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Indigenous Leaders Furious At PM's Refusal To Accept Community Involvement In Recognition Debate

They warn the campaign will fail if taken out of Indigenous hands.

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Labor Senator Nova Peris has slammed Prime Minister Tony Abbott for undermining Indigenous leaders who want Aboriginal community consultation to determine the best way forward on constitutional recognition.

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Senator Peris, the first Aboriginal woman to sit in federal parliament, has told BuzzFeed News that Abbott's refusal to support community engagement has damaged the work done by Indigenous leaders in their push for inclusion in the constitution.

"I am worried the Prime Minister is white-anting the process before it even begins. Unlike Tony Abbott, Labor is not scared of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples caucusing on constitutional recognition," Senator Peris said.

The comments come after the PM rejected a proposal by highly influential Cape York leader Noel Pearson and the 'godfather of reconciliation' Patrick Dodson, to have a series of Indigenous-only community conferences.

The conferences were proposed as a way of unifying a fractured community which remains divided on the issue of constitutional recognition. Dodson and Pearson argued that for meaningful change to occur, it would need widespread support from the Indigenous community.

The Prime Minister disagreed, says that an entirely Indigenous proposal on how to achieve constitutional recognition would alienate the wider public and likely end in a "no" vote at a referendum.

Peter Eve / PR IMAGE

"My anxiety about a separate Indigenous process is that it jars with the notion of finally substituting 'we' for 'them and us'," Mr Abbott said in the letter. "I am in favour of building a 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. The risk with an Indigenous only, or even an Indigenous first, process is that it might produce something akin to a log of claims that is unlikely to receive general support."

Speaking earlier in the week at the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land, Pearson criticised the prime minister's lack of faith in the Indigenous community being able to form a unified roadmap on the way the forward.

"Burdened with a history of assumption that our mob can never unite and will never unite. As a result, I think the PM harbours a reservation about the idea we could go through a set of conferences and come up with something that is hard-headed, politically realistic, but also faithful to the history of Indigenous advocacy of recognition that is at least a century old," Pearson said.

Senator Peris believes community participation is the only way to ensure success.

"It is important to the success of a referendum that Australia's first peoples must have the opportunity to discuss and debate all the options outlined by the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples so that people can make a free and informed decision on the matter," she said.

"By flat out rejecting the proposal, the PM is sending the message to Aboriginal leaders that the views of Aboriginal people aren't important to him," Peris said.

Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton was offended by the letter.

Academic Marcia Langton. (AAP)

"We don't accept that we're not capable of communicating with the people and getting them to decide on what form constitutional recognition will take, we do not accept the Prime Minister's view that we are unable to achieve this," Langton told BuzzFeed News.

Referring the landmark 1967 referendum for Indigenous rights, Langton says it is possible to get the majority of Australians on board with a roadmap devised by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

Langton believes the leaders involved will continue to push for community conferences with or without governments funding.

"We've had thousands of offers of help to get these Indigenous conventions happening. A lot of people are putting their hands up to help and we're going to do this 67' style. We'll hold a chook raffle and all if we have to," Langton said.

BuzzFeed News has requested comment from the Prime Minister's office.

Allan Clarke is an Indigenous Affairs Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

Contact Allan Clarke at allan.clarke@buzzfeed.com.

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