28 September 2022
First Nations ambassador
Last week, the Australian government announced that it was seeking applicants for an Ambassador for First Nations People to head a new Office of First Nations Engagement within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). This follows the launch of DFAT’s Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda last year, which seeks to promote norms and standards that are beneficial to indigenous peoples globally and make greater use of Australia’s Indigenous population as a diplomatic resource.
Indigenous Australians can reach communities overseas that traditional diplomacy would struggle with. They have forged strong bonds with First Nations peoples in New Zealand and Canada who have suffered similar acts of dispossession, and Australia has much to learn from the way those two countries have sought to give their indigenous populations a greater stake in their state affairs. Understanding these experiences is not only important for developing pathways to Indigenous prosperity, but also for building empathy, which is an essential diplomatic tool.
Indigenous perspectives can also enhance Australia’s broader foreign policy objectives, particularly within the Pacific. The Indigenous term “Country” refers to a complex web of traditional laws and practices, spiritual belief and relationship to the environment. It is complementary to the “Blue Pacific” – the collective concept of Pacific island countries that seeks to demonstrate their relationship and sense of responsibility towards the Pacific Ocean.
The role of Ambassador for First Nations People is not a narrow one concerned only with direct Indigenous concerns, but a new arm of Australia’s communication with the world – an arm which will enhance Australia’s reach.
China and Putin
At the United Nations General Assembly last week, Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, urged China to use its influence on Russia to end the invasion of Ukraine. Wong’s view was that China, as an emerging superpower and a permanent member of the Security Council, has a responsibility to defend the principle of state sovereignty in the international system. As the only major power with friendly relations with Moscow, Beijing should play a more active role in restraining Russian president Vladimir Putin, especially after his thinly veiled threat last week of using nuclear weapons.
Beijing would not be pleased by the global economic effects of the invasion, and it has been careful not to provide any material support for Russia for fear of attracting Western sanctions. Yet it is likely that Beijing sees the Western support for Ukraine as entrenching a Western hegemony that it finds constraining. An embarrassing Russian retreat would be a victory for Western ideals and, therefore, an important ideological boost for Washington in its competition with Beijing.
While Australia may hope that Beijing could simply end the conflict with a phone call, it is unclear just how much influence China has on Russia. Beijing has economic leverage, but it would not be easy for a prideful man like Putin to submit to the direction of a more powerful force. His invasion of Ukraine was meant to create a Russian puppet state. It would be a hard pill to swallow if it ended with Russia becoming one instead.
Fossil fuel treaty
Vanuatu’s president, Nikenike Vurobaravu, used his address at the United Nations General Assembly last week to call for the establishment of a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. The treaty would create a legally binding framework to end new fossil fuel exploration and the expansion of current projects, phase out existing production in line with commitments to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and pursue an equitable transition to renewable energy.
The idea has its roots in the Suva Declaration of 2015 from the Pacific Islands Development Forum, which called for a moratorium on new fossil fuel projects, especially coalmines. It was subsequently adopted by a number of academics, NGOs and activists, before the treaty was devised in 2020. The treaty has also been endorsed by the Vatican and the World Health Organization, and almost seventy cities and subnational governments around the world, including the Sydney City Council and the ACT government, as well as London, Paris, Los Angeles, Toronto and the Hawaii state legislature.
By using the language of “non-proliferation” the treaty seeks to evoke the same sense of gravity that surrounds the spread of nuclear weapons and highlight that fossil fuels have serious destructive capabilities. Vurobaravu is hoping that his advocacy will inspire other national leaders to follow, although Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, whose government released ten new sites for oil and gas exploration in August, may not be one of them.