Australia’s First Nations People: How Domestic Pressures Manifest Australia’s Pillars of ‘Internationalism’

Australia's First Nations People have long engaged in international diplomatic efforts as part of their political struggle to pursue rights now internalized in international law.

Australia’s First Nations People have long engaged in international diplomatic efforts as part of their political struggle to pursue rights now internalized in international law. While the origins and fate of Australia’s indigenous people remain the subject of intense discourse—-from social inequality to legal representation, to this day, Australia’s First Nations People are still struggling to maintain their ancestral culture and fight for recognition and restitution from the Australian government. In response, in September 2021, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) launched the ‘Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda’ to increase the presence of indigenous issues in Australian foreign policy. In addition, the Albanese government held the 2023 Australian Indigenous Voice Referendum, a proposed law to amend the constitution to recognize the voice of First Nations People in the parliament and executive government of the Commonwealth. However, the referendum failed to pass as more than 60% of Australians refused to vote “no” on the measure. For many Aboriginal Australians, the failure of this referendum was seen as a devastating blow.

With this in mind, this paper intends to accomplish two things: first, to review how Australia’s foreign policy towards First Nation People emerges from domestic incentives and pressures, shaping Australia’s ‘internationalist’ orientation. Secondly, to offer recommendations for the following steps to achieve an inclusive foreign policy for First Nation People in Australia. Using a neoclassical realist perspective as an analytical tool, this paper argues that domestic political tendencies, ideational factors and public attitudes can play an intervening role in shaping Australia’s foreign policy outcomes. As such, applying a neoclassical realist framework can assist this paper in understanding the ongoing shift in Australia’s foreign policy orientation towards First Nation People.

From ‘UNDRIP’ to ‘Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda’: The Progressivity of Domestic Pressure on Australia’s Foreign Policy Orientation

Over the past two decades, the Australian public has been immersed in heated debates over the Uluru Statement and Votes for Parliament. However, few Australians may be aware that the political struggles of Australia’s First Nations People have always had an international dimension: they have been involved in a decolonized and localized global political movement fighting for self-determination for many years. This consistent call successfully urged Australia to sign the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) based on mutual recognition and respect. UNDRIP provides opportunities for indigenous representation and recognition of indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge, culture and practices. Adherence to its articles will help build a respectful relationship between indigenous peoples and the government. Pugin (2023) calls it one of the most significant achievements in the historical horizon of Australian Indigenous diplomacy. Also, the collective domestic pressure from First Nations people—and the public—-pushed Australia to focus more on addressing bureaucratically centralized issues, culminating in 2021 with the Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda. The agenda is a follow-up to the Indigenous People’s Strategy (2015-2019), which recognizes that the Australian government needs to develop a better relationship with First Nations people. Reporting from the DFAT website (2023), the Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda reflects the Australian Government’s commitment to work with Indigenous Australians for a world where Indigenous peoples’ rights and traditions are respected, where open markets facilitate the free flow of trade, capital and ideas to Indigenous businesses, and where Indigenous peoples are the beneficiaries of the international system. The agenda has four objectives:

  1. Establish international norms and standards that benefit Indigenous Peoples.
  2. Maximize opportunities for Indigenous Peoples in a globalized world.
  3. Promote sustainable development for all Indigenous Peoples.
  4. Send Indigenous diplomats to advance Australia’s national interests.

In a neoclassical realist lens, Australia’s move to be more inclusive in championing Indigenous rights in its foreign policy direction is driven by consistent domestic incentives and pressures by First Nations people and the public. Australia’s commitment to good international citizenship is steered by a moral obligation to preserve human dignity by raising human rights standards globally. This is what Wong (2019) defines as the pillar of ‘Internationalism’, which forms the basis of Australia’s foreign policy orientation. Australian-style Internationalism stems from the proposition that Australia recognizes the importance of global interdependence, where Australia cooperates with other countries to achieve mutual benefits. This Internationalism reflects the pragmatic observation that particular interests can only be pursued effectively with international cooperation. By actively engaging in a transformative move to integrate the unique perspectives and experiences of Australia’s First Nations People into the core of development practice and policy, Australia is enhancing its reputation and legitimacy on the international political stage as good international citizenship, thereby enhancing the global reputation of Australia. On the one hand, the Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda is a significant first step, with Blackwell (2021) calling it a “strong step in the right direction for Australian foreign policy“. On the other hand, Australia’s focus on First Nations People can also be seen as an attempt to build positive legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. By supporting the rights of First Nations People, Australia can enhance its reputation as a country committed to human values, sustainability and human rights. In the future, Australia can gain international support and create a basis for cooperation across sectors with various international actors.              

