TONY JONES, PRESENTER: The Indigenous leader Noel Pearson described it as, "the rumble we had to have to get this show back on the rails". The planned referendum on Indigenous recognition set down for May, 2017 had been in jeopardy after the Prime Minister last month rejected the idea of Indigenous-only conferences to determine the nature and wording of the vote. But today, Prime Minister Abbott abandoned that position in an attempt to regain the support of key Aboriginal leaders.
TONY ABBOTT, PRIME MINISTER: What we want to do is to have a unified process which certainly will involve Indigenous people talking, it'll involve the wider community talking. And what I want to see is not some kind of them-and-us process, but a we, the people process, but as part of a we, the people process, obviously it's important for Indigenous people to have a chance to talk this through as thoroughly as possible.
TONY JONES: This morning the Prime Minister met four key Indigenous leaders, Noel Pearson, Patrick Dodson, Kirstie Parker and Megan Davis, in a meeting that lasted just half an hour. It was the rumble that put a referendum on Indigenous recognition back on track.
PATRICK DODSON, INDIGENOUS LEADER: There's some clarity now about the role and function that we have argued for in terms of an Indigenous process coming within the ambit of the general framework that the Prime Minister's put forward. So, I think there's been a win for us and certainly some clarity about the necessity for Indigenous peoples to be given the opportunity to have their say in this matter.
KIRSTIE PARKER, CO-CHAIR, NAT. CONGRESS OF AUST.'S FIRST PEOPLES: Well we're optimistic. People will say are you confident? We are optimistic and we will do whatever we can to ensure that that process is meaningful and that we're able to arrive at a meaningful result.
TONY JONES: Well Noel Pearson's been a key player in pushing for Indigenous recognition. He joined us from Canberra shortly after that meeting with Tony Abbott.
TONY JONES: Noel Pearson, thanks for joining us.
NOEL PEARSON, QLD INDIGENOUS LEADER & LAWYER: Thank you, Tony.
TONY JONES: Now, did the Prime Minister back down from his opposition to a separate process for Indigenous people to reach a consensus view on this constitutional referendum?
NOEL PEARSON: Oh, I think we've come to a very productive outcome today. We've - we - my colleagues and I, Pat Dodson, Megan Davis, Kirstie Parker, wrote to the Prime Minister saying that this Indigenous process is very important to bring a consensus together of Indigenous Australians around constitutional models. The Prime Minister's position was that there should be a national consultation process involving Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. And what we've managed to do today is work out how we can achieve both objectives.
TONY JONES: He was, a couple of weeks ago, quite sort of negative about the concept of consensus within the Indigenous community. He basically said it'd be something akin to a log of claims, it's unlikely to achieve general support. Has he put aside that objection today?
NOEL PEARSON: I think we - I think the meeting was - moved beyond those unfortunate words because I think, you know, there's - there was unequivocal support for him for an Indigenous process. What he has put to us is that can this be part of an overall national process that is oversighted by a referendum council? And the concept of the referendum council is that there would be six eminent non-Indigenous people and six Indigenous Australians who would together form this council and they would oversight a process that would include an Indigenous process of community consultations and conferences and there would be also mainstream community consultations and conferences, with a view that they would eventually merge together in a convention at the end of it. So it was a - it was a important meeting to have. We needed to make sure that the ground rules were understood. It was a meticulous discussion about each other's understanding about this. And I think the idea that the referendum council would supervise these parallel processes or concurrent processes is a good outcome for us.
TONY JONES: Well indeed, it's a compromise and you'd have to say a move forward. How will the particular Indigenous side of it work, Noel? Will there be separate, completely separate meetings, conferences in Indigenous communities and how many of them will there be?
NOEL PEARSON: Well we proposed in our original proposition that there would be 14 major conferences around different points of the country - north, south, east, west, north-west, north-east, south-east, etc., in the centre and in the Torres Strait. We thought that a set of regional conferences that would enable people in all jurisdictions, in all corners of the country to participate and the whole aim of a - what will perhaps be at least a year-long process is to narrow the gap between people's positions and try to get Indigenous Australians to a consensus, and indeed, to close the gap with all Australians around a model.
TONY JONES: So a year-long process, briefly?
NOEL PEARSON: Yes, absolutely.
