Bridging the gap: localisation and shared decision making in First Nations Foreign Policy

By Sarah Leary

Australia’s unsuccessful referendum on the Voice to Parliament has clear consequences for Australia’s reputation in the region and how Australia responds will be monitored closely by our neighbours.
In explaining the campaign and its key tenets to curious international stakeholders, representatives from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) are on the frontline.
Australian diplomats are also reflecting on how they can keep reconciliation alive through their words and deeds as trade, development and policy practitioners.
In meeting with emerging leaders from Papua New Guinea directly after the referendum result, Australia’s Ambassador for First Nations People, Justin Mohamed  sent an important signal that the government remains staunchly committed to driving a First Nations approach to foreign policy.
Justin Mohamed’s role includes an unenviably broad list of priorities: from embedding Australian First Nations’ perspectives into all facets of DFAT’s work, to building internal cultural capability at DFAT, to conducting a high pace of domestic consultations and international visits with a First Nations focus.
Within this busy agenda, Justin Mohamed’s reputation as a respected figure in Australia’s social justice movement should not be forgotten. As Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People in Victoria he played a prominent role in promoting Victoria’s Aboriginal Justice Caucus – a crucial forum that provides state-wide Aboriginal representation, leadership and voice.
The referendum campaign brought about a national conversation on the role and importance of community-led change. This movement continues. It is here where Justin Mohamed – one of Australia’s leading practitioners in supporting genuine shared decision-making – has important learnings to convey to DFAT staff.
This is a strategic area where the Ambassador for First Nations People – and proactive allies within DFAT– can provide purpose, energy and influence.
Firstly, it is crucial that all DFAT staff are encouraged to read, discuss, and understand the National Agreement on Closing the Gap. DFAT’s focus on promoting First Nations excellence internationally has often come at the expense of understanding development challenges at home. While rarely discussed in diplomatic circles, the National Agreement is core business for most Australian Public Service (APS) agencies. It was built around what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people say is important to improve their lives. All governments and all departments are signatories to the National Agreement.
After reviewing the National Agreement, DFAT staff must be encouraged to review the Australian Government’s recently released International Development Policy with fresh eyes.
Australia’s new development policy makes 52 references to localisation – including commitments to support local leaders and fund local-led approaches to development change. Coincidentally, the policy also makes 52 references to engaging First Nations Australians in the development program.
DFAT’s localisation agenda should be seen in the context of a broader national shift towards place-based and local-led policy and service delivery. Though the new development policy equally prioritises both localisation and First Nations engagement, the two concepts often sit in isolation to one another, despite clearly being closely aligned.
So how can understanding the National Agreement in the context of  Australia’s new development policy improve Australian foreign policy in practice?
It is clear that business as usual in how Australia delivers development assistance in the Indo-Pacific is no longer realistic, or indeed politically palatable. Determining programs and policies for other countries, without genuinely involving partner-governments or beneficiaries in how they are designed, delivered and evaluated, weakens the effectiveness of Australian aid and Australia’s credibility as a partner that listens. For Australia’s brand of development assistance to endure in an ever more competitive donor landscape – merely seeking local “input” for how we deliver funding is not enough. 
It is here where the National Agreement’s emphasis on genuine partnership and co-design is a powerful training resource for DFAT staff and development contractors seeking to better embed Indigenous ways of “being and knowing” into their work.
The National Agreement commits all governments to work in genuine partnership from the moment a new procurement, program or design is conceived. It also encourages public officials to ask hard questions about how they do business.  In the context of Australia’s First Nations Foreign Policy and localisation agendas, this means asking questions around the composition of decision-making panels before a design team is assembled. It means interrogating the diversity and composition of design teams once selected. It means genuinely involving local governments and champions in jointly authorising new initiatives once designed, rather than seeking a rubber stamp. It means ensuring majority-representation of local leaders, local experts and consultants and local staff responsible for driving implementation of initiatives in their own countries.
The answers to these questions reflect a fundamental shift in how DFAT does development. It will take time to learn new ways of thinking and doing. And it will take time to unlearn the old ways. It will involve taking more risks in working with new or unknown development partners and personnel. It will require courage to adopt more collaborative authorisation approaches, and new ways of accepting locally driven monitoring and evaluation styles.
The good news for DFAT is that the organisation is not starting from scratch. A development transformation is already underway here at home providing ample lessons and learnings; from community-led justice reinvestment and disaster resilience, or place-based approaches to improving service delivery in health and education in remote communities.  There is clearly much that DFAT’s localisation agenda can adapt from these approaches.
This is where Justin Mohamed’s background in social policy and shared decision-making CAN provide crisp insights for the implementation DFAT’s new development policy, and in lifting cultural capability within DFAT.
At this time of heightened geostrategic contest, ensuring Australia’s international development program becomes more durable, relevant and inclusive of local voices – informed by First Nations development practices – is clearly in Australia’s strategic interests.
Sarah Leary is a master’s student at the London School of Economics and former First Nations Australian diplomat and journalist. At DFAT she served on postings to Solomon Islands, Cambodia, Vietnam and the United States between 2010 and 2022.

Sarah has driven major new foreign policy initiatives as part of the Australian Government’s Pacific Step-Up, Mekong Australia Partnership, Vietnam Economic, Vietnam Enhanced Economic Engagement Strategy, Pacific Private Sector Development Initiative and Pacific Women. She specialises in economic development, gender equality and sports diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific. As advisor to Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls, Sarah supported Australia’s successful UN Human Rights Council campaign with a focus on gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. She represented Australia at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2012.

She is First Nations Foreign Policy Honorary Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre. Recently serving as Director at the Australian Attorney-General’s Department, she led the design of a flagship national initiative to support First Nations-led approaches to reducing First Nations incarceration through community-led justice reinvestment. She is a proud Palawa woman from Lutruwita, Tasmania. In 2022 Sarah was named Young Alumni of the Year by the University of Tasmania, where she completed a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Media in 2013. She is a former journalist with Fairfax Media.

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