Support for recognising Indigenous Australians in the constitution has reached a record high of 85 per cent as the Prime Minister hosts an unprecedented summit of Aboriginal leaders to plot a “road map” to the referendum.
Mr Abbott is poised to receive a polite but blunt message at the summit – that symbolic recognition in the constitution will not be enough to secure the support of Indigenous Australia.
Many of the 40 invited Indigenous leaders spent the weekend canvassing the models for recognition on offer and the best path to finalise a referendum question.
“Symbolic change won’t be satisfactory. It’s got to have substance,” declared Patrick Dodson, who co-chaired the expert panel that proposed an ambitious referendum question, including a ban on racial discrimination.
The exclusive Fairfax Ipsos national poll found 85 per cent of voters support recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first inhabitants of Australia in the constitution.
Ninety per cent of young voters and 89 per cent of women supported the proposal. Only 11 per cent overall are opposed.
The findings mark a positive shift in support from 77 per cent in 2013, with support among Green voters highest (95 per cent), followed by Labor (92 per cent) and the Coalition (77 per cent).
Noel Pearson, who advocates a second option for substantial change, missed the pre-summit discussions but is expected to put the case for his model when the leaders meet Mr Abbott and Opposition leader Bill Shorten on Monday morning.
Mr Abbott hosted the leaders at a reception at Kirribilli House, the Prime Minister’s Sydney residence, on Sunday night and set a collaborative tone for the gathering.
“Our task – our mission if you like – is to correct the great silence in our Constitution,” Mr Abbott told the reception. “Not everyone is as passionate as we are, not everyone is as informed as we are, and our challenge over coming months is to more broadly and more deeply engage the whole of the Australian community in this task.”
Mr Abbott said the referendum proposal had to “be something that can be owned ultimately by the vast majority of the people of our country”, declaring: “I am absolutely convinced that we can and must and will find a way forward.”
He also announced that he intended to honour his promise to spend a week in remote Indigenous communities each year by visiting the northern tip of Cape York and the Torres Strait Islands next month.
“During this week, this region and its people will be the focus of my attention,” Mr Abbott said, adding that he would be accompanied by a number of ministerial colleagues and senior government officials.
Mr Shorten, who proposed the summit, said he hoped it would provide a “roadmap to recognition”, declaring : “I do not subscribe to the smaller target path of meaningless change – and I don’t want us to lower our sights.
“I believe Australians are big enough, smart enough and generous enough to vote for genuine, real change. Cosmetic tinkering with the preamble is insufficient.”
There is strong support among Indigenous leaders for the expert panel’s recommendation for a prohibition on racial discrimination to be included in the proposal, though Mr Abbott has signalled his opposition to anything that might resemble a “single-issue bill of rights”.
Convinced that such a proposal would lead to the defeat of the referendum, Mr Pearson has backed an alternative: an special body to give Indigenous Australians a voice to the Parliament.
While Mr Dodson said it was disappointing that Mr Pearson had been unable to attend two days of preliminary talks, there is support for the idea of a new body from several influential leaders.
Several Coalition MPs are pushing for modest change that critics say would be purely symbolic and lack Indigenous support. Key figures are hoping the summit will lay out a process for arriving at a referendum question that can be supported by both sides of politics.
This could include a number of Indigenous constitutional conventions ahead of a broader national convention and federal parliament setting aside a full day for debate, in line with the recommendations of a parliamentary committee.