PATRICIA KARVELAS: Now there’s continuing anger amongst Aboriginal leaders about the government’s refusal to fund a series of specific constitutional conventions. The leaders asked the government to pay for the conventions so the indigenous people could talk through issues about a referendum for indigenous recognition. But the PM Tony Abbott wrote to indigenous leaders saying he feared conventions could produce a log of claims that’s not necessarily going to be supported by other Australians. Here’s Cape York leader Noel Pearson’s response on RN Drive last night:
NOEL PEARSON: “That is the most, probably the most dismal part of his letter, it’s almost offensive, because the terms of reference for ongoing discussion are already out there, they’re on the table, and I read that line in the letter and I thought ‘what are you taking us for?’”.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Alan Tudge is the Part Sec to the PM on Indigenous Affairs and was on the Panel discussing the referendum at the Garma Festival in the NT, welcome to Drive.
ALAN TUDGE: G’day Patricia
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Did you have to face indigenous leaders at the Garma Festival when they got this letter from the PM?
ALAN TUDGE: I personally didn’t, the letter only got to them I think on the Monday morning and I was there from Friday through to Sunday.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: It’s still a mystery as to why it was faxed in this day and age.
ALAN TUDGE: I don’t know, apparently it was sent through on Friday and I’m not sure why....
PATRICIA KARVELAS: …I heard it was faxed
ALAN TUDGE: …on the Friday.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Anyway that’s a whole other mystery I want to get to them bottom of at different time. Do you accept that the formation of this question has to start with indigenous Australians?
ALAN TUDGE: I accept that the question has to have the broad support of indigenous Australians and its almost pointless putting forward a constitutional referendum on indigenou recognition if indigenous people aren’t supporting it. So that’s absolutely fundamental.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So given that, and yet there are so many competing models, well two ones that are competing at the moment in a very big way, why not let indigenous Australians get together and develop a consensus position, isn’t that even helpful for the government?
ALAN TUDGE: And they will have that opportunity…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But you’re not paying for it.
ALAN TUDGE: Well we are going to be paying for a series of constitutional conferences around the country, and that will be overseen by a Referendum Council which will comprise a number of senior indigenous leaders and some senior non-indigenous leaders. And that will enable discussion with the indigenous people and the broader community…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Indigenous people feel like…
ALAN TUDGE: It’s important though…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Indigenous people feel like they need to do it on their own, they need to do it separately first. Isn’t that logical?
ALAN TUDGE: Well, in some respects we’re arguing that the better proposition might be for it to occur in parallel because at the end of the day, yes it must have the support of aboriginal people, but it must also have the support of the broader Australian community as well. And as you know Patricia, getting any referendum passed through the Australian people is exceptionally difficult. Only eight of 44 referendum questions have ever succeeded. The last was in 1977 and that concerned the very uncontentious issue of the retirement age of judges. They’re very difficult things to get up, you must have the broader community…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But, but, certainly this idea of an indigenous process first doesn’t lock out the broader community. So on what basis does the Prime Minister determine that indigenous people will come up with a proposal that mainstream Australia will not support? Noel Pearson’s very, very offended by that concept and you can understand why can’t you?
ALAN TUDGE: I think what the Prime Minister was getting at is that if you have these processe in parallel then each can inform the other. The indigenous position, that they can develop that themselves, but it can inform what non indigenous people are thinking and vice versa, so we can emerge with a consensus as much as possible across the broad Australian community.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Wouldn’t you prefer to fund this process?
ALAN TUDGE: Well we will be funding the process.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: I mean the indigenous led process, indigenous meetings.
ALAN TUDGE: And there will be plenty of opportunities for indigenous people to get together under the auspice of the Referendum Council
PATRICIA KARVELAS: OK, let me put it a different way. Alan Tudge, isn’t this making your job very hard?
ALAN TUDGE: Well I know we’re having this argument today but we’ve got a long way to go before we put up a constitutional referendum question. Now we had a very important meeting just a couple of weeks ago where Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten jointly hosted a meeting of 40 aboriginal leaders and it outlined a process to take us forward. That process outlined a number of constitutional conventions, constitutional conferences, and then we’ll have a question which will hopefully put to the Australian people in the not too distant future and finally recognise aboriginal people in the constitution. That’s our aim and we’ve got a long way to go, we’ve got to bring everyone on board and that’s absolutely our am and our determination.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Given indigenous leaders, Noel Pearson I know you used to work for, the government is very close to, and there are so many speeches where the Prime Minister talks about Noel Pearson being an amazing indigenous leader that he listens to, these are the indigenous leaders telling you what they want, what they need, what is point of this entire process if you’re not willing to satisfy their needs?
ALAN TUDGE: Well, we are listening to them Patricia but we don’t have to agree to every single thing that Noel Pearson says and as you pointed out, I worked for Noel Pearson for a few years as his Deputy Director and I mentioned him in my maiden speech to Parliament five years ago as being perhaps Australia’s greatest intellect and a person I’ve learnt an enormous amount from.But, in this instance I think the Prime Minister’s view is to run the process in parallel rathe than one before the other…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Would you consider…
ALAN TUDGE: …and that’s more likely to get a better result.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: It’s meant to be a bipartisan approach we now have beyond the indigenous leadership the Greens and the Labor party asking you to open your minds and support this idea from the indigenous community. You’re the only ones, your side of politics in government, the only ones standing on the other side saying no. Do you think this should be revisited, will you raise it with Prime Minister?
ALAN TUDGE: Well I’ll have ongoing conversations with the Prime Minister about what the process should be....the Prime Minister from memory said in that letter that he would like to discuss the issue with Noel Pearson and Pat Dodson who are the two leaders who put this proposal to him. So there’s ongoing dialogue here; it’s not the end of the process because of a letter, and arguments over the last 48 hours. It's just one step, let’s work through this and let’s keep progressing this question.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But will you be willing to argue their case, the case that’s been put to you, I know very strongly, to the Prime Minister?
ALAN TUDGE: As I said I have ongoing discussions with the Prime Minister…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So can I get from that, let’s not, let’s not…
ALAN TUDGE: No no…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Let’s not be opaque, let’s be honest…
ALAN TUDGE: I will certainly, I will always inform to the best of my ability what I’m hearing from the indigenous leaders that contact me, or other leaders who contact me , and I’ll always put their views, from what I’ve heard, and I’ll equally put my views on what I believe the best approach to be. Now, we’ve been through this in terms of what the Prime Minister’s view is, to have this in parallel rather than one in front of the other. You can make arguments both ways. meant that’s what we think is the best way to deliver the outcome that will have the very best chance of having a successful referendum in the not too distant future.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: And have you spoken to Noel Pearson since yesterday?
ALAN TUDGE: I have not, I’ve tried to call him today but I haven’t been successful in getting through to him.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: And finally, who are you going to be backing for Speaker?
ALAN TUDGE: There’s a number of very good candidates we have for Speaker…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: You can only vote for one. Come on Alan Tudge, who is it?
ALAN TUDGE: I’m a Victorian and I’ll probably be supporting one of the Victorian candidates. We’ve got Tony Smith who I think would do an outstanding job and I know Russell Broadbent has also got his hand up as well. We've got ongoing discussions happening here but at the end of the day I think we’ll have an excellent Speaker who’ll be able to take us forward.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: OK, you’re backing someone from Team Victoria it sounds like.
ALAN TUDGE: Team Victoria, that’s the one I’m backing in this instance. We’ve got a couple of very good candidates there and I hope that one of them does get up.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Alan, thank you.
ALAN TUDGE: Thanks so much Patricia.