Australia’s newly announced Referendum Council will gather for its first meeting today, one week after its membership was announced.
The 16-member council, led by co-chairs Professor Patrick Dodson and Mark Leibler, is responsible for consulting with the Government on recognising Indigenous people in the constitution.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten have joined the council members, who they appointed in consultation with each other.
Mr Shorten told reporters that the meeting would be another step towards the “overdue recognition” of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
He also noted that any change had to be made in the context that Indigenous Australians do not get “an equal deal” in Australian life.
“From health, to unemployment, to jail rates, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders receive very unfair treatment compared to the Australian population at large,” he said.
“It is wrong that our little precious babies in their first few months of life if they’re Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, are less likely to survive.
“It is wrong that an Aboriginal male of the age of 18 is more likely to go to jail than to go to university.
“It is not right that the unemployment levels amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are so high.”
In a joint statement with Mr Turnbull, the pair welcomed the members and noted work on upcoming national consultations for constitutional recognition.
“Indigenous-designed and led consultations will be a central element of this national discussion,” they said.
“It is important that any proposal has the broad support of Indigenous Australians, and the Australian community more generally, before proceeding to a referendum.”
The statement is in contrast to views previously held by former prime minister Tony Abbott, who initially raised doubts over an Indigenous-led process.
Writing to Professor Dodson in August, Mr Abbott said such a proposal ran the risk of producing a “log of claims”.
“My anxiety about a separate Indigenous process is that it jars with a notion of finally substituting ‘we’ for ‘them and us’,” Mr Abbott wrote to the group.
“The risk with an Indigenous-only — or even an Indigenous-first — process is that it might produce something akin to a log of claims that is unlikely to receive general support.”
The meeting follows comments by council member Megan Davis, who last week said that a referendum on constitutional recognition may not have been the best option.
The Referendum Council is due to report to Government by June 30, 2016.