• Australian Prime Minister Tonny Abbott speaks to the media during a press conference after attending a NAIDOC meeting to consider the model for a referendum on Indigenous recognition (AAP)Source: AAP
The Prime Minister indicated at Monday’s Indigenous summit in Sydney that the Australian Constitution needed improving in relation to racially discriminating aspects ahead of an anticipated 2017 referendum.
Andrea Booth

6 Jul 2015 - 11:42 AM  UPDATED 7 Jul 2015 - 10:02 AM

The Constitution of Australia should be improved, Prime Minister Tony Abbott told media on the sidelines of an Indigenous summit when asked if he agreed that the founding document was racist. 

"It is a successful constitution of a very successful country," Mr Abbot said. "But it can and I believe should be improved."

The summit was called to decide on a model for constitutional recognition of Australia’s First Peoples ahead of an expected referendum on the issue in 2017.

"I absolutely understand the desire of all Australians to live in a discrimination-free country," he said.

Section 25 of the Constitution says state laws can disqualify people of a particular race from voting at state elections. Section 51(xxvi) enables parliament to make laws for "The people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws". 

"It is a successful constitution of a very successful country, but it can and I believe should be improved."

"We all want to live in a society that is free and fair to everyone. The question is how do we best do that in ways that don't have unintended consequences, and that's something we'll be carefully considering, both as a people and I suppose as experts, in the weeks and months ahead."

The 40-Indigenous leader strong summit has resolved to conduct community conferences with Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the lead up to the referendum.

"What we want to do is recognise Indigenous Australians so there's a sense in which this is for Indigenous Australians but the result has got to be something that belongs to all Australians not just to any particular group."

Members of the summit have additionally decided to publish a discussion paper to guide further debate on the issue and establish a referendum council for the expected 2017 referendum on the question whether to recognise the country’s First Peoples in the constitution. 

Both government and Indigenous leaders are expressing the importance of amending the constitution to include Indigenous Australians.

"Can this nation and can some of our best Indigenous leaders working with the Prime Minister and myself correct the great silence of the Australian Constitution?" Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Monday.

Warren Mundine, the Prime Minister's lead advisor on Indigenous affairs, said that recognising Australia’s First Peoples was much more than emblematic.  

"I don't see how taking any laws out of the constitution that stop people from voting because of race, I don't see that as very symbolic at all. I think that's a substantive change."

Indigenous leader Pat Dodson said the racist nature of the constitution was out of step with the time. "I think the Australian people want something so that we can all plan the future and move forward in a more positive and constructive way and live with some sense of pride about our history and rectify our constitution which is appallingly racist," Mr Dodson said.

Anti-recognition protesters confront police at the Indigenous Summit outside Kirribilli House in Sydney (NITV)

"What I'm talking about is something that has to be substantive in theconstitution. It's got to be a head of power that's relevant and respectful of the realities for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who've been here for thousands of years."

However, protesters outside the summit said recognising First Peoples in the constitution worked against their rights.

Rally organiser Michael Anderson said the campaign enabled the government to govern Indigenous Australians without their authority.

"They're not asking us whether we want to be governed, that's the problem," Mr Anderson said, "As soon as they recognise us, we're consenting to be governed. But the problem is we're only three percent of the population so it's 97 percent of the population of Australia who are white are going to give them fellas confirmation to govern us blackfellas and that's wrong, that's totally wrong."

Additional reporting by Myles Morgan and AAP.