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New Development Policy harnesses Indigenous leadership to tackle regional Indo-Pacific priorities

Michaela Cullen | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow

Secretary Blinken Participates in the Indo-Pacific Quad Meeting. Image credit: Ron Przysucha via Wikicommons Media.

The launch of Australia’s new International Development Policy marks a new chapter in its international relations, aiming to enhance Indigenous leadership and strengthen bilateral ties in the Indo-Pacific. A policy summary released by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) defines objectives of a “peaceful, stable, and prosperous” Indo-Pacific, which includes goals of enhancing support for gender equality, developing a new humanitarian strategy to deliver results for people affected by crises and build resilience, as well as tackling regional issues of climate change and healthcare. Importantly, the introduction of the policy also marks the first time that First Nations peoples’ experiences will be directly integrated into policy, revealing a progressive step forward from the Labor government in initiating inclusive diplomatic ties.

The Development Policy outlines commitments made in the May 2023 Federal Budget with investments in “program design, monitoring and evaluation, procurement and transparency” which includes fostering “cooperation between First Nations Australians and regional partners.” The Policy says that the Ambassador for First Nations People in Australia will take the lead in integrating viewpoints and experiences of First Nations Australians when promoting collaboration with regional partners. However, the current challenge lies in determining how  to effectively integrate First Nations knowledge and perspectives into the formulation of policies and diplomacy. The Government’s lack of clarity in defining the role of the Ambassador calls into question the extent of their commitment toward ensuring progressive developments and engagement between First Nations people in Australia and internationally, particularly following the Voice to Parliament referendum defeat

One aspect of the policy explores the priority of climate action within the region, providing the Government with an opportunity to ensure Indigenous representation is heard in climate change mitigation. Prominent Indigenous academic Bhiamie Williamson wrote that Indigenous peoples have “enormous capacity” to enhance Australia's resilience to the climate crisis through extensive cultural knowledge spanning ancient climate change events, claiming “everyone stands to lose” when Indigenous voices are excluded from climate discussions. For decades, First Nations Australians have called for responsible climate policy as experts report the loss of ecosystem functions, the introduction of non-native species, and changes in environmental patterns across both land and sea from climate change, as well as detriment to land through land use and pollution, are already adversely affecting Indigenous communities. Within the geopolitical realm of the Indo-Pacific, commitments to address climate change are weak despite already apparent regional consequences.

However, the climate goals addressed within the new International Development Policy outlines various initiatives to showcase a regional commitment to tackling climate change, including locally-led partnerships with Vanuatu in building the skills to “grow its economy, adapt to climate change, and drive low-carbon growth in tourism, agribusiness, handicraft, and construction sectors,” as well as partnerships with Palau to reduce its “dependence on imported fossil fuels in support of low-emissions, climate resilient development.” With the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives, strengthened ties can be achieved through knowledge sharing, as the regional significance of Indigenous geopolitics should not be overstated. Effective integration of  Indigenous expertise in Australia may therefore be essential to building resilience against issues like climate change, not only on a national scale, but also by enhancing First Nations Australian participation on the regional level. 

Additionally, The Policy claims the need for strengthened commitments toward knowledge sharing to improve health systems across the region, stating the objective to “play our part to strengthen global health architecture, so our region is better prepared for future shocks.” Indigenous Australian communities often have valuable knowledge about holistic health and wellbeing, which when shared can  contribute to discussions on public health policies, healthcare systems, and preventing diseases, fostering collaboration in the Indo-Pacific region to tackle health challenges. While the policy outlines vulnerability of health systems during the COVID-19 pandemic, research into Indigenous health management during the pandemic found there were six times fewer Covid-19 cases within First Nations communities than in non-Indigenous communities after Indigenous leaders took control of demands for “prevention, diagnosis and treatment, as well as housing, social and medical support.”

Article 27 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples mandates a transparent and participatory approach in decision-making concerning Indigenous Peoples, and as an endorser, the Australian Government should be aware of the traditional practices that could build resilience to major health issues, and allow strategies to be shaped through shared knowledge. Medical anthropologist Sarah Bourke says that “there is a lot of knowledge already in communities about what works for our health, but it isn’t heard enough through the current processes,” therefore fostering a community of nations that draw from Indigenous knowledge to strengthen challenges unforeseen resolved and prepare for the future.

Australia’s new International Development Policy marks a significant stride in the nation's commitment to regional prosperity and stability. The intended centrality of Indigenous leadership within the policy promises substantial benefits for Australian interests with neighbouring nations through incorporating previously-excluded perspectives, providing rich new insights on regional issues.  The current policy outline demonstrates a step towards the inclusion of Indigenous leadership in geopolitical policies. If effectively implemented, Australia will be better positioned to tackle regional issues that have otherwise been neglected or failed to have been effectively addressed, including climate change and health, within the Indo-Pacific. If Indigenous leadership is integrated effectively, there is great potential for progression in aiding regional issues and could therefore positively impact Australia’s own geopolitical relations across the Indo-Pacific region.

Michaela Cullen is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She is currently studying journalism at the University of Technology Sydney, where she often contributes to the student journalism hub Central News.

She is a current Facilitator, Development Officer and Editor for United Nations Youth NSW and brings a passion for international affairs and politics to her work. Her role as Editor-in-Chief of the Global Advocate for UN Youth has allowed her to work with a diverse team of editors and contributors to explore human rights and global relations.


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