               However, domestic political turmoil continues. From the side of First Nations People—and the public, the Australian government has not been perceived as too progressive, and there is even a view that this agenda seems to only utilize Indigenous Peoples for benefits in assisting the mainstream (global norms) without regard to what contributions First Nations might want. The following section will elaborate on how Australia’s domestic political dynamics towards First Nations People affect Australia’s foreign policy of ‘internationalism’.

Public Criticism Towards the Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda: Australia’s Poor International Reputation?

               Foreign policy expresses a country’s fundamental values that become its external face and represent its aspirations in the international system. In November 2023, Australians overwhelmingly rejected a national referendum that would have recognized Indigenous Australians in its constitution and established an advisory group to consider relevant issues in parliament. Although most Indigenous voters said ‘yes’ to the proposal, more than 60% of Australians voted ‘no’. The proposal failed for diverse reasons, ranging from the worst political-campaign dynamics in history, a lack of bipartisanship with leaders of the main conservative parties campaigning for a ‘no’ vote, a lack of support among migrant communities, and many others. The failure was responded to by First Nations People with ‘a week of silence‘, lowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags to half-mast for a week and urging others to do the same. This was a significant setback for reconciliation efforts with First Nations people in Australia and damaged Australia’s image in the eyes of the world in terms of its treatment of Indigenous people. Compared to other countries with similar histories- Canada and New Zealand- Australia has yet to formally recognize or reach agreements with First Nations People. Not only that, the Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda has also been heavily criticized by First Nations People. DFAT’s rhetoric in this agenda must be questioned as its terms of reference were developed without significant consultation with First Nations peoples and accountability mechanisms. This raises some concerns regarding the legitimacy of using First Nations bureaucrats in the consultation process, as the current institutions only seek to place Indigenous peoples in a system that was not designed for them without their involvement and recognition of their perspectives. When policymakers do this, it is not First Nations setting the agenda for their destiny. Instead, the governments are dictating the terms of participation (“……much of Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda is done to First Nations, rather than with them.”).

               Domestic pressure and relatively negative public attitudes towards the Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda will, in turn, shape the (ideational) perception that Australia does not value the principle of equality and allows discrimination against certain groups, particularly First Nations People. The failure of the referendum and the procedural and substantial flaws in the Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda have great potential to cause a loss of trust from other countries, international organizations, and private institutions that may wish to cooperate with Australia, as countries and international organizations tend to view the rights of indigenous peoples as an integral part of holistic human rights. Cross-border cooperation and international projects may also be hindered if Australia’s reputation regarding indigenous peoples’ rights is tainted.

In addressing this, there are two main challenges for Australia in achieving a foreign policy that is inclusive of First Nations peoples: first, the existence of First Nations peoples in the foreign policy sphere and the challenges they pose to dominant perspectives. Second, including the participation of First Nations peoples in the foreign policy design process. The solution to these challenges is clear: structural reform. In the legal sector, First Nations people need equal participation and engagement, which will only be achieved if First Nations people are represented at the negotiating table. In addition, the Australian government-including DFAT-can initiate proactive measures to forge partnerships with First Nations People: in terms of staffing and recruitment, First Nations people bring a wealth of wisdom and ancestral knowledge, which is essential to ensure that diverse perspectives contribute to policy formulation. In addition, First Nations People’s values and governance structures are also rooted in a worldview that includes sustainability and relationships not only with people, but also with the state. The First Nations People’s capability to care for the country is something Australia can incorporate to deal with global challenges, such as climate change. A First Nations People-based worldview can challenge traditional policy approaches while shifting our understanding of fundamental issues and principles in foreign policy. Support for the principles contained in UNDRIP and the enshrinement of First Nations People in the constitution can play a critical role in achieving this inclusivity. Both are tools that can ensure that governments and bureaucracies uphold the rights of First Nations People while providing levers to ensure accountability. These suggested actions create a foundation for structural change within Australia’s status quo government and institutions so that policy development can reflect an inclusive Australia domestically and internationally.

As such, a country’s foreign policy reflects its values and identity on the global stage. The pillars of Australia’s ‘internationalism’ are formed not only from a reflection of national interests but also from the role of domestic politics in intervening in Australia’s foreign policy orientation. How the Australian government engages with First Nations People demonstrates democracy, diplomacy, and how Australia views human rights globally. Inclusiveness towards First Nations People is crucial as a form of commitment to human rights and to maintain Australia’s reputation, legitimacy and continued existence in international politics.

Muhammad Raafi
Muhammad Raafi
A lifelong humanitarian and undergraduate International Relations Student at Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia. Interested in Human Rights and Climate Change Studies. Currently works as a Research and Development staff at the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) Chapter Universitas Gadjah Mada.