TONY JONES: OK. Now, can I just confirm that if the process of the Indigenous consultation produces a consensus around the idea of a ban on racial discrimination being written into the Constitution, which seems to be quite a popular idea right now in the Indigenous community, would you in the end put your weight behind that proposal, Noel Pearson?
NOEL PEARSON: Yeah, it did - I - you know, like everyone, I am subject to this process and all the players have agreed. That's why Pat - Pat and I have got together. We've come to this issue from different angles. We got together with Kirstie Parker and Megan Davis from the University of New South Wales and we said, "The most important thing - even though we have different positions, the most important thing is to participate in a common process with our community to try to close the gap in our community and between ourselves in relation to a workable model.
TONY JONES: Now, you have complained in the past about a lack of clear leadership on the referendum and the question to be put, the model even. If the Indigenous community conferences come up with the idea of a - of this quite radical, according to the constitutional conservatives, ban on racial discrimination, written into the Constitution, do you suspect the Prime Minister will get behind that because he's had big objections?
NOEL PEARSON: Well, I mean, I think his views on it, his reservations about that are quite well known. And of course the different views of the various parties that come to this debate are also quite well known. It's also quite well known that I've been trying to seek a way of providing an alternative to that proposition. But at this stage, the important thing today is that we have an eye-to-eye agreement with the Prime Minister. And by the way, it's gotta be - it's up to the Prime Minister to enrol the Opposition Leader in this outcome as well and he has undertaken to do that. We can't have a referendum council process unless both the Opposition Leader and the Prime Minister are on the same page with all of us about the way forward. I think those debates about models is what we're gonna have ever the next 12 months.
TONY JONES: Yeah. Now, the Prime Minister, however, faces hostility even within his own party, as you'd know. The WA branch is gonna put up in two weeks' time a motion to their state conference rejecting recognition of any single race in the body of the Constitution or in a preamble. Is this the kind of thing that you're worried about? Is this the sort of thing that pushed you in a way to try and work out a kind of compromise with the constitutional conservatives?
NOEL PEARSON: Oh, I will be in furious agreement with that resolution, in that I want to get rid of race as well.
TONY JONES: Yeah.
NOEL PEARSON: What I do want recognition of is the fact that there were Indigenous peoples in this country prior to 1788. That is not a question of race, even though commentators like Andrew Bolt and so on, they, in a very dishonest way, try to conflate race and indigenous. They are separate things. I completely agree that we shouldn't have a racial constitution. But the simple historical fact that there were peoples here that came upwards to 53,000 years ago, there were people here prior to 1788 - that's a question of being indigenous to Australia; it's not about race.
TONY JONES: Yeah, are you convinced that you're on the same page with Bill Hassell and the former leader of the - of the state Liberal Party in WA because he's - they're being very critical of the Prime Minister and they seem to be kind of threatening to kind of roll back any sort of - what they would regard as radical moves?
NOEL PEARSON: Yeah. I mean, there's highly conservative opinion, some of which is quite frankly quite dishonest about this race issue. Because there's no-one from the expert panel onwards who is proposing racial segregation. In fact, Indigenous people earnestly want to get rid of the issue of race. And it's highly dishonest for people of the type that you've quoted there ...
TONY JONES: Yeah, Bill Hassell and the ...
NOEL PEARSON: Bill Hassell and the Western Australian Liberals.
TONY JONES: Exactly. They're the sort of central committee planning group for the WA Liberals.
NOEL PEARSON: Yeah, it is highly obscurant about the issue. And, you know, one would hope that as part of the process over the next 12 months, that we be honest and clear that there is nobody on the Indigenous side that I have ever heard who was saying that there should be racial separation or any concept of race in the Constitution. We want to actually get rid of it, but, you know, that does not amount to denying that people are Indigenous.
TONY JONES: Now, you were seeking federal funding for a series of Indigenous conferences. Has that now been settled, this whole process will have federal funding?
NOEL PEARSON: Oh, yeah, the whole referendum council concept will supervise and fund both Indigenous conferences and mainstream Australian conferences as part of the process going forward.
TONY JONES: And you feel you've buried the hatchet with the Prime Minister on this, do you?
NOEL PEARSON: Oh, it's been a - you know, it probably was the rumble we had to have and to get the ground rules straight. There's a lot of - our community is anxious. They need confidence and assurance about the process going forward. And I just see this as a good clearing of the air and a clear understanding about the way forward.