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It Will Be 2017 At The Earliest Before We Have Constitutional Recognition Of Indigenous People

We now have a path to recognition. But it's a long one.

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David Moir / AAPIMAGE

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten today met with a group of handpicked Indigenous leaders in a historic summit to address the inclusion of Indigenous people in the Australian constitution.

The talks were designed to break the impasse and division around the campaign to recognise the first Australians, and to discuss the timing and possible wording of a referendum question that would be put to the Australian public.

The summit failed to deliver a possible referendum question, but a timeframe was established with a referendum now likely to take place in 2017.

"I would be very disappointed if we aren't able to proceed to a recognition referendum sometime in the next term parliament," Abbott said today. "I've previously said it would be apt to do it on the 27th of may 2017 which is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum. That's a tight deadline I have to say."

Inclusion of the first Australians in the constitution has had bipartisan support from all Australian political parties for almost a decade, but ultimately it is the Australian public that will decide in a referendum.

Which questions a referendum would ask and what form recognition would take have divided the Indigenous community. All want the clause referring to discrimination against people based on race removed, but that's where the unity stops.

David Moir / AAPIMAGE

The Prime Minister today announced he will establish a referendum council, made up of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who would advise government and spearhead a national engagement campaign with communities.

"There will be a series of community conferences, which will consider what we hope to get out of recognition as a nation, precisely what form of recognition will take. It will be overseen by a referendum council which will be broadly representative of the wholly Australian people," he said.

Pat Dodson and Kirstie Parker (Allan Clarke / BuzzFeed)

Kirstie Parker, co-chair of the National Congress for Indigenous People spoke on behalf of the group and said that despite a diversity of opinions on the way forward, they all want to see symbolic change.

"This process must bring about substantive reform, we don't believe that mere symbolic change alone is enough," she said. "We know that there have been numerous attempts to get this right. There have been advances, particularly in the last few decades, that have given us a glimmer of hope of what is possible, but we haven't bought it home yet."

Parker said community engagement would be a crucial aspect of winning public support.

"We need to see ongoing engagement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. There must be an opportunity for our people to express our voices specifically in that process."

Patrick Dodson, known as the godfather of reconciliation, said that any proposal for change would have to include a racial non-discrimination clause in the constitution.

"Our constitution has got the inherent racism in it and that's the most difficult aspect because that has to be expunged but how to do that is the challenge we have, without upsetting a whole other range of issues in the constitution," he said today.

"I think people are up for it. I think people are really wanting to get on with the job, fix up the constitution in relation to the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and get rid of the racist underpinnings in that document."

Elder Jenny Munro (Allan Clarke / BuzzFeed)

Outside of the summit around 30 protestors rallied, angry at the process and protesting against constitutional recognition.

Protest leader, elder Jenny Munro said any substantive change needed to come from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and not government vetted groups.

"This is a secret meeting that been organised by the Prime Minister having a secret meeting with a handpicked Aboriginal people who will decide the content of the constitutional question."

"I say this to white people, this is an issue that Aboriginal people are entitled to have a say about and discuss amongst ourselves. That's called real self determination."

Formerly with BuzzFeed News, Allan Clarke is a NITV reporter based in Sydney.

Contact Allan Clarke at

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