The interplay between the National Agreement and First Nations Foreign Policy

By Sarah Leary

The Productivity Commission has released its first review of progress on the National Agreement on Closing the Gap. Will Australia’s foreign affairs portfolio respond to the call for change?

All Australian governments – and all commonwealth agencies – have obligations under the National Agreement on Closing the Gap – but what precisely does this mean for the foreign affairs portfolio? 

A sweeping three-year review by the Productivity Commission released last week, found governments have not fulfilled their commitments under the National Agreement.  

This is a wake-up call from the Productivity Commission’s top policy rationalists that the current approach taken by departments and public servants – to overcome the entrenched disadvantage faced by First Nations Australians – is neither productive nor efficient.  

In delivering Australia’s international engagement abroad, Austrade and DFAT officials – our hardworking trade promoters and trade negotiators, policy officers and development practitioners – may assume the National Agreement does not directly apply to their work.  

It is possible some officials have never read the National Agreement, believing it to be domestic matter with limited relevance to the work of foreign policy.  

This is a misconception that needs addressing.  

The National Agreement is Australia’s flagship development blueprint to improve socio-economic outcomes for First Nations peoples in health, employment, justice and education.  

While the National Agreement sets 19 national socio-economic targets in the domestic context – the agreement itself if built around four Priority Reforms directly shaped by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  

These four reforms – around formal partnerships and shared-decision making; building the community-controlled sector; transforming government organisations and sharing access to data – are directly relevant to Australia’s foreign affairs portfolio.  

The four reforms matter to the foreign affairs portfolio if First Nations people are to take their rightful place on our national and international stage – in business and trade, in climate action and the arts, in international law and finance, education, sport and more.  

The National Agreement commits all parties – including the foreign affairs portfolio – to embed these four reforms within their broader policies, programs, culture and practices to change the way governments work to improve life outcomes for Indigenous Australians.  

The formation of DFAT’s Office for First Nations International Engagement in 2023 and the appointment of an Ambassador for First Nations People is an important step towards mainstreaming First Nations issues within Australia’s foreign affairs portfolio.  

The emphasis on localisation and First Nations engagement in Australia’s New International Development Policy is another positive sign of change.  

But at its core, Priority Reform 1 is about enacting structural changes to ensure decisions are made jointly. It means shifting away from consulting with First Nations on pre-determined policies and proposals and moving towards a way of working where priorities are identified together.  

Elevating the perspectives of First Nations Australians in Australian foreign policy will naturally take time – and that feels hard, maybe even too hard – but it makes sense and has to be done if we are to tell Australia’s full story, grounded in the rich heritage of our First Nations peoples. Doing so opens new ways to engaging with partners in our region – but it also opens doors for Australia’s First Nations people too.  

It is here where DFAT and Austrade’s efforts in supporting First Nations leaders to lead on the international policies and issues that impact their lives will not just be judged by the outcomes achieved, but by the process these institutions adopt along the way. This requires fundamental changes to “how” foreign and trade policy is designed and delivered.  

Embedding the priority reforms requires institutional transformation and change. In the words of the Productivity Commission, it requires “fundamentally rethinking government systems, culture and ways of working.” It also requires reporting precisely how that transformation is progressing, as well as identifying ongoing barriers and their solutions.  

The life of a diplomat happens at pace – developing policy, designing programs, negotiating trade agreements, hosting international visits and summits – often simultaneously. This pace inevitably leads to a highly transactional environment – where stakeholders are “engaged” and “consulted” as “participants” rather than actively involved in decision-making processes.  

Time constraints do not negate the obligations of government institutions to implement their obligations under the National Agreement around shared decision making with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  

For Austrade and DFAT, this means moving away from the business-as-usual modes of First Nations “consultation” and “participation.” Consultation does not mean partnership. Nor does it reflect the spirit and intent of the National Agreement.  

In trade, development or foreign policy – a shift needs to occur towards the meaningful inclusion of First Nations peoples in how Australia’s foreign policy priorities and programs are developed and decided, and how they are delivered.  

As noted above, the establishment of the of Office of First Nations engagement at DFAT is a tangible step in DFAT’s journey towards implementing aspects of the National Agreement.  

But the priority reforms call for broader changes to how government institutions work.  

Here are ten practical examples illustrating what can be done by the foreign affairs portfolio to strengthen its compliance against the National Agreement:  

  1. If the portfolio is not mandating the consistent inclusion of First Nations businesses in trade missions touring markets abroad – why not? What would change look like?   
  1. If the portfolio is making decisions determining the export readiness of a First Nations company seeking to trade internationally, then First Nations trade experts should have a seat at the table in countering those assumptions.   
  1. If a trade negotiating team is deliberating whether to include or not include Indigenous exemptions under the chapters of a prospective trade agreement – then First Nations people need to be actively involved in making that decision, yay or nay. 
  1. If Australia is sending an official delegation to an international multilateral event (e.g. on topics of climate action or human rights or gender equality or trade) – how are decisions made about the composition of that delegation?  
  1. If First Nations participants are selected to join an official Australian delegation, are they also given the time, space and opportunity to meaningfully shape Australia’s negotiating priorities and positions?  
  1. If an Australian-hosted diplomatic event is being developed with a First Nations focus – are First Nations peoples actively involved in shaping and delivering the event, beyond participation and performance?  
  1. If external grant guidelines have been written by the portfolio for a First Nations-facing grant initiative, have First Nations peoples been meaningfully involved in the drafting of those grant guidelines? Has a collaborative co-design process occurred?  
  1. If an Australian aid contract is awarded to a non-Indigenous supplier on the basis of their cultural capability credentials, who is assessing the bonafides of those claims?  
  1. If First Nations personnel are included in aid tender proposals – have those First Nations personnel been given agency and choice over the scope of their contracted roles and contributions?  
  1. If Australian land and waters are being promoted to international investors for any purpose – in mining or clean energy, in carbon markets, property or tourism – are the Australian Government’s commitments – as enshrined in the National Agreement – to increase in Australia’s landmass subject to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s legal rights or interests – being communicated? If the answer is no, then this needs to be front and centre of Australia’s future investment promotion messaging.  

The National Agreement on Closing the Gap belongs to all Australians. It is independent. It is non-political. It is designed to make public expenditure more effective and efficient.  

It is the responsibility of all governments – and all Commonwealth agencies – to grasp the nature of the change required to meet the obligations they have signed up to under the agreement. The foreign affairs portfolio is no exception.  

The ten practical examples above are a few areas where thoughtful action – and meaningful institutional change – might be considered.  

As other Commonwealth agencies have shown, a useful way to drive transformation under the Priority Reforms is to establish a Closing the Gap unit to drive implementation across all aspects of the organisations corporate culture, to build staff capability, track actions and measure progress over time.  

Agencies that opt against having a standalone Closing the Gap Unit within their corporate structures will attract attention from the Productivity Commission in future.  

You can read more about the Productivity Commission’s report here – including the Productivity Commission’s proposed remedial actions for government agencies seeking to rethink their systems, culture and ways of working. 

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