Labor backs Aboriginal voice, PM silent

Malcolm Turnbull has been criticised for a lack of leadership on indigenous constitutional reform. (AAP)

When you think of Aboriginal recognition, just imagine Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten in a canoe, and the opposition leader says he's doing all the paddling.

When it comes to Aboriginal constitutional reform, picture Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten sitting in a canoe - and the opposition leader thinks he's the only one paddling.

The Labor leader has backed a referendum question on an indigenous voice to parliament, while the prime minister has failed to commit bipartisan support.

The two politicians are moving together downstream, struggling to balance the boat to achieve reconciliation, Gumatj leader Djapirri Mununggirritj has told Garma Festival in northeast Arnhem Land.

Mr Shorten called it an "arresting image" but said he was disappointed Mr Turnbull dismissed his end of year referendum question deadline as "very ambitious".

"We support a declaration by all parliaments, we support a truth telling commission, we are not confronted by the notion of treaties with our first Australians," he said.

Mr Turnbull acknowledged many Aboriginal leaders were disappointed the government didn't give "instant fulfilment" to the Referendum Council's recommendations.

He described the Yolgnu elder's canoe analogy as apt, saying his cabinet will give the matter careful consideration to keep the aspiration of Makarrata, or coming together after a struggle, from capsizing.

An "all or nothing approach" to constitutional change risks rocking the boat, resulting in a failed referendum, and Mr Turnbull called for time to develop a winnable question to put to Australian voters.

"We are not alone in the canoe, we are in the canoe with all of you and we need to steer it wisely to achieve that goal of Makarrata," he said.

Mr Turnbull said there's still many practical questions about what shape the advisory body would take, whether it would be elected or appointed and how it would affect Aboriginal people around the country.

Specifically, he questioned what impact the voice to parliament would have on issues like child protection and justice, which are largely the legislative domain of state and territory governments.

But Mr Shorten said debate over Aboriginal recognition in the nation's founding document has dragged on for the past decade.

"I can lead Mr Turnbull and the Liberal party to water but I can't make them drink," he said.

Having led the failed 1999 republic referendum campaign, Mr Turnbull warned that Australians are "constitutionally conservative", with just eight out of 44 successful since federation.

But Mr Shorten said "Aboriginal Australians do not need a balanda [white person] lecture about the difficulty of changing the constitution".

Mr Shorten's proposal of a joint parliamentary committee to finalise a referendum question has been met with cynicism by indigenous leaders.

On Friday Cape York figure Noel Pearson and Referendum Co-chair Pat Anderson slammed the "empty platitudes" offered by both politicians at Garma's opening ceremony.

A day later, Gumatj clan leader Dr Galarrwuy Yunupingu received a standing ovation when he demanded both politicians "carry this weight all the way to Canberra".

Mr Pearson said he would follow the land rights champion and trust the pair, while Ms Anderson said "today is definitely a new day", praising their sincere addresses.

"We all know the scale of the difficulty," Mr Pearson said.

"I just urge political leaders from both sides of the aisle to talk up our cause and give hope to the Australian people," he said.

Source AAP

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