Penny Wong resets the agenda in New York


It’s a seven-hour flight from London to New York, but there’s a huge gulf between the splendor of a bygone empire on one side of the Atlantic and the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly on the other.

Secretary of State Penny Wong’s somber words belied the bright sunshine at her midweek press conference in the rose garden of the UN Plaza. “The war in Europe,” she said, “cast a shadow over this meeting.”

Wong spoke of the “terrifying historical setting” for the assembly and addressed the very reason the organization was formed in the first place: to prevent a repeat of the catastrophe of World War II.

Contrary to the previous government’s indifference, Wong told the gathering that Australia believed the UN and its forums “need to be strengthened” especially as others “try to undermine them”. Accompanying the Foreign Secretary were Pat Dodson, Special Envoy for Reconciliation, and Chris Bowen, Minister for Climate Change and Energy, who were all tasked with refocusing Australia’s international response to what UN Secretary-General António Guterres has described as “immense” tasks facing the planet.

Guterres listed war, climate, the ongoing pandemic, rising poverty and inequality. It is on these last points that Pat Dodson comes into play. The Aboriginal senator, whom Wong introduced as the “father of reconciliation” at the press conference, had a series of high-level meetings to advance the Albanian government’s foreign policy.

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

During the week, he and Wong held a round table with the foreign ministers of Canada and New Zealand. Both nations have treaties with tribal peoples, and Dodson says we can learn a lot from “their acceptance of tribal peoples’ rights.”

But this is not a romantic venture. It is a persistent assumption that our human rights record with respect to First Nations people poses a threat to our regional and global security. Dodson found great encouragement at the United Nations for this wider acceptance of recognition and reconciliation. His view that “putting self-determination at the center of politics is a matter of national security” was unchallenged.

An analysis by Huon Curtis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank better known for being a hawk than a dove, sums it up. He says: “Australia has a complicated and brutal post-colonial history and reckoning with it – demonstrating that we are learning, growing and strengthening democratic values ​​– is a point of shared truth with other colonial nations. Forming a common truth with our neighbors is a way for Australia to build trust, demonstrate shared values ​​and exert influence.”

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Just as our record of inaction on climate change has tarnished our reputation in the region, so has our record of relationships with First Peoples. China often reminds us of this when we criticize its human rights record. But Curtis says the idea isn’t to acquit us with blame, but to address and fix the mistakes.

Curtis has prepared reports for the Australian Defense Force on how to improve Indigenous relations to improve social cohesion and improve recruitment opportunities. He applauds Defense Secretary Richard Marles’ understanding of these values, in contrast to his predecessor Peter Dutton, who dismissed them as “awakened”.

The strategic policy analyst is enthusiastic about the voice of Parliament. Curtis says the ability to hold governments accountable, propose alternatives within political systems, and strengthen avenues for deliberative participation are signs of democratic maturity. “The Voice,” says Curtis, “is a tremendous step forward in this post-Empire journey.”

Wong says there are now more than 270 ancestors in Australia. Almost half of Australia’s population was foreign-born or has one parent who was foreign. She says it gives us a special entry point into foreign policy. “Australia will reflect this rich character back to the world for the world to see in Australia.”

She adds: “It’s time to tell Australia’s full story: our modern diversity and rich Aboriginal heritage.”

To give shape to this policy, Wong invited our first First Nations Ambassador to express his interest in mainstreaming Indigenous perspectives and experiences across the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The ambassador will set up an indigenous engagement office in the department.

After 121 years of federated nation, we are catching up with our founding reality that we have purposely managed to repress. This was evident enough in the country’s approach to the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, a pageant for an empire that historians say ended in 1971 when London withdrew its presence “east of Suez”. It is tentatively aiming for a post-Brexit comeback, but is still a shadow of its former self and “no longer rules the waves”.

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The royal funeral, with its battalions of splendidly uniformed military personnel, was a celebration of colonial nostalgia and celebrated a time when the monarch’s forces were able to brutally impose their will to conquer on the ‘natives’ of Africa, Asia, America and the Indo-Pacific.

Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi man Stan Grant gave us a deep insight into the pain and hurt this caused his family – poverty, oppression and discrimination. He wrote for the ABC that he was “sure I am not alone among the indigenous people struggling with swirling emotions. Among them was anger. The suffocating anger at the suffering and injustice my people must endure.”

The funeral service was itself a prisoner of British history. It’s probably not surprising that the funeral service for the Church of England governor would be a Christian service. But as the head of state of a multicultural, multi-religious nation with its fair share of infidels, there was exclusion. Only Christian leaders had to apply to be part of the show.

At least in secular Australia, where there was no established church Thursday, the belated memorial service was much broader. But it was hard not to feel drained after two weeks of endless praising Her Majesty the Queen. Australia will certainly have to reconsider this response when King Charles III. goes to his eternal reward. There is no compelling reason why the memorial service could not have taken place before the funeral and Parliamentary eulogies, before the Prime Minister and Governor-General flew to London.

The contrast with India could not have been greater. The largest member of the Commonwealth, which celebrated 75 years of independence and 72 years as a republic, held a day of mourning.

Pradeep Taneja of the Australia India Institute says that if we had a resident head of state, Australia would be perceived very differently in the world, particularly in Asia Pacific. I remember a senior Japanese official expressing this view to Australian journalists covering one of the Prime Minister’s visits by John Howard to Tokyo.

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But if a series of opinion polls is any indication, Prime Minister Albanese’s zealous deference to “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and her life of service” was in line with majority opinion. Albanese’s approval rating far exceeds that of opposition leader Peter Dutton, and anti-republic sentiment has soared.

This is not surprising. There is no official campaign and the Prime Minister is certainly not pushing them ahead of a referendum on the vote. However, in one of his most recent interviews in the UK, Albanese was more outspoken about the republic.

He said our constitutional arrangements “are of course a matter of debate in Australia and the royal family certainly understands that”. Could that be an indication that the matter was indeed raised at his meeting with the new king? More likely, Charles is aware of Albanese’s Republican views and has set a timetable to pursue them. Before Charles took the throne, he took a keen interest in the dismissal of the Whitlam government and did nothing to dissuade duplicitous Governor-General John Kerr. In fact, he later praised Kerr for doing what was “right and brave.”

Albanese did not disagree when interviewer James Naughtie told him that every nation that looks at its own history goes through a process of change and evaluation – and that process “must continue, doesn’t it?” The prime minister’s response was a terse one: “Of course it is.”

But the Prime Minister missed a chance to be more timely in his reaction to the Queen’s death, a view reinforced by our embarrassingly obsequious funeral ceremonies. It’s one thing for Britons to celebrate their history in a way more akin to costume drama, but for a self-respecting nation on the other side of the world, it’s harrowing to follow suit.

Next week we are assured that government business will resume. Luckily, some of that work was done earlier this week in New York by Penny Wong and her colleagues.

This article was first published in the September 24, 2022 print edition of The Saturday Paper as “Part of Death’s Rich Pageant.”

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