• Warren Mundine fears momentum for constitutional change to recognise indigenous people is dropping. (AAP)
The head of the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council is adamant Tony Abbott will consider treaties with Indigenous people if there's a successful referendum to change the constitution.
Myles Morgan

23 Dec 2014 - 8:55 PM  UPDATED 10 Mar 2015 - 8:41 PM

Tony Abbott and Opposition leader Bill Shorten have both pledged themselves to changing the Constitution to somehow recognise or acknowledge Indigenous people. They both support the Recognise campaign, which also wants racist provisions removed from the Constitution.

To change the Constitution, a question needs to be put to the Australian public in the form of a referendum.

"The Prime Minister needs now to sit down the with Leader of the Opposition and other major party leaders and other Aboriginal leaders to finalise what that question's going to be," said Indigenous Advisory Council chairman Warren Mundine.

"At the moment, we're just talking in a vacuum. We all want constitutional change but what is it? I think that's the challenge for the Prime Minister."

Warren Mundine also supports the notion of treaties, where hundreds of Australia's Indigenous nations negotiate their own formal agreements with the Federal Government. It could recognise Indigenous peoples' rights to land and sea or other binding agreements. Australia is the only Commonwealth country in the world not to have a treaty with its Indigenous inhabitants.

Mr Mundine said negotiating treaties is a "natural progression" and a "continuation" of the process to change the Constitution, and one that Tony Abbott is supportive of.

"Indigenous people have been fighting for 200 years for that and I'm still confident about pushing ahead with that with the current Government and I'm hoping that the Opposition will come on board in this area because these are the things that Aboriginal people have been asking for."

But Mr Mundine said treaties won't become a reality unless the current Recognise campaign is successful and that process could lose momentum unless a referendum question is revealed.

"I'm challenging the Prime Minister because we do need to have that question out sooner rather than later so it can be out in the communities and really mobilise us for the 2017 period," he said.

There is no official date for the referendum, but Tony Abbott has indicated he'd like to see it happen in 2017, on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, which saw the majority of Australians vote in favour of including Indigenous people in the Census.

The Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, left the door open to treaties when he spoke earlier this month at the Recognise gala in Redfern.

"I understand that there are some who believe recognition doesn't go far enough, if it doesn't discuss a treaty," he told the audience.

"And to those we must make clear that the past injustices of settlement and occupation and dispossession are not thwarted or extinguished by the recognition process. Recognition is not the end of the road, but one step in the ongoing journey of reconciliation and closing the gap."

Brushing off criticisms

Warren Mundine, a Bundjalung and Gumbayanggirr man, has ignored those who say the Indigenous Advisory Council is irrelevant. The twelve-person council is made up of other prominent Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

It's faced a steady stream of criticism and vitriol since it was created. At the G20 conference in Brisbane earlier this year, effigies of Warren Mundine were burned by angry Indigenous protesters.

Many Indigenous people also say it bypasses the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, the democratically-elected body which represents Indigenous Australians.

However Mr Mundine said critics assume the Indigenous Advisory Council doesn't get concrete outcomes.

"There's a lot of criticism of use because we're an advisory group. In fact, I think we're quite a radical group. Name me other groups who are considered to be conservative who are actually up there having this battle over a treaty and actually fighting for us to move forward."

According to Mr Mundine, the first year of the Indigenous Advisory Council was about laying its foundations.

"To be honest it is very, very early days and the biggest achievement I think has been in the shifting of people's thinking, the shifting in regard to that we're fair dinkum about lifting people out of poverty and we're very fair dinkum in getting Aboriginal outcomes," he said.

"People getting jobs, an education, health and moving in that area; these are not simple things, they're major shifts. Having those debates, having those arguments and moving forward in that policy area has been very successful."

Mr Mundine was once the President of the Labor Party. The Labor Party's Indigenous Affairs spokesman Shayne Neumann has said the Council would be scrapped if Labor wins the next election.

But Warren Mundine said Indigenous people would then be losing sympathetic voices in Parliament.

"The real friends of Aboriginal people are the people who are going to lift them out of poverty, who are going to improve their health, who are going to make them truly equal to every other Australian and recognise them in the Constitution and to deliver in a major way on a number of other issues.”