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Referendum Council's one recommendation leaves Malcolm Turnbull unsure

Australia's political leaders have been urged to abandon any immediate pursuit of an Indigenous treaty and to instead push for a referendum to establish a permanent "Voice to Parliament".

But Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has responded with caution, urging any move to change the constitution will need widespread support for fear of a "heroic failure" that would set back progress.  

In its one key recommendation to Parliament, the body established to advise Mr Turnbull and Bill Shorten on Indigenous recognition, the Referendum Council, called for a national Indigenous representative body be established and enshrined in the constitution, as one of the first steps on the road to a treaty.

The Council, which finalised its report following the Uluru Statement delivered at the conclusion of May's Indigenous Summit, did not give details on what that would mean, or how it would work, but any change to the constitution would require a referendum.

Sitting side-by-side with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten in a show of bipartisanship, Mr Turnbull appeared more hesitant than his Labor counterpart in addressing the Council's recommendation, which he said was "very short on detail…but a very big idea".

Referring to the ill-fated republican referendum in 1999, where he had led the "Yes" campaign, Mr Turnbull said he knew "better than most" how hard changing the constitution could be.


"We do not want to embark, I am sure none of us do, in some sort of exercise in heroic failure," he said.

"…We need to ensure that any changes that are proposed are ones which meet both the expectation of First Australians, but also will bring together all Australians.

"Because this is a vote of all Australians."

Mr Shorten said Labor would listen to the Council's reasons for its recommendation and acknowledged "the objectives of this report, including a stronger voice in Parliament for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and a process for treaty and agreement making".

"These are legitimate aspirations," he said.

"It is the key recommendation of this report and we can't shy away from that fact. They are big changes as the Prime Minister has said – I do not believe they are beyond us."

One of Mr Turnbull's immediate concerns was why the Council rejected the work from previous expert panels and select committees, which had recommended acknowledging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the First Peoples of Australia in the constitution.

Co-Chair of the Referendum Council Mark Leibler said in reaching its final position the Council "took respectful account of the inquiries that preceded ours", noting "none of them consulted as we did with the peoples we seek to recognise".

"Clear-headed consideration of what we have advocated, and why, will bring Australians of all backgrounds and political persuasions to one conclusion, I believe," he said.

"As a nation, we either follow the path set out in the council's report or we remove constitutional recognition of our first peoples from the current agenda."

Acknowledging more detail would be needed before moving forward, Mr Leibler said the most important parts were there for the idea to be seen as "simple and moderate".

"Simple because it is the only constitutional change on the table," he said.

"Moderate because its structure and functions will be defined by the parliament and there is no suggestion that the body would have power of veto on proposed legislation.

"Indigenous people have been asking to have more control over their own affairs for decades.

"How mean spirited would it be to deny this."

But the idea has already met resistance. Council member Amanda Vanstone dissented from the report, saying its recommendation was "a relatively new development", which saw the issue "at a new starting point" and a "tremendous amount of work" needed to be done before it could be considered more broadly.

It took just moments for conservative think tank the Institute of Public Affairs to label the recommendation a "radical attempt to divide Australians in our national constitution".

"The proposal to create a new constitutional arm of the Australian government that excludes all but one race is illiberal, undemocratic and divisive," director of policy Simon Brehenysaid.

"The suggestion that every indigenous Australian can or should be represented by a single body is also deeply patronising. Indigenous Australians deserve better than constitutionally enshrined condescension."

"All Australians are equal under the Australian constitution."

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