Australia

Government to hold referendum on Indigenous constitutional recognition within three years

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Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt is preparing to hold a referendum on Indigenous constitutional recognition in this parliamentary term.

Australians could vote on a proposal to recognise Indigenous people in the constitution within the next three years. 

Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt has detailed the government's plan to achieve Indigenous constitutional recognition in a major speech to the National Press Club on Wednesday for NAIDOC week. 

"I will develop and bring forward a consensus option for constitutional recognition to be put to a referendum during the current parliamentary term," Mr Wyatt said. 

Ken Wyatt
Prime Minister Scott Morrison Minister appointed Ken Wyatt to Indigenous Australians Minister.
AAP

"I have commenced the process of engaging and seeking the counsel of Indigenous leaders on the best way forward."

The commitment is a significant step forward just two years after former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected a proposal for an Indigenous voice to parliament to be included in the constitution over concerns it represented a "third chamber" of Parliament.   

Mr Turnbull's quick dismissal of the idea that came out of the landmark 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart angered many Indigenous groups.  

The re-elected Morrison government has revived the idea, allocating $7.3 million for consultation on finding a model to achieve constitutional change. 

"Constitutional recognition is too important to get wrong, and too important to rush," Mr Wyatt said. 

While Labor has pledged its support for an Indigenous voice to Parliament, one of his biggest challenges will be to convince members of his own party room. 

The opening ceremony for the National Indigenous Constitutional Convention held in 2017 that produced the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
The opening ceremony for the National Indigenous Constitutional Convention held in 2017 that produced the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
AAP

Mr Wyatt acknowledged some of his coalition colleagues were reticent, but said debate about the voice to parliament had "moved on substantially" since 2017.

He said he understood why some MPs had characterised the original demand for an Indigenous voice to be enshrined in the constitution as creating a "third chamber". 

"It's not the reality when you read what the underlying message is and it's a powerful message.

"The journey is not going to be easy and that's why I've asked people to walk with me."

Minister optimistic

For a referendum to succeed, it must win majority support across the nation and in the majority of states and territories - a bar that has proved too high for most campaigns for constitutional change in Australia. 

Only eight of 44 nation-wide referendums have been successful in Australia, including the 1967 referendum to include Indigenous Australians in the census. 

But Mr Wyatt is optimistic given the process has the support of the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese. 

Shadow Indigenous Affairs Minister Senator Pat Dodson
Labor Senator Pat Dodson says a referendum on constitutional recognition of Indigenous people could be held within 18 months.
AAP

"I plan to establish a working group of Parliamentary colleagues of all political persuasions to assist me in considering the role of engaging on many levels to bring forward a community model," Mr Wyatt said. 

Indigenous Labor Senator Pat Dodson said a referendum could be held sooner.  

"People should really put the challenge to the minister, come up with the model they want in the voice, and the set of words they want in the constitution," he told ABC radio. 

"There have been proposals in relation to those matters and it shouldn't take more than 18 months."

'Choked with emotion'

In the speech, Mr Wyatt reflected on the moment the Prime Minister rang him while he was hanging out the washing to offer him the job of Indigenous Australians Minister. 

"I choked with emotion at the honour and magnitude of the expectation that would come with being Minister for Indigenous Australians - it took me a full two minutes to answer him."

Apart from progressing constitutional recognition, Mr Wyatt outlined his other priorities in the role, vowing to improve naming mental health and reduce Aboriginal youth suicide.  

"The fact that Aboriginal people are committing suicide at twice the rate of non-Indigenous Australians is one of the gravest and most heart-breaking challenges we face."

"We need to address the influence of social and cultural factors if we are to see significant change. We need to listen to young people."

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