Australians will vote on whether the Constitution should be amended to recognise Indigenous Australians by 2022, minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt has announced.
"I will develop and bring forward a consensus option for constitutional recognition to be put to a referendum during the current parliamentary term," Wyatt pledged in a speech to the National Press Club on Wednesday.
"The national interest requires a new relationship with Indigenous Australians based on their participation and establishing entrenched partnerships at the community and regional levels."
The Uluru Statement from the Heart – agreed to by 250 Indigenous delegates in May 2017 – calls for an Indigenous "voice to parliament" to allow Indigenous people to have a say on policy and legislation affecting them.
A parliamentary committee recommended in late 2018 that a referendum on constitutional recognition be held after a model for the voice is developed. This frustrated Indigenous advocates, who have argued that a referendum question should not spell out a specific model, but rather a process of designing a voice that respects Indigenous Australians' self-determination.
Wyatt — the first Indigenous person to hold an Indigenous affairs portfolio – said it was important to design the right model so that a referendum would be successful and win the majority of Indigenous Australians' support. In order to amend the constitution, Australian referendums need the "yes" vote to command a majority of the nation's voters, as well as in at least half of the country's six states.
Constitutional recognition was "too important" to rush, and the process would need to be "thorough", Wyatt said. In response to questioning, he admitted that he might abandon the referendum if it looked as if it might not win, setting the cause back. "If it doesn't look as though it's going to be accepted then we should not proceed," he said.
Wyatt said he would establish a working group of MPs from different parties to help community engagement in developing a model to take to a referendum. Labor's shadow minister for Aboriginal affairs Linda Burney would be "integral" to that process, he said.
Advocate for the Uluru statement and union official Thomas Mayor told BuzzFeed News Wyatt's announcement was a "win for the people's movement" and that he encouraged Indigenous Australians to engage in the co-design process.
"People have supported this so strongly since Uluru so we have shifted from Turnbull's dismissal to basically solid bipartisan support, and that's exciting for us," Mayor said. Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull had rejected the idea of a referendum on the voice to parliament, dismissing it as a "third chamber" of parliament.
Wyatt spoke about how he interpreted the voice, saying it was not a singular body. "What I perceive is that it is a cry to all tiers of government to stop and listen to the voices of Indigenous Australians at all levels," he said. He promised to work with state and territory ministers, Indigenous organisations and leaders, and advisory bodies to develop an approach to the voice.
He suggested that a referendum might not squarely address a voice to parliament, saying he wanted to "separate" the questions of a constitutional recognition and the call for a voice. In response to questioning, he said it was "likely that there will be a legislative structure" to the voice, but that "there is also a call for a set of words within the constitution".
"The only recognition we have said that we will accept from Uluru is to enshrine a voice," Mayor said. "It's a substantive form of recognition...we're not interested in symbolism." He added that Wyatt was "on the right path".
The Uluru statement also called for a Makarrata Commission to "supervise a process of agreement making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history". In his speech, Wyatt also committed to looking at truth-telling, but said that states and territories would have to take the lead on treaties with Indigenous Australians.
Wyatt said that $160 million had been set aside for a future referendum once a model had been decided. The 2019 budget included $7.3 million for a co-design process of the referendum question.