"Labor will 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 in the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade,” promised Australia’s now-Foreign Minister Penny Wong during a pre-election speech in May. 

Now, months after Wong’s pledge, the true enormity of achieving such a task is only just being made clear.

Below, we unpack exactly what the phrase “foreign policy” means here, and the complexities that may arise when attempting to embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander practices into the way Australia interacts with other countries. 

Read on to find out why such a policy is being prioritised, and how Australia can ensure it creates substantive change.

What Does the Phrase “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 will prioritise in its foreign policy approach will be different too. A nation's foreign policy purpose typically centres around defending its national interests and then spreading the importance of those national interests to others. As a result, principles Australia has long held close — say, 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 Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. 

As the world's oldest continuous culture, Indigenous Australians have an incredibly rich heritage that stretches back tens of thousands of years. This shared culture among Australia's First Peoples continues to shape Indigenous identity today, with storytelling considered the beating heart of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tradition. To deliver a First Nations foreign policy would ultimately see First Nations perspectives and practices incorporated into Australia's international diplomacy.

What Would a Robust First Nations Foreign Policy Actually Achieve? 

The benefits of such an approach to foreign policy are twofold. 

According to Wiradyuri man James Blackwell — a research fellow in Indigenous diplomacy at the Australian National University — the unique way Indigenous Australians view philosophy, human nature and the very existence of the universe add exceptional value to conversations on a range of foreign policy topics.

"Such approaches have immense value if one is reconsidering how to tackle issues of mutual importance for the globe such as climate change and natural resources, but even things such as conflict resolution and global economic management," Blackwell told Global Citizen.

Secondly, it offers Australia a shared commonality and advantage when engaging with countries with their own sovereign First Nations peoples, like Canada, the United States, Indonesia, the Philippines, Mexico and Colombia. 

"By focussing and centring a First Nations position, Australian international relations will become more reflective of who we are as a nation, and the 'place' we occupy on the world stage as a settler-colonial state on stolen (and unceded) First Nations land," Blackwell adds. "This has the potential to reform how we conduct business … and on relations with other states."

Are There Any Countries That Have Tried to Achieved This Goal Already?

In February last year, New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, the first Maori woman in that role, outlined a bold foreign policy plan that deeply incorporated Maori world views. The principles of kindness, goodwill, connectedness, respect for the land and shared aspiration were now seen as absolute cornerstones of the nation’s approach to international affairs.

Last month, Wong applauded her New Zealand counterpart after their first in-person meeting.

"We can learn a lot from your country,” Wong said

She added: "I read a couple of speeches from Foreign Minister Mahuta in preparation for this [meeting] where she talked about concepts, Maori concepts, that were important to her foreign policy. They were extraordinarily powerful. They're not speeches I could give yet.”

The ultimate success of New Zealand’s new foreign policy approach is still being unveiled. 

What Must Leaders Consider in Order to Succeed?

While the notion of a First Nations foreign policy sounds ideal, experts in the field have warned of the risk of perpetuating the exploitation of Indigenous peoples. Many are citing decades of Australian policies that either take advantage of Indigenous culture and knowledge or simply fail to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals at all. 

"The kinds of policies that fail are ones which prioritise an extractive relationship with First Nations and First Nations peoples, seeking to 'mine' us solely for the advantages 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 critical. 

"First Nations people need to be genuine partners with the government, rather than stakeholders to be consulted after the fact. Two, we need to be involved in genuine co-design and consultation with our communities around Australia, and three, we must be engaged in the process from beginning to end, and even beyond, and have mutually respectful dialogues maintained throughout."

Global Citizen Explains

Demand Equity

Australia Has Promised to Deliver a First Nations Foreign Policy. What Does That Mean?

By Madeleine Keck