Australia needs to commit to a bipartisan First Nations Foreign Policy

By Sheena Graham and Dr Huon Curtis

After the failure of The Voice, Australia needs to commit to a bipartisan First Nations Foreign Policy

The recent failure of Australia’s referendum to enshrine an Indigenous Voice to parliament in its constitution is devastating. But from a regional perspective, this blow isn’t an isolated one. It occurs at a time when the human rights of indigenous people across the Indo-Pacific are under increasing threat.   

In this environment, there has never been a more important time for Australian foreign policy makers to step up and advance the interests of indigenous peoples, both at home and overseas. Part of that step-up must include renewed commitment to Indigenous Foreign Policy. 

The Voice didn’t fail in a vacuum – indigenous human rights are under threat globally 

In 2023, indigenous human rights are being eroded, worldwide. This trend includes Asia, where two-thirds of the world’s indigenous peoples live. And those threats to indigenous human rights are life and death matters – the UN reported in 2023 that indigenous human rights defenders across the world continue to be persecuted, murdered or disappeared.  

The shrinking space for civil society and indigenous human rights defenders in Asia and worldwide is part of a broader trend of authoritarian States seeking to weaken the rule of international law and human rights; so that they are free to persecute people without accountability.  

Australia is yet to grapple with this challenge. For example, our new development policy is all but silent on the plight of indigenous people in Asia grappling with extreme poverty, political persecution from their own governments, and who are locked out of economic opportunities in the very region that is the economic powerhouse for the world. 

In tandem, indigenous issues have become highly politicised between UN Member States. For example, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from the Philippines had once been labelled a terrorist by her own government; a Uyghur leader in exile in Germany was forcibly removed from the UN several times. Many more indigenous leaders have been persecuted too. 

These developments in the Indo-Pacific and the UN concern all of us. Because if authoritarian States succeed in weakening the UN system to silence indigenous human rights defenders, then no one will be safe to speak out against human rights abuses.  

This the global context in which the Voice referendum failed.  Our next steps matter, for Indigenous Australians and indigenous peoples in our region. So where does Australia go from here? 

Indigenous Foreign Policy must be part of the response 

Australia’s political leaders may now be tempted to retreat from international leadership on indigenous foreign policy.  But that would be a mistake. Now is the precisely time that there needs to be a sharper articulation of Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s vision for a First Nations approach to foreign policy and the role of the new Ambassador for First Nations People

For the record, indigenous foreign policy is not new and nor has it ever been partisan. 

Indigenous Australian diplomats in Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) have been tackling some of the most pressing challenges facing the international community for decades. 

Over 20 years ago, DFAT’s Indigenous Australian diplomats pioneered the establishment of DFAT’s Indigenous Taskforce (ITF) so they could have a direct voice to senior management about the issues facing Indigenous people worldwide. 

At the urging of Indigenous diplomats, and under the oversight of the Indigenous Taskforce, DFAT released first its Indigenous Peoples Strategy (2015-2019) and later its Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda (2021) to harness Australia’s foreign policy for maximum impact for indigenous peoples worldwide.  

Thanks to Indigenous Australian diplomats, DFAT is the first and only foreign ministry in the world to integrate indigenous issues across its foreign policy, trade and economic policy, development program and public diplomacy for maximum impact worldwide. 

Outside of DFAT, numerous Indigenous Australian community leaders have been elected to formal positions of influence in the UN and have been at the forefront of global efforts to protect the interests of indigenous peoples.  

These are worthy achievements of national significance, led by Indigenous Australians.  

The Voice referendum failed, but Indigenous Australian diplomats in DFAT will continue to innovate and influence, as they always have in securing Australia’s interests.   

Lessons from the Voice’s failure and a call to action for Australia’s leaders 

The weaponization of the lives of indigenous peoples is not new.  That knowledge didn’t lessen the pain of the Voice campaign, which saw the brutality of populist politics play out on our shores. Misinformation re-framed a gesture of democratic inclusion as a threat and weakened our body politic.  

Reflecting these lessons in the new policy framework for First Nations Foreign Policy will take concerted effort, alongside ensuring that Australia has the bravery to be honest in its own failures domestically while standing strong as a staunch defender of democratic freedoms and human rights globally. 

The struggle for indigenous justice has always been led by indigenous peoples. Let’s hope that the lesson from the Voice campaign is that the Government and the Foreign Minister will step up and use their foreign policy levers to protect indigenous human rights defenders whose voices speak the truth. 

These are the views and opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of any entities they represent or have represented. 

About the authors

Sheena Graham is a Ngadju woman from Western Australia with over 18 years’ experience in global indigenous human rights. Sheena is a former Board member for Amnesty International Australia and a former diplomat from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Sheena specialised in both development policy and multilateral human rights policy at the UN General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council. She worked with more than 140 Indigenous employees in DFAT to advance Australia’s foreign policy interests, including authoring DFAT’s 2015-2019 Indigenous Peoples Strategy and 2021 Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda. Sheena currently works on global human rights policy in the private sector. 

Dr. Huon Curtis is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian National University Tech Policy Design Centre. He authored a whole-of-organisation strategy on Indigenous participation and procurement for the Australian Department of Defence while working at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.  

Subscribe to our email list

Subscribe to our email list and stay up to date with our latest news and events. Unsubscribe any time.