Federal Politics


Recognition next year 'achievable': Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull has declared that a referendum to recognise Indigenous Australians in the constitution is "achievable" next year, saying the first hurdle is to come up with a form of words that "sings" to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

More News Videos

Malcolm Turnbull's Closing-the-Gap oratory

'Time out of mind': the Prime Minister bookends the statistics of the 2016 Closing the Gap report with his own rhetorical flourish.

"I would like to see it get up, but it's got to have something that enthuses Indigenous people, that they see as meaningful, and then it's got to be in practical, political terms achievable," the Prime Minister told Fairfax Media.

Mr Turnbull indicated his willingness to attend and address Indigenous conventions that will shape a proposed constitutional amendment in the second half of this year, so long as this was the will of Indigenous leaders.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during question time. He wants a referendum worded to 'sing' to Aboriginal and Torres ...
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during question time. He wants a referendum worded to 'sing' to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Photo: Andrew Meares

"I've talked to them about achievability," he said. "There's not many things I know a lot about, but one of them is the difficulties of changing the Australian constitution."

In a wide-ranging interview after delivering his annual Closing the Gap report, he also:

  • Said he was open to proposing a new closing the gap target, aimed at reducing spiralling Indigenous incarceration rates, as part of a new blueprint for transitioning people from prison to work. "It's certainly something we'll look at."
  • Revealed he had given the go-ahead for trials of the empowered communities model developed by leaders including Cape York's Noel Pearson.
  • Signalled he will not be following Tony Abbott's practice of spending a week in remote Indigenous communities each year, but will instead explore ways to focus on inspirational success stories.

"I'm not putting the brakes on, believe me, but it's not for the faint-hearted this constitutional amendment business," Mr Turnbull said of the proposed referendum.

"The first thing is that we've got to come up with some words, an amendment that is meaningful for Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders. It's got to speak to, it's got to sing to them, otherwise they'll wash their hands of it," he said.

"If, through their consultative process, the referendum advisory council comes back with some language that fits that bill and then we, as the Parliament, are comfortable with it, and are comfortable that we can get it passed, then it would go forward."

Mr Turnbull said he had already talked to Indigenous leaders about the challenge of achieving recognition, drawing on his experience leading the unsuccessful campaign for a republic in 1999.

While debate so far has focused on options including the insertion of a racial discrimination prohibition in the constitution or the recognition of a body to advise the parliament on legislation affecting Indigenous people, Mr Turnbull said: "I think the more elaborate the changes, the less likely they are to ever get passed, so there is a lot of judgement that is called for there."

He also said he understood the frustration of Indigenous leaders who have expressed anger that their voices were not being heard. "Their voices were heard today in the House of Representatives."

Mr Turnbull began his address to Parliament by acknowledging they were meeting on the lands of the Ngunawal people and paid respect to their elders in their language. His intention was to not only show respect, but to demonstrate a commitment to preserving Indigenous languages.

According to the Prime Minister, the 2016 Closing the Gap report revealed very mixed results against the seven targets but presented reasons to be optimistic.

In health, halving the child mortality gap is on track but the 10-year life expectancy gap has recorded little improvement and is not on track.


In education, year 12 attainment is on track - reaching 58.5 per cent - and the last decade has seen a 70 per cent increase in higher education participation. Only half of the student groups measured from years 7 to 9 are hitting targets in literacy and numeracy.

The report found that, on any given day, 83.7 per cent of Indigenous students are at school, considered quite high but showing little change from 2014 and requiring improvement.

Labor leader Bill Shorten repeated his support for a referendum in May 2017, the 50th anniversary of the successful 1967 referendum that gave the Commonwealth power to make laws in respect of Indigenous people.

Mr Shorten also repeated his support for including a target to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous incarceration rates, saying: "It cannot be correct that the colour of your skin is a greater predictor of going to prison than any other."

Follow us on Twitter