Pat Dodson has conceded that Labor’s promise to hold a referendum next year on Indigenous constitutional recognition was almost an impossibility, while describing the Recognise campaign as “confused and conflated”.
In a sobering assessment of the complexities of constitutional change and political reality, Labor’s star Senate recruit believes it could be years before Australians get to vote on changing the country’s founding document to include recognition of Australia’s First Peoples.
And he has thrown out a challenge to Indigenous Australians to unite at upcoming regional conventions set up to discuss the issue, and present a clear way forward for Aboriginal Australia.
Labor leader Bill Shorten believes next May, the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, would be an “auspicious time for a national vote on recognition, and a Labor Government will deliver a referendum then.”
But Senator Dodson told the National Indigenous Times that momentum for change had stalled and drifted, and that nothing really much had happened since former PM Julia Gillard’s initial push in 2012.
“The parliament at that time fudged it, they didn’t make a selection of any of those propositions, they in fact then said, ‘let’s have a process of Recognition’ . . . it’s drifted since then without a concrete set of propositions to go to the public,” he said.
Senator Dodson said there was a chance that the Indigenous side may have a clear set of proposals after the conventions had finished, but “you then have to deal with the parliamentary process, getting consensus around any proposals, and that’s not always guaranteed unless you have bipartisanship, and even then you will have more argy-bargy and then, they have to legislate the thing.
“Changing the constitution is an onerous task which requires public education.
“There’s got to be a selling of it out in the public space – again we need bipartisanship. You’ve got to sell it to 99 percent of white Australia . . . . and if there is a strong No case, as potentially there will be, people will argue against it, and you need 18 months at least for people to get familiar with what the heck they are voting on.
“You also must remember there will be some state elections next year – you’re not going to make it” (May deadline).
Senator Dodson said a lack of a specific proposition around which to base a public education campaign such as Recognise had meant that people were confused about what they were supposed to be supporting.
“What, exactly, are we recognising?” Senator Dodson asked.
The former co-chair of the Referendum Council said he believed the debate had stalled due to a range of reasons.
“Yes, I think it (the debate) has stalled,” he said, before adding that “the referendum council took an inordinate long time to settle a consultation process and resolve the funding allocations to underwrite that.”
He said the upcoming conventions should primarily discuss three things; the recommendations from the expert panel, the recommendations that came from the parliamentary committee chaired by WA MP Ken Wyatt and former Labor senator Nova Peris, and Noel Pearson’s proposition about an entrenched Indigenous entity.
He said broader discussions around a possible treaty could be discussed but there needed to be a clear way forward.
“We’re coming to the table in 2016, not 1788, so those who want to argue for a treaty need to define exactly what they want and be realistic in what they can achieve. A treaty is not a panacea.”
Senator Dodson also believed there was a certain level of resentment from Indigenous grass roots organisations towards the Recognise campaign, as it was in some minds linked to the hotly-contested public sector policy of cutting back on front-line services.
He believed the threats by WA Premier Colin Barnett to close some remote communities and funding cuts under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy and various Budgets had created frustration, anger and hostility.
“There’s a whole loss of control and funding for these services but the Recognise campaign seems to be the only one untouched,” Senator Dodson said.
Asked how the debate gets back on track, he said; “It depends among other things on the indigenous leadership and the people who go to these conventions.” He urged consensus as a way forward “if you can get some discipline among the indigenous cohorts that focusses on the Constitution and then formulate some agendas post constitutional change.”