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Embedding First Nations rights, interests and priorities in economic and policy systems

Australia’s energy transition - the bedrock of Australia’s economic future - will only happen at the pace and scale required when our First Nations voices, interests and aspirations are a genuine part of development and planning systems. 

Australia’s energy sector is undergoing a once-in-a-lifetime transformation as renewable energy sources replace our ageing fleet of fossil fuel power plants, including coal and gas; and over 3 ½ million households embrace the benefits on residential solar. 

This transformation is coupled with calls for Australia to leverage its plentiful wind and solar resources, and other natural endowments, to become a ‘clean energy superpower’, exporting ‘clean’ and ‘green’ goods to the globe. 

Modelling by Net Zero Australia estimates that for Australia to achieve its clean energy aspirations, almost 45% of all major clean energy infrastructure will need to be situated on land where First Nations have legally enforceable rights and interests. 

Enabling and empowering First Nations to play a key and central role in Australia’s energy transition goes well beyond just social licence issues - it presents a unique opportunity for Australia to design an economic system around its energy transformation that has the potential to result in other positive social, cultural, environmental and economic impacts for First Nations. 

Of course there are numerous risks to manage too, and with many of our First Nations communities impacted by the devastating impacts of climate change including more extreme weather events while struggling with unreliable and expensive power, we want Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), equity and genuine beneficial partnerships in projects, economic benefits, job opportunities including in our communities, and ready access to clean, lower-cost and reliable power. 

Working towards these goals, and with a vision to address climate change, protect Country and culture for generations to come, elevating community-led solutions and ensuring First Nations have a ‘seat at the table’, the First Nations Clean Energy Network was launched on Arrente Country in Mpartntwe (Alice Springs) just over two years ago. 

The First Nations Clean Energy Network represents our First Nations people, groups, community organisations and land councils members from around the county, with the support of unions, academics, industry groups, technical advisors, legal experts, renewable companies and others - working in partnership to ensure First Nations share in the benefits of Australia’s energy transition.

With guidance from our Steering Group and numerous conversations and engagements with First Nations groups around the country, the Network has worked hard since our launch to be a trusted source of information, advocacy and support for First Nations communities. 

With over 900 First Nations members (individuals and organisations), we are working to elevate First Nations in the energy transition and have had many achievements in the short period since our launch.

We jump-started by advocating the government to lift significant federal and state regulatory barriers to renewable energy development, resulting in Energy Ministers in 2022 agreeing to develop a First Nations Clean Energy Strategy as a priority action under the National Energy Transformation Partnership

Our two Best Practice Network Guides launched soon after continue to be held up as a blueprint for First Nations communities, industry and government, followed up by the launch of an implementation guide for the Network’s Best Practice Principles in February 2024.

We co-developed, funded and delivered to 32 First Nations leaders our inaugural PowerMakers capacity building program in partnership with Canada’s Indigenous Clean Energy, which was such a success we're planning for the next PowerMakers in 2024.

And we held our second First Nations Clean Energy Symposium in Tarntanya (Adelaide) in May 2024 in partnership with the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and the National Native Title Council. 

We’ve been collaborating as part of a core team of organisations working on the Australian Renewable Industry Package - to ensure that Australia’s response to the US Inflation Reduction Act is built on principles of Free, Prior and Informed Consent and a package of incentives and policy arrangements to ensure First Nations participation and benefit.

Our First Nations Jobs Pathways Initiative and the recent release of our report, Powering First Nations Jobs in Clean Energy is identifying clear pathways for quality jobs and careers for First Nations Australians in the clean energy sector.

Our online First Nations Project Tracker was developed to highlight First Nations participation and/or equity in new clean energy projects around Australia, to demonstrate the transformative potential of a First Nations-led clean energy transition. We now count 15 such projects.

The Community Energy Planning Toolkit was recently developed for First Nations groups to assist in planning and developing community-led renewable energy projects.

And we have constantly provided new and relevant information tools on our website, including finance and funding opportunities for First Nations, policy barriers and opportunities around the country, and a new First Nations Members Only Hub which has a growing number of clean energy video case studies with First Nations people talking about what worked, tools and short films for learning about renewable energy and associated technologies, a page with information about agreements and settlements, and other resources. 

We also know there is so much work to be done.

Seemingly everyday major government funding and policy announcements are being made to facilitate Australia’s energy transformation at the Commonwealth level.

States and Territories likewise are moving fast, making regular policy, project and funding announcements to progress the energy transformation within their jurisdictions. 

Additionally, Australia’s Industrial and Resources sectors, and the Clean Energy industry continue to develop industry-led projects across Australia.

We want to make sure that all of these legislative, funding and policy announcements support First Nations self-determination and opportunity. 

We want to see economic and policy systems that include and embed First Nations culture, rights and interests, and priorities.

We don’t want to see a repeat of the mistakes of the past, where First Nations’ Free, Prior and Informed Consent has been ignored. 


By Chris Croker, Co-Chair, First Nations Clean Energy Network


This article was first published in the AIATSIS Native Title Newsletter