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Modest but realistic hope for a 2017 Referendum

  • 22 July 2015
After the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders met Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten at Kirribilli house on 6 July at the beginning of NAIDOC Week, it was a shock for many Australians to hear Noel Pearson pouring cold water on the outcome, saying that he would have preferred to have stayed at his beach house in Cape York with his children, while sending down a cardboard cutout.

It was heartening then last Tuesday to be at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne and to hear respected Aboriginal leaders like Jill Gallagher and Patricia Turner (pictured) giving a more hopeful account of the meeting.

Jill Gallagher, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, told a sell-out audience: ‘I was very confident coming out of that meeting that a referendum in 2017 will happen’.

Patricia Turner who had been the CEO of ATSIC and a deputy secretary of the Department of Prime Minster and Cabinet has had more high level meetings than hot dinners. She told the audience:

I’ve been to meetings with prime ministers and leaders of the opposition but never with them both in the same room. Our delegation was masterful. We were more interested in getting agreement on a process. It was important that we nailed them down to a process. I totally disagree with Noel’s assessment of it. Noel has agreed to work more co-operatively with us which is a good thing. Let’s look at how we are going to get the vast majority of our people on board and supporting us.

She thought it was one of the best meetings she had attended.

It was great to see Patrick Dodson and Noel Pearson coming out on the weekend on the same page about the way forward for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. They wrote, ‘We cannot proceed to a referendum without knowing where indigenous people stand,’ suggesting ‘there should be a diplomatic process between indigenous representatives, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Australian Greens, so we can reach multi-party agreement on the model to take to a referendum.’

Though agreeing on process, or at least on the pre-conditions for an appropriate process, they concede that they still have differing views about the desired outcome, saying: ‘We each have our own independent views on constitutional propositions’. Their sensitive leadership and reconciling spirit aimed at bridging differences are welcome and necessary if there