A highly respected politician leading the charge for a major change in Australia has issued a warning about how to achieve it.
The man celebrated as the Father of Reconciliation knows he has just “one task”.
Special envoy for the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Pat Dodson, describes the job ahead of him akin to “holding a boat”.
“I want people to get in the boat and help run the boat towards the successful referendum that we all desire,” he told ABC Radio.
The Albanese government has pledged to hold a referendum on enshrining a First Nations Voice in the constitution.
Five years ago, a large representative body of Indigenous leaders issued the Uluru Statement from the Heart, calling for a Voice to parliament enshrined in the constitution and a Makarrata Commission to oversee treaty-making and truth-telling.
In his acceptance speech, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made it his first priority – if his government could get support for a bill in parliament, Australia could be set to undergo its first referendum in over two decades.
But as Senator Dodson acknowledged on Monday, building consensus was his first port of call.
“I’m happy to work with anyone about achieving that objective; it’s not a question of running around like a mad hatter,” he said.
“It’s a question of major strategy, and working with colleagues in the parliament, and that forum, as well as outside of the parliament, with the many different groups that have had the key interest in this.”
It’s not yet clear what a Voice to parliament would look like or how it would operate.
It is expected to be an advisory body to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to provide advice to the parliament on policies and projects that impact their lives.
“This is about our real opportunity for all of us to do something wonderful for our country and that is to get behind a referendum that supports the concept of a Voice for First Nations peoples to the parliament, so they can have a say on those key pieces of legislation or on policy matters that are going to impact their lives,” Senator Dodson said.
From the Heart campaign director Dean Parkin said Australia was ready to vote for the change.
“That’s the reason why we’re talking about it now, because the Australian people think that this is a really fair and a really practical thing that we can do for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” he told Sky News.
“We know that between 50 and 60 per cent of Australians are really ready to support this, so that public support is something that gives us great confidence.”
But opposition leader Peter Dutton, while open to the change, wants to see more detail before signing the Coalition up to a commitment.
“I want to look at the detail (but) at the moment that detail is not available,” Mr Dutton said.
“Linda Burney has been very open and honest and reasonable in that regard; she hasn’t put a timeline on it.”
He echoed the comments from the Coalition’s only First Nation’s representative, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, who said there were bigger issues than a Voice.
“There are things that can be done now, in those communities that don‘t need to wait for a referendum. And I would like to see those actions,” Mr Dutton said.
“And I want to see, you know, those people in those communities, leading a much better life akin to what we do in capital cities.”
In an essay published in The Australian, former prime minister Tony Abbott argued time for a Voice had passed.
“With 10 Indigenous MPs, what‘s the point of a separate Indigenous Voice to the parliament, now that Indigenous people are so well represented in the parliament itself?” Mr Abbott wrote.
“With the Indigenous percentage of the parliament (elected without quotas or any form of ‘affirmative action’) now ahead of that in the population at large, any need for a separate ’voice’ to the parliament surely has passed.”
Instead, he said, a constitutional change should simply recognise Australia’s Indigenous past.
Senator Dodson said he hoped First Nations MPs would reach a “common ground”.
“This land was taken from the First Nations, so we’ve got to find a way to recognise those first nations and redeem the injustice that was perpetrated upon them,” he said.
“I’d encourage them (Aboriginal MPs) to look for the common ground that we can gain in order to get the effectiveness in the parliament to redress many of those matters,” he said.
Originally published as ‘Common ground’ needed on First Nations Voice to parliament