‘Let indigenous take lead on referendum’

, - May 15, 2017

The “unique” circumstance of Aborigines and Torres Strait ­Islanders should be enough reason for a constitutionally guaranteed indigenous body to advise federal parliament on a referendum, senior indigenous figures argue.

Fiona Jose, executive general manager at the Noel Pearson-founded Cape York Partnership, says an elected indigenous body established to influence politicians “is justifiable and makes sense” on the basis that indigenous Australians “occupy a unique place within the commonwealth that is legally, politically and ­historically different to other ­citizens”.

This included the fact they were the only group to be dispersed by British settlement, they were uniquely discriminated against by the constitutional ­arrangements of 1901 and they are the only group already requiring special legislation, such as Native Title and indigenous heritage protection laws.

Sean Gordon, chief executive of Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council on the NSW central coast, made a similar argument to the Referendum Council, saying a representative body would drive economic development, promote law reform and help facilitate unity among indigenous people.

The submissions do not call for seats in parliament reserved for indigenous MPs but some form of body elected by indigenous Australians that could review or advise on legislation affecting Aborigines and Torres Straight Islanders.

Such a parliamentary body has won wide support at 12 regional indigenous consultations testing the mood for reform.

It will be put to national constitutional convention at Uluru and is likely be among a series of proposals presented to Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten by the end of June. Written submissions to the council close today.

Talks have focused on whether constitutional reform will take a “minimalist” shape or be substantive, including the parliamentary body and a form of anti-discrimination or legislative equality ­element.

The Prime Minister and ­Opposition Leader have said any referendum proposal that does not have the support of indigenous Australians cannot succeed.

In her submission, Ms Jose said recognition “must be more than mere symbolism” and “must not be imposed by politicians (but) must arise out of a genuine negotiated agreement between indigenous peoples and the Australian government”.

The fact all levels of government currently did not “listen to our concerns and aspirations” was argument enough for the formation of a parliamentary body that would “ensure government hears our voices before making decisions about us”.

Mr Gordon argued that substantive constitutional reform would have a practical outcome because “if Australian governments are serious about the need to close the gap, the practical importance of indigenous involvement and empowerment in indigenous policymaking, law making and service-delivery cannot be denied”.