Recognition referendum needs indigenous input

, - July 18, 2015

Noel Pearson_the australian_20150720
Noel Pearson, left, and Patrick Dodson: “If it does not have indigenous support, why would the nation proceed with a referendum?” Source: News Corp Australia

  • By: Noel Pearson and Patrick Dodson
  • From: The Australian
  • Date: 18 July 2015

Indigenous Australians have an important decision to make and we need a clear process to make it in an informed way.

Earlier this week we wrote to Tony Abbott to outline a process to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to consider options for constitutional recognition and move towards consensus on a model to submit to the Australian people at a referendum.

Any model for constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians should be developed with genuine indigenous input and taken to a referendum with the wholehearted agreement and backing of indigenous people.

If it does not have indigenous support, why would the nation proceed with a referendum?

The desire for an indigenous process, to enable our people to understand the options, was made clear by the representatives in the meeting with the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten on July 6 at Kirribili.

After the meeting, Abbott said he “heard the need for a national discussion involving all Australians”. He proposed the establishment of a referendum council.

We agree that general community engagement is extremely important. All Australians will need to vote for this change, and therefore all Australians need to be involved. Reconciliation is a two-way, reciprocal street.

At the meeting, indigenous leaders spoke of the need for substantive, rather than merely symbolic, constitutional change. Leaders proposed indigenous conferences across Australia, so that indigenous people can understand and form views on the appropriate model to achieve this. We each have our own independent views on constitutional propositions, but our commitment should be to ensure that the voices of indigenous Australian communities are brought into the discussion. We must hold seriously our responsibility to work towards a reasonable consensus.

An independent process for indigenous people to reach a position is crucial to ensure indigenous support. Without such a process, a referendum council and community conferences will be unlikely to produce the necessary engagement, understanding and consensus among Indigenous Australians.

We cannot proceed to a referendum without knowing where indigenous people stand.

Indigenous people need an opportunity to discuss options for constitutional recognition among ourselves before engaging with the general community. While this could occur in parallel with mainstream conferences, it would be wiser to prioritise clarity and consensus within indigenous Australia before going to mainstream conferences. That way, indigenous people will be in a position to explain to Australians why we want the changes we seek. The wider public conversation can happen with greater coherence and clarity.

Indigenous people need these forums to understand the political constraints, legal complexities and likely practical operation of each model. This will provide our people with the best chance to come to a consensus position.

Three steps are needed to enable the parliament to reach a final position on a referendum question.

  • There should be indigenous conferences and a national indigenous convention.
  • There should be broader community consultations with all Australians.
  • There should be a diplomatic process between indigenous representatives, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Australian Greens, so we can reach multi-party agreement on the model to take to a referendum.

The first step is indigenous conferences, so indigenous people can reach a position.

Starting as soon as possible, there should be a process of indigenous conferences across the country, with the specific purpose of allowing indigenous people to understand and express their views on models for constitutional recognition.

A partnership of indigenous organisations should run and oversee the comprehensive process with indigenous Australia.

Recognise’s function is to build public understanding and support for constitutional recognition. Recognise is not an appropriate organisation to facilitate an indigenous position about the preferred model. The indigenous process should be indigenous led and run.

Each conference would discuss the legal soundness, political viability and practical outcomes for indigenous people with respect to each model. The participants at each conference should then nominate delegates to represent the options coming from their conferences and participate in a national indigenous convention.

The relevant models should be presented and discussed at the convention. The delegates could then choose their preferred model, taking into account all relevant considerations.

A small group of indigenous leaders could then be nominated to engage on the delegates’ behalf with government and parliament. The final wording that comes out of this process could then be the subject of an indigenous plebiscite, if it is felt necessary, to ensure there is broad indigenous agreement.

The nation will then be able to proceed to a referendum with confidence that indigenous people understand and support the proposed reform. It will not enable 100 per cent indigenous consensus. But it will let the nation know where most indigenous people stand.

The magnitude and seriousness of this decision for our people should not be underestimated.

Deciding how indigenous Australians should be constitutionally recognised is a big decision for our mob to make. Whatever we decide will have lasting impacts on our people for generations to come. If the referendum fails, that will have lasting impact. If all we get is symbolic words without practical effect, that too will be a legacy we leave for future generations.

And if our people decide to walk away from this because nothing substantive can be achieved in the current political climate, then that will be a legacy as well: one that all Australians leave for another day. If that happens, indigenous leaders will pass the torch to the unborn grandchildren, hoping they will succeed where we could not.

Presently, however, the opportunity is ripe. There is the real possibility that a referendum can succeed. And there is the real possibility that the reform it implements will be of practical benefit for our people and of practical benefit for the nation, as well as providing an uplifting and symbolic moment of national unity.

There are serious options we need to consider as indigenous people. There are strategies we need to think about. There is work we need to do. But this is a massive decision, and it needs to be taken seriously. Once it is in the Constitution, it is there forever. We need to get it right. We need to make it count.

Patrick Dodson co-chaired the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition and Noel Pearson was a member of the panel.