By Damien Miller, former Ambassador to Denmark, Norway and Iceland
DFAT was an organisation that was not even in the lexicon of my family. No one we knew had ever worked there or had any dealings with it.
My Family, my Story
I am a proud descendant of the Gangalu people of central Queensland. My ancestors lived in and around the fertile Dawson and Callide valleys for thousands of years. We still have a deep connection to this country. As far as we’re aware, it was not until 1844 that the first Europeans came into contact with my ancestors near Taroom.
Today, we remember the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that took place from the early 1900s to the 1970s. Almost every Indigenous Australian has been affected by this policy, and its consequences are still being felt today.
My great grandmother, Sara Toby, was born in a place that is sacred to the Gangalu – a little place with a strange name – Banana. Sara was taken from her traditional lands to the Taroom reservation. My great grandmother and many of my relatives lived most of their lives and died in Cherbourg. The lives of Sara and her six children, including my grandmother, Emily Miller was determined by their race and the colour of their skin.
My grandmother Emily Miller born in 1909 and three of her siblings – who had lighter skin – had different rules apply to them. They had a difficult life. Because they were ‘mixed race’ they were taken from their mother (Sara) at an early age. My grandmother was sent to work at a station in rural Queensland at the age of 8.
Despite the trials she faced, my grandmother was a proud and resilient woman. She raised two sons, including my father. But she wasn’t able to pass on her language or the stories of our ancestors. Sadly, after a life of hard work she died of a heart attack at the age of 61 (1968) and I never had the opportunity to ask her first hand about her experiences.
My family’s experience was on my mind on 13 February 2008 – the day that then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered the National Apology. I was working in Parliament House at the time and through the kindness of one of my colleagues, I was given a seat in the chamber to hear the apology. To hear the words “we are sorry” not once, but three times was electrifying. Of course, words alone are not enough to heal the heartbreak of separated families and address the disadvantage experienced by so many Indigenous Australians. But these words still have great power.
From Australia to the World
My interest in all things foreign came from my father – David Miller. He was always interested in the world around him. I developed a fascination for other cultures and I always dreamt of being able to live and work overseas. I successfully applied for an Indigenous cadetship at DFAT and joined the department in 1995.
A lot has happened both to me and to the department since the mid-1990s. When I joined there was only a handful of Indigenous staff, no senior leaders and no ambassadors. I recently concluded my term as Australia’s first Indigenous Head of Mission, as Ambassador to Denmark, Norway and Iceland. We have over 80 Indigenous staff – serving with distinction in Canberra, in our state and passport offices and overseas. We are actively helping to shape Australian foreign and trade policy, and advocating for it here and abroad. We have colleagues working at the UN in New York, contributing policy advice on complex free trade agreement negotiations, delivering aid in the region and providing consular support to Australians across the world.
In 2015, DFAT launched an ‘Indigenous Peoples Strategy’ aimed at advancing Indigenous rights, strengthening connections between Indigenous peoples, and promoting their economic engagement. The Strategy is advancing the rights of one of the world’s most disadvantaged groups and promoting Australia’s rich Indigenous heritage.
Australia is already home to countless examples of innovative Indigenous policy – developed through partnerships between Indigenous people and federal, state and local governments, universities, companies and non-government organisations. These initiatives are delivering socio economic benefits to Indigenous people and advancing their rights.
DFAT has been on quite a journey over the past 20 years. We now have a growing cadre of highly skilled and motivated Indigenous officers who are advancing Australia’s national interests at home and abroad.
Australia and DFAT don’t have all the answers to the challenges of our modern and shifting world. But by being open to new perspectives and encouraging fresh thinking, we believe we can find new ways to tackle the toughest development and governance challenges. We can all take pride in the thoughtful and deliberate steps DFAT has taken over many years to improve our Indigenous representation and diversity more broadly.
Good diplomacy, after all, begins at home.
Damien Miller is a career officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Until recently he was Ambassador to Denmark, Norway and Iceland. Prior to this, he was Deputy Head of Mission at the Australian Embassy in Germany. He has also served in the Australian High Commission in Malaysia. Mr Miller holds a Graduate Diploma in Foreign Affairs and Trade from Monash University and a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws from the University of New South Wales. He was selected ‘Aboriginal Scholar of the Year’ by the National NAIDOC Committee in 1993. Mr Miller was the first Indigenous Australian appointed as a Head of Mission overseas.