The nation’s two most significant Aboriginal leaders have crafted a plan to secure Indigenous consensus on a referendum question to recognise the first Australians that could be put as soon as the next year’s federal election.
Noel Pearson and Patrick Dodson have cast aside personal differences to propose a series of Indigenous conferences to settle the model for recognition before it is debated by the broader population.
But they have also vowed to give their unqualified support to the model that emerges from the process, regardless of whether their preference prevails.
“Whatever evolves from the opportunities that we are trying to provide to our communities is what we’ll back in,” Mr Dodson told Fairfax Media.
“It’s not a question of my model or Noel’s model. It’s really what the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want in the constitution.”
Mr Pearson concurred, declaring: “Patrick and I strongly believe consensus a real possibility and that he and I have a responsibility to put all our energies into supporting that consensus.”
The two leaders have written to the Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Opposition leader Bill Shorten to propose that Indigenous conferences precede a broader national debate on the referendum question.
“We cannot proceed to a referendum without knowing where Indigenous people stand,” they have said in a letter, also signed by Indigenous lawyer and academic Megan Davis and the co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, Kirstie Parker.
The letter argues that an independent process for Indigenous people to reach consensus is “crucial if we are to ensure Indigenous support for a model” and asks for government “investment for this process”.
Mr Dodson co-chaired the expert panel that reported in January 2012 and supported the insertion of a new clause in the constitution banning racial discrimination by government.
Mr Pearson initially proposed the ban but has put forward an alternative model because he believes the ban will be opposed by constitutional conservatives and could have unintended consequences. His model would see a new Indigenous body recognised by the constitution with a voice to the national parliament.
While the two have had their disagreements in recent years, Mr Pearson said; “This thing is not going to work without Pat. If there is anyone who is crucial to this, it is Patrick.”
Mr Pearson said he and Mr Dodson decided to work together after there was “ambiguity” at last week’s summit at Kirribilli on the process to secure a referendum question and set a date.
Although Mr Abbott has expressed a preference for the referendum being held in May 2017, Mr Pearson said Mr Abbott and Mr Shorten should “keep alive the prospect of running the question at the next election”.
If there was bipartisan support for the model that emerged from the Indigenous consultations, there was a danger of “slippage” after next year’s election because key players may no longer be in Parliament, he said.
“It’s a fool’s errand to try and tightly manage a political process to get an Indigenous outcome,” Mr Pearson told Fairfax Media. “Indigenous people and leaders are just not going to be managed into a pre-determined result.
“The Prime Minister and Opposition Leader need to trust Indigenous leaders to go through a process of consultation with the Indigenous community in all corners of the country.
“Patrick and I share an honest conviction that Indigenous people will be cognisant of the political realities and mindful of the challenges involved in getting a referendum question up.
“But at the same time they will be given an opportunity to give voice to what has been a long-stranding aspiration.”
Mr Dodson is more comfortable with the referendum being put separately from a general election.
“I get very nervous when it comes to elections because people put on their gladiatorial robes and want to go to battle over winning power to govern the country, not necessarily out of the priority of securing a referendum.”
The two leaders have proposed that Indigenous conferences around the country begin as soon as possible to discuss “the legal soundness, political viability and practical outcomes for Indigenous people” of each model.
The conferences would be run by an Indigenous secretariat and would nominate delegates to participate in a national convention that would agree on a preferred model.
Mr Dodson and Mr Pearson say that Recognise, the body set up to build public understanding of the case for recognition, is not the appropriate organisation to “facilitate an Indigenous position about the preferred model”.