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Including the first Australians in Australian diplomacy

Left to their own devices, institutions tend to over-represent white males compared to every other demographic.

Including the first Australians in Australian diplomacy

This time last year, when former Chief of Army Lt Gen David Morrison AM (Rtd) was announced as Australian on the Year he described the benefits of embracing diversity in simple and powerful terms: when people have the chance to reach their potential, we all benefit. This applies as much to diplomacy as other areas.

The case for diversity can be made on two grounds: first, improved function – research consistently shows that diverse workplaces produce better results – and second, greater legitimacy as societal institutions are more trusted when broadly representative of the population. The business case for diversity is even greater in diplomacy where cross-cultural knowledge and language skills are important assets.

The bad news is that increased diversity is not likely to happen by itself: left to their own devices, institutions tend to over-represent white males compared to every other demographic.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has made a sustained effort to increase the diversity of its workforce and has improved the representation of many groups. DFAT has a women in leadership strategy, an agency multicultural plan, a disability action strategy including a disability network and disability champion; and a LGBTI staff network and champions. Australia has appointed openly gay ambassadors to prominent posts.

One unsung achievement is DFAT’s effort to support Australia’s Indigenous diplomats through its indigenous recruitment and career development strategy.

A comparison with three comparable countries – Canada, the USA and New Zealand – illustrates DFAT's leadership in this area.

I worked with DFAT to conduct a case study of the program and found significant achievements including the appointment of Indigenous staff to senior positions and increased representation of Indigenous employees. Feedback from a meeting with the indigenous employees’ network indicates that the program is seen as a success overall. While there are challenges in implementing a diversity strategy, it provides a positive model of how to increase diversity among a country’s diplomats.

Indigenous recruitment and career development strategy

Indigenous Australians – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – make up around 2.5% - 3% of the population. The legacy of invasion and displacement and continuing discrimination mean that indigenous people fare significantly worse than other segments of society on a range of key indicators. Indigenous people are grossly underrepresented in national leadership roles.

In this context, the announcement of Australia’s first indigenous Ambassador, Damien Miller, in 2013 was notable. Mr Miller is an example of the program at work: originally employed as an indigenous cadet while studying, he entered as an indigenous graduate and progressed to Ambassador. In another important moment, in 2015 Julie-Ann Guivarra was the first indigenous employee appointed to the Senior Executive Service, the highest managerial level of the Department.

Overall the percentage of DFAT employees who identify themselves as indigenous has risen to 2% of DFAT’s 3800 staff in 2016 – 76 employees – compared to reported numbers of 52 in 2013 and 20 in 1993. The Australian Public Service target is 2.7%. A large proportion of Indigenous employees are representing Australia overseas with 22% on an overseas post.

DFAT’s indigenous recruitment and career development strategy is part of wider efforts including a reconciliation action plan and indigenous peoples strategy which adopts indigenous rights as an element of Australian diplomacy and works to advance the interests of indigenous peoples internationally. The workplace strategy covers three focus areas: workplace environment, recruitment and retention.

Creating an attractive workplace environment for indigenous employees includes observing cultural protocols, using inclusive language, avoiding offensive terms and recognising cultural days of significance.

Targeted recruitment for a number of positions includes advertising in indigenous-specific media, promotion to indigenous studies centres and ensuring DFAT promotional materials are indigenous-specific and include employee profiles and testimonials. During 2011-2015 three cadet, six trainee and three graduate positions were set aside annually for indigenous applicants. Efforts are also made to attract lateral recruits from other departments.

To retain Indigenous employees, DFAT aims to offer induction, advice on career pathways and mentoring. The indigenous employees’ network provides peer support. There are specific 'identified Indigenous positions' for which indigenous cultural competence is an advantage. DFAT allocates funding for indigenous staff to represent Australia at relevant forums such as the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

That is not to say that there have not been challenges – including the effect of budget cuts to DFAT, broader organisational culture and fierce competition for trained indigenous employees across the public service.

A meeting with DFAT's indigenous employees’ network identified other obstacles including career progression, mentoring and retention: for example, Indigenous employees often have additional responsibilities that makes it hard to achieve 'work-life-community balance'. Some indigenous employees reported experiencing low expectations from managers that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was noted that other staff do not always give enough value to indigenous staff members’ cultural knowledge and the skills they bring, for example in the Pacific where cultural sensitivity can make them more effective.

It would have been a surprise not to have found some issues given the degree of negative stereotypes about Indigenous people in the general community. Any strategy promoting diversity has to deal with conscious or unconscious negative views. The barriers faced make the progress achieved more notable. Many Indigenous employees were adamant that they would have not been working at DFAT without the special pathways created by the strategy.

In sum, DFAT’s indigenous recruitment and career development strategy is a positive example of what is possible; it has made demonstrable progress in recruiting and developing the careers of Indigenous people who wish to represent their country. The key factors needed for such efforts to succeed can be seen clearly in the program: sustained effort, high-level support, availability of peer support and a willingness to adapt programs over time.

Australia is stronger in its diplomacy the more it represents Australian society, including Australia’s indigenous peoples. The aim should be for diplomacy to be able to call upon the nation’s most talented individuals – in all their diversity.

Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

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