Paul Bongiorno
Penny Wong resets the agenda in New York

It’s seven hours’ flying time from London to New York, but there is a huge chasm between the pageantry of a past empire on one side of the Atlantic and the 77th meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on the other.

Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong’s grim words belied the bright sunshine of her midweek news conference in the UN Plaza’s rose garden. “War in Europe,” she said, “has cast a shadow over this meeting.” 

Wong spoke of the “dreadful historic backdrop” for the assembly, channelling the very reason the organisation was established in the first place: to prevent a repeat of the catastrophe of World War II.

In contrast to the indifference of the previous government, Wong told the assembly that Australia believed the UN and its forums “need reinforcing”, especially as others “seek to undermine them”. The Foreign Affairs minister was accompanied by special envoy for reconciliation Pat Dodson and Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen, all with a mission to reset Australia’s international response to what UN Secretary-General António Guterres describes as “immense” tasks confronting the planet.

Guterres listed war, climate, the continuing pandemic, rising poverty and inequality. Those last points are where Pat Dodson comes in. The Aboriginal senator, who Wong introduced to the news conference as the “father of reconciliation”, had a series of high-level meetings progressing the Albanese government’s First Nations foreign policy.

Critical to this policy is the government’s commitment to right a historic wrong – the unrecognised, unceded sovereignty of the Australian continent by its original inhabitants. At his meetings, Dodson explained the Voice, Treaty, Truth process in these terms.

Midweek, he and Wong held a roundtable with the foreign ministers of Canada and New Zealand. Both nations have treaties with Indigenous people and Dodson says we have a lot to learn from “their adoption of Indigenous people’s rights”.

But this is no romantic enterprise. It is a hard-nosed acceptance that our record on human rights in regard to First Nations people is a threat to our security in the region and the world. Dodson found great encouragement at the UN for this broader acceptance of recognition and reconciliation. There was no quibble with his view that “putting self-determination at the heart of policy is a national security issue”.

Analysis by Huon Curtis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank more noted for being a hawk than a dove, puts it succinctly. He says: “Australia has a complicated and brutal postcolonial story and reckoning with this – demonstrating that we are learning, growing and strengthening democratic values – is a point of shared truth with other colonial nations. Forming a shared truth with our neighbours is a way for Australia to build trust, demonstrate shared values and exercise influence.”

Just as our record on climate change inaction has damaged our reputation in the region, so too has our record on relations with First Peoples. This is something China often reminds us of when we criticise its human rights record. But Curtis says the idea is not to absolve ourselves in tit-for-tat finger-pointing but rather to address the failures and remedy them.

Curtis has prepared reports for the Australian Defence Force on how to improve Indigenous relations as a way of enhancing social cohesion and boosting recruitment opportunities. He welcomes Defence Minister Richard Marles’ understanding of these values, in stark contrast to his predecessor, Peter Dutton, who dismissed them as “woke”.

The strategic policy analyst is enthusiastic for the Voice to Parliament. Curtis says the ability to hold governments to account, propose alternatives within political systems and strengthen avenues for deliberative participation are signs of democratic maturity. “The Voice,” Curtis says, “is a powerful step forward on that journey post empire.”

Wong says there are more than 270 ancestries now present in Australia. Almost half of the Australian population was born overseas or has a parent who was. She says this gives us a special entrée in foreign affairs. “Australia will be reflecting this rich character back to the world so the world can see itself in Australia.”

She adds: “The time has come for Australia’s full story to be told: our modern diversity and the rich heritage of First Nations peoples.”

To give flesh to this policy Wong called for expressions of interest for our inaugural ambassador for First Nations peoples to embed Indigenous perspective and experiences across the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The ambassador will establish an office of Indigenous engagement in the department.

After 121 years of federated nationhood, we are playing catch-up with our founding reality that we have wilfully managed to repress. This was clear enough in the country’s approach to the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, a pageant to an empire that historians say ended in 1971 when London withdrew its presence from “east of Suez”. Post-Brexit it is tentatively eyeing a comeback but, even so, it is a shadow of its former self and no longer “rules the waves”.

The royal funeral, with its battalions of magnificently uniformed military personnel, was a feast of colonial nostalgia, celebrating a time when the monarch’s forces were able to brutally impose their conquering will on the “natives” in Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Indo–Pacific.

Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi man Stan Grant gave us a searing insight into the pain and hurt this meant for his family – poverty, repression and discrimination. For the ABC, he wrote that he was sure he was “not alone among Indigenous people wrestling with swirling emotions. Among them has been anger. The choking asphyxiating anger at the suffering and injustice my people endure.” 

The funeral service was itself a captive of British history. It is probably not surprising that the obsequies for the governor of the Church of England would be a Christian service. But as the head of state of a multicultural, multifaith nation with its fair share of nonbelievers, there was exclusion. Only Christian leaders needed to apply to be part of the show.

At least in secular Australia, with no established church on Thursday, the belated memorial service was much more inclusive. But it was hard not to feel exhausted after two weeks of interminable adulation of Her Majesty the Queen. Australia will surely need to rethink this response when King Charles III goes to his eternal reward. There is no compelling reason why the memorial service could not have been held before the funeral and parliamentary eulogies given before the prime minister and governor-general flew to London.

The contrast with India could not have been greater. The Commonwealth’s largest member, celebrating 75 years of independence and 72 as a republic, held one day of mourning.

Pradeep Taneja of the Australia India Institute says Australia would be seen very differently in the world, especially in the Asia–Pacific, if we had a resident head of state. I remember a senior Japanese official putting this view to Australian journalists covering one of John Howard’s prime ministerial visits to Tokyo.

But if a string of opinion polls is any guide, Prime Minister Albanese’s studious deference to “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and her life of service” was in tune with majority opinion. Albanese’s approval rating continues to far outstrip that of the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, and anti-republic sentiment has surged.

This is not surprising. There is no official campaign and the prime minister is certainly not pushing it ahead of a referendum on the Voice. In one of his last interviews in Britain, however, Albanese was more forthcoming on the republic.

He said our constitutional arrangements “are matters of debate, of course, in Australia and certainly the royal family understands that”. Could that be a hint that the matter was actually raised in his meeting with the new king? More likely Charles knows Albanese’s republican sentiments and flagged a timetable to pursue them. Before rising to the throne, Charles took a keen interest in the sacking of the Whitlam government, doing nothing to dissuade the duplicitous governor-general John Kerr. In fact, he later praised Kerr for his “right and courageous” action.

Albanese didn’t demur when interviewer James Naughtie put to him that any nation considering its own history goes through a process of change and evaluation – and that process “is bound to continue, isn’t it?” The prime minister’s answer was a curt, “Of course that’s the case.”

But the prime minister missed a chance to appear more contemporary in his response to the Queen’s death, a view bolstered by our embarrassingly servile funerary ceremonies. It is one thing for the British to celebrate their history in a manner more akin to costume drama, but for a self-respecting nation on the other side of the world to follow suit is jarring.

Next week we are assured it’s back to the business of government. Thankfully, some of that work was already undertaken this week in New York by Penny Wong and her colleagues.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2022 as "Part of death’s rich pageant".

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