Australian PM knocks back Indigenous constitution plan

Australian PM Tony Abbott Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Abbott is at loggerheads with Indigenous leaders

Australia's Prime Minister has rejected a proposal to consult Aboriginal people first about recognising them in the nation's constitution.

Aboriginal leaders want their own people to agree first on how to move towards constitutional recognition for the country's first peoples.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said such a move would not gain broader support.

Indigenous Australians are not mentioned in the constitution and a treaty was never negotiated with them.

Mr Abbott has pledged to hold a referendum in 2017 that could see Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders recognised as the first Australians.

Indigenous leaders are angry Mr Abbott has rejected their proposals to hold Indigenous-only meetings first.

But in a letter to Indigenous leaders, published in The Australian newspaper on Tuesday, Mr Abbott said holding Indigenous-only meetings first risked creating "a log of claims".

He said his "anxiety about a separate Indigenous process is that it jars with the notion of finally substituting 'we' for 'them and us'".

"I am in favour of building consensus, but strongly believe that this should be a national consensus in favour of a particular form of recognition rather than simply an Indigenous one," Mr Abbott said.

Influential Cape York leader Noel Pearson told local media Mr Abbott's "log of claims" comments was "probably the most dismal part of this whole matter — it's almost offensive".

Proposed changes to the constitution:

A Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples has recommended these changes to the constitution:

  • Recognising that the continent and its islands now known as Australia were first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • Acknowledging the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their traditional lands and waters
  • Respecting the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

Repealing the two so-called "race provisions":

  • section 25 that recognises that the states can disqualify people on the basis of their race from voting
  • section 51(26) that allows laws to be made based upon a person's race.

Indigenous lawyer Patrick Dodson said Aboriginal Australians needed to have their "own discussions" on "complicated matters".

"Until you can get something that is consensual it is very difficult to give them comfort to a proposition that may or may not have their support," Mr Dodson told National Indigenous Television (NITV).

Image copyright AAP
Image caption Aboriginal Australians need to feel confident about the process, says Patrick Dodson

Speaking at an Indigenous festival in the Northern Territory on the weekend, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda said it was hard not to feel despair.

"I sometimes think I meet the definition of insanity," said Mr Gooda, according to local media.

"I keep saying the same thing expecting different outcomes, but the thing I keep saying is you have got to engage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people respectfully, and that's what was proposed here."

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