Tony Abbott, Bill Shorten and Indigenous leaders dealt primarily with process rather than substance in their Monday meeting on constitutional recognition of the first Australians. This made it a whole lot easier than what lies ahead.
They did not attempt to bridge the wide gulf between advocates of a minimalist rewrite to give the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders their due place in the Constitution, and those who say the change must go to the broader issue of prohibiting discrimination.
Instead, the gathering, including some 40 Indigenous invitees, was about mapping a path, hearing points of view but not ruling anything in or out, and creating some glue between major players.
But that participants came out of it mostly speaking positively – although Noel Pearson criticised the meeting for being stage-managed – is good, especially because recently the divisions have loomed large and the momentum for the referendum has seemed to slow.
Veteran Indigenous leader Pat Dodson, who has seen more than most in Aboriginal affairs and often been deeply frustrated and disappointed – and may yet be again - described this as “a great occasion, a great event, a historic event and terribly meaningful, I think, in the context of what we’re trying to do around a very complicated matter”.
“We didn’t come to concluded views on models or propositions but I do think we made a fair amount of progress on the steps that are needed to go forward.”
As things stand, the referendum will be enormously hard to get through. The challenge at this stage will be to keep the debate moving, and not be deterred by the difficulties.
A national “conversation” is to be held, with three initiatives announced on Monday.
There will be a series of up to 40 community conferences across the country over the coming year, starting in September, to discuss the issues – and before them a parliamentary discussion.
The parliamentary committee that has already reported on constitutional recognition, chaired by the Liberals’ Ken Wyatt, with deputy chair Labor’s Nova Peris, both Indigenous, will produce a discussion paper on the issues, including various options that have been canvassed.
A Referendum Council, “broadly reflective of the Australian people”, will be set up to look at matters including how the question to be put to the people might be settled, timing, and constitutional issues.
Abbott and Shorten will receive regular reports from the council and together with their respective parties “consider its final recommendations in developing a proposal to put to the parliament and, if supported, the Australian people”, Abbott said in a statement with Shorten. Shorten said the function of the council, to include Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, would be “to keep matters on track”.
Abbott, who hopes that by the middle of next year “we might be able to crystallise a consensus about how our constitution could change” – in other words, have a question – has indicated he is open to a constitutional convention perhaps in the second half of 2016 or early 2017.
Shorten said that “in an ideal world” it would be desirable to have as much of the detail of a proposed referendum change locked away before the election – which would depend on the government going full term.
Abbott still hopes the vote could be in May 2017, the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, although he admits “that’s a tight deadline”. He says he certainly wants to see it done next term.
There is agreement the question should be put “when there is the best possible chance of success”. But with a referendum requiring an overall majority and a majority of states, judging that time will not be easy.
Abbott and Shorten had their key catchlines. Abbott talked about ending the “echoing silence” in the constitution about the Indigenous people; Shorten said that “if our constitution is our nation’s birth certificate then it needs to include all Australians”.
The nature of the day smoothed or masked the differences in the two leaders’ views. Abbott is passionate about getting a successful outcome. But he’s personally cautious about the scope of the question, and aware of the resistance within his conservative base to doing anything.
Abbott’s also mindful of the obstacles referendums face. Monday’s Fairfax/Ipsos poll showed 85% support for recognising Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the constitution as the first inhabitants of Australia. But people were responding to a bland question, and before the “no” campaigners get to work. “While there is an abundance of goodwill in the general public, they’re at the beginning of this process. They’re not halfway through it,” Abbott said.
Shorten is in favour of something more substantive than Abbott. What had been recognised at the meeting was that “we don’t want to have the tyranny of low expectations”, that just symbolic change was unsatisfactory, he told his news conference, but added “what was also recognised is there needs to be compromise”.
The majority of Indigenous voices, including Wyatt’s parliamentary committee, are saying strongly that constitutional change needs to include an anti-discrimination provision.
But Frank Brennan, who brings to the subject deep legal knowledge and a long history of involvement in Indigenous questions, writes in his recently published book No Small Change: The road to recognition for indigenous Australia: “A constitutional ban on racial discrimination would require the High Court to second-guess every piece of legislation relating to Aborigines coming before the Commonwealth parliament”.
“Only a modest referendum proposal will have the prospect of being carried, of being workable and of being sufficiently certain in its future application.”
Whether Monday’s meeting will live up to the “historic” description will depend on where the process it has started finishes up. Can a consensus be found that is both reassuring and robust enough to win broad acceptance from the key players and then to fly in a referendum?
Next month, Abbott will spend a week in the Torres Strait Islands and Northern Peninsula Area. He will take a number of ministers and officials. This meets his pledge of spending a week annually in a remote indigenous community.