Indigenous Diplomats and Australia-Asia Engagement

By Melissa Conley Tyler, Director, Asialink Diplomacy,
and Guest Contributor, University of Melbourne

This week is National Reconciliation Week: the perfect time to reflect on the value of Indigenous cultures in Australian diplomacy and Australia-Asia engagement.

Australia is well-represented by Indigenous Australian diplomats, with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade above the public service average in terms of Indigenous representation. Two notable moments came in 2013 when Damien Miller became Australia’s first Indigenous Ambassador and in 2015 when Julie-Ann Guivarra became the first Indigenous officer to rise to DFAT’s Senior Executive level.

The talented diplomat that broke that ceiling, Julie-Ann Guivarra, spoke to us in her new role as Ambassador for Gender Equality.

Her personal story is an example of Indigenous connections with the region: her great-grandfather was a Filipino pearl diver who married a Torres Strait Islander and her grandfather, who was born in the Torres Strait moved to Cairns where the interaction between South East Asian migrants and Torres Strait islanders continued.

“It’s interesting to think of the linkages between Indigenous Australia and the region. There have been substantial links for a long time at the people-to-people level – my own family story is an example,” she explains.

As a diplomat who has been posted to India and worked closely with Southeast Asia, including on trade policy in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations, she’s been struck by the curiosity about Indigenous cultures across the region, something diplomats engage with in their core work.

Julie-Ann Guivarra
Julie-Ann Guivarra speaks at an Asia-Europe Foundation event - December 13, 2019. Image credit: Asia-Europe Foundation, Flickr.

“We’ve always had a focus on promoting Indigenous culture as part of Australia’s soft diplomacy. It’s something that’s resonated with countries in the region and more broadly around the world. There’s a genuine curiosity and desire to understand more about Indigenous cultures.  We have also extended beyond traditional cultural diplomacy and we’re now looking at promoting business opportunities for Indigenous businesses in Asia and raising the profile for these Indigenous businesses internationally.”

In her new role as Ambassador for Gender Equality, Asia will remain an important focus, particularly given the gender impacts of COVID-19. “We need to ensure that we continue our engagement with Asia, particularly on gender. If you look at the gender impacts of COVID in the Indo-Pacific, there have been a range of consequences for women including spikes in violence against women, women’s role as frontline healthcare workers, pressure on sectors that predominantly employ women – like retail, hospitality and tourism.  It is important that we support women’s organisations so that women have a voice.”   The Australia Government is continuing to support women through the pandemic in development programs ranging from support for women’s shelters to women’s business coalitions.

She reflects that when she started, “I couldn’t have imagined such a long career in DFAT. I was just thrilled to make the graduate program.” There has been significant progress in the Department in Indigenous issues in that time.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has released its fourth Reconciliation Action Plan and has an Indigenous Peoples Strategy which adopts Indigenous rights as an element of Australian diplomacy to advance the interests of Indigenous peoples internationally. It has an Indigenous Recruitment and Career Development Strategy including Indigenous apprenticeships, the Indigenous Australian Government Development Program (IAGDP) and an Indigenous graduate program. It has an Indigenous Employees Network to support Indigenous staff. A focus in recent years has been taking Indigenous businesses to the world, including an Indigenous to Indigenous business development program including projects in the region. A Charter on promoting the economic interests of Indigenous Australian businesses overseas was released in 2017.

To the Ambassador, this shows that “the Department is walking the talk. DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson presents her acknowledgement of country in Ngunnawal.  This sends a message to people across the Department that indigenous cultures are taken seriously and respected.” DFAT’s Diplomatic Academy is also running training for diplomats on understanding Indigenous Australia and cultural competency is an area of focus. “I really do think these efforts reflect a growing awareness and desire to share knowledge and to present Indigenous Australia as part of everyone’s focus.”

Indigenous cultural capital is valuable in diplomatic roles, not just identified positions such as those promoting Indigenous rights in New York and Geneva or the Torres Strait Treaty Liaison Office.  Using existing cultural links and raising awareness of the cultural links that have existed between Indigenous Australians and Asia is a real asset in connecting Australia to Asia.

National Reconciliation Week is a good time to celebrate the work of Australia’s Indigenous diplomats and the role of Indigenous culture in helping Australia connect with Asia.

Melissa Conley Tyler is Director of Diplomacy at Asialink at The University of Melbourne and previously worked at Reconciliation Australia.
Tiffany Liu is a Master of International Relations student currently interning with Asialink.

Banner image credit: Alex Farias, Shutterstock.