Constitutional recognition needs both sides of debate to succeed


2016 January, 27

TIM PALMER: Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson is confident that by the end of the year, the groundwork will have been done towards Indigenous Australians being recognised in the constitution.

In a speech to the National Press Club today, Mr Pearson says a referendum proposal will succeed, as long as Aboriginal people feel included.

But already, some Indigenous groups complain of being shut out of the process.

The National Congress of Australia's First Peoples says it's deeply concerned that the referendum won't even get off the ground.

Bridget Brennan reports.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: It's a big ask, but Noel Pearson wants a referendum proposal that appeals to all.

NOEL PEARSON: The challenge is to produce a model and prosecute a politics capable of steering through that window.

Too much left won't work, too much right won't work, too much overreach won't work and too much miserable under-reach will not either.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: Australia's Constitution includes no recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people - a referendum could change that.

In an address to the National Press Club this afternoon, Mr Pearson was optimistic constitutional change can be achieved.

The biggest challenge, he thinks, is to avoid constitutional recognition becoming just meaningless symbolism.

NOEL PEARSON: I see all of the planets kind of, the stars are lively in favour of us proceeding, but the question will ultimately come down to is the model that we finalise, does it constitute genuine recognition?

I'm really confident about our prospects, I think we have a process ahead of us that stands a good chance of getting there.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: Noel Pearson is among 16 prominent Australians who will sit on a referendum council chosen late last year by the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The Government has promised that there'll be a series of Indigenous-designed and led consultations across the country before a vote.

But some groups feel they've been sidelined, including the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples.

The congress has 8,000 Indigenous members, and has unsuccessfully sought a meeting with the Prime Minister since September.

The group's co-chairman is Rod Little.

ROD LITTLE: We did get a response from the Prime Minister's office about a suggestion to go and meet with the bureaucrats - well, we think that that's being disrespectful as well, as we're elected by our peoples, our over 8,500 members that Congress has, and over 250 organisations.

We feel as though that we're being treated with disrespect.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: And Rod Little fears that debate on constitutional recognition will be overshadowed in an election year.

ROD LITTLE: And the rate I think it's going now, I don't have a lot of confidence in that timetable and another thing I guess that Noel had mentioned today is that sometimes a lot of those other bigger picture issues come along and take over the urgent need for attention for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.

I think we're at risk of being buried again.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: Despite his optimism for constitutional recognition for Indigenous people, Noel Pearson today warned that Indigenous affairs is in deep crisis.

NOEL PEARSON: We are seeing good things in isolated areas, but not seeing the tectonic shifts that are needed.

TIM PALMER: Noel Pearson ending Bridget Brennan's report.

Constitutional recognition needs both sides of debate to succeed