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Prime Minister Backflips On Decision Not To Support Indigenous-Only Conferences

Tony Abbott has committed to funding Indigenous community conferences on constitutional recognition less than a month after calling them divisive.

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Prime Minister Tony Abbott has met with four key Indigenous leaders instrumental in pushing for constitutional recognition to soothe tensions over community consultations.

Mick Tsikas / AAPIMAGE

The PM sat down with conservative Indigenous leader Noel Pearson, Co-Chair of the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples Kirstie Parker, Professor of Law Megan Davis and Patrick Dodson, the man considered the godfather of Australia's reconciliation movement.

The meeting came after Abbott refused to commit to a proposal by Pearson and Dodson for Indigenous community conferences to be held as a way of ensuring that any amendments to the constitution were made by the Indigenous community.

After significant community backlash, the Prime Minister did an about-face and committed to putting money on the table to fund the conferences.

"I think we put this show back on the rails," a satisfied Pearson said following the meeting.

Parker told BuzzFeed News that Indigenous consultation should have always been given.

"We felt that what we requested has been accommodated and that's a good thing. It's not the be-all-and-end-all (allowing Indigenous community conferences), because let's face it, it's a minimum requirement in a process that is ostensibly about recognising our people. The least we would expect is to have a say on it."

Over the next year a referendum council, which will oversee national consultation on the issue, will establish a program of Indigenous consultations.

Kirstie Parker (Joseph Mayers /The National Congress of Australia's First Peoples)

There will also be mainstream conferences for the wider community to have their say, these will run parallel to the Indigenous meetings.

"The process has yet to be properly designed. We’ve nutted out a bit of a mud map, and there will be some details to come especially working out the locations, " Parker says.

The campaign for constitutional recognition and the process has been criticised by several anti-recognise groups.

Parker acknowledges the process has been difficult.

"It’s certainly been a long and winding road and longer than I think anyone imagined but by the same token this is not going to be an easy road to see it through to its ultimate point," she said.

"We know there will be other bumps. There are critics of the quest to reform the constitution, and obviously there is a diversity of views within our own community," Parker said.

In July the Prime Minister held a summit with 40 hand-picked Indigenous leaders to break the impasse on a stagnating campaign towards constitutional recognition.

Prime Minister's office.

The summit was co-chaired by Prime Minister Abbott and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and established a timeframe for a referendum, likely to take place in 2017.

One of the key recommendations from the delegation was a roadmap toward change which would heavily involve the indigenous community conferences.

The Prime Minister's refusal to support Indigenous-only conferences was a blow to the goodwill of those who attended.

In the letter to Pearson and Dodson, Abbott said that he felt Indigenous-only discussions would be highly divisive and likely result in a no vote from the public in favour of changes to the constitution.

"Anxiety about a separate Indigenous process is that it jars with the notion of finally substituting ‘we’ for ‘them and us’," The PM said at the time.

“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,” Mr Abbott wrote.

Pearson quickly dismissed those claims as "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,” he said.

Senator Nova Peris, the first Aboriginal woman to sit in federal parliament, told BuzzFeed News at the time that Abbott was alienating the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

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

Contact Allan Clarke at arielle.benedek+AC@buzzfeed.com.

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