direct way DFAT and other Commonwealth agencies contribute to Indigenous business success is through the Indigenous Procurement Policy.

DFAT is a strong supporter of Indigenous procurement, having awarded more than 980 contracts worth over $66 million to Indigenous providers over the last 5 years.

The third pillar of the Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda is about ensuring the global 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development improves development outcomes for indigenous people.

Even though indigenous people comprise about 5 per cent of global population, they account for 15 per cent of the world’s poor.

We recognise that factors leading to inequality often have disproportionate impacts amongst indigenous groups, something only compounded by COVID-19.

As such, our work to promote sustainable development in the Indo-Pacific, including our Partnerships for Recovery strategy in response to COVID-19, accounts for the perspectives and interests of indigenous peoples, tailoring mainstream policies and designing targeted programs too.

Australia brings a special, unique value-add to the table here, with Indigenous Australia helping solve challenges, both at the global level, but also those faced by individual communities.

We want to see more Indigenous Australians winning contracts in our overseas development program and providing peer-to-peer assistance to governments and communities.

Why is this so important?

Well, I think Sheena, the lead on our Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda, puts it best when she says:

“some people may still be wondering what Indigenous Australians, Aboriginal Canadians, Maori or Native Americans can contribute in developing countries that the World Bank, UN agencies or other traditional development actors cannot. Consider this: it is indigenous peoples who know what it’s like to be invisible in mainstream programs that are often imposed without any reference to indigenous perspectives or needs.”

We also work in multilateral bodies including the UN, the G20, and the OECD to ensure their policies consider indigenous people and their interests, which then flows through to how development funding is allocated.

Emily Pugin, a proud descendant of the Kombumerri people of southeast Queensland, currently posted to our mission to the United Nations in Vienna, has made this kind of work a feature of her career.

While working on the Paris climate agreement, she led Australia’s negotiations on indigenous issues.

Recalling her grandmother’s lessons about the connection her people have to the environment, Emily helped ensure that the knowledge of indigenous people would be used to combat climate change.

A great example of a high-impact, local project also dealing with climate change is in Botswana, where world-leading fire management practices developed by Indigenous Australians are being put to use.

For thousands of years, Indigenous Australians have successfully used fire to manage the landscape.

This approach harnesses traditional knowledge to reduce greenhouse emissions and improve land management.

We are exporting this technology through a pilot in Botswana’s Okavango Zambezi region: one of the areas of the world most affected by savanna fires.

Working with partners including the Kimberley Land Council, DFAT has invested $3.87 million over four years to build a global community committed to action on wildfire.

We hope success with the Botswana trial means the program will expand around the world.

The fourth and final pillar of the Agenda, and in some respects the one closest to my heart, is all about our people.

It’s about recruiting and promoting more Indigenous Australians who will make the same kinds of great contributions as the people I’ve mentioned today.

Currently, 3.2 per cent of our staff identify as Indigenous: a number we’re ambitious to grow.

It’s also about investing in these staff, to advance their careers and deploy them overseas to positions where their skillsets are put to best use.

And it’s about making DFAT as a whole a more inclusive and empowering workplace.

Our Diplomatic Academy has developed courses for all staff on ‘Understanding Indigenous Australia’, and to enable them to deliver an Acknowledgement of Country in Ngunnawal language.

The course was designed in collaboration with the Ngunnawal Community and AIATSIS, and has now been completed by some of Australia’s most senior public servants.

This all builds on our own ‘Stretch’ Reconciliation Action Plan, which outlines our vision for reconciliation as one of mutual value, respect, and opportunity, and works alongside the broader Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Workforce Strategy, which aims to embed the voices of First Nations peoples in the leadership of the Australian Public Service.

I should acknowledge, also, the work our portfolio partner agencies in Indigenous Affairs. For instance, I congratulate Tourism Australia. Their board is in town today—it seems everyone is in Darwin at the moment—and they will be launching tonight their fourth Reconciliation Action Plan here on Larrakia country.

Tourism plays a significant role here in the NT, providing economic opportunities for Indigenous people, as well as being a key point of difference for Australia as a destination, so it’s great to see Tourism Australia embracing this initiative, all ready for when borders reopen.

Friends — DFAT’s challenge today, to be an authentically Australian foreign service, is to fully represent and serve our nation.

We must continue to build Indigenous Australia into our diplomacy: its people, its languages, its cultures, and its history.

While the path to reconciliation is long, I’m confident that the Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda will reinforce DFAT’s special contribution, and I ask you to walk with us as we go.

Thank you.

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