Recognising indigenous Australians in the constitution would be a nation-building exercise that could put the country back on the path to reconciliation, an Aboriginal leader says.
Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda believes working towards a successful referendum by 2013 could regain the momentum lost since the 2008 apology to the stolen generations.
It would also help heal the wounds caused by the discriminatory and continuing Northern Territory intervention.
Labor, the coalition and the Greens all support amending the constitution to formally recognise indigenous people.
Mr Gooda thinks a referendum is most likely be held on the same day as the next federal election.
“By finally and formally settling and affirming the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our nation, all of us grow in stature,” the commissioner told the National Press Club on Wednesday.
“This will be a long, hard journey but it’s the journey that will mark our maturity as a nation.”
Mr Gooda says Australia took a “great leap forward” with the 2008 apology by former prime minister Kevin Rudd “but somehow we lost momentum soon after”.
Relations between indigenous people and governments are now “dysfunctional”.
In part that’s due to the NT intervention, launched by the coalition before the 2007 election and continued by the Rudd and Gillard governments.
“The intervention and the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act affected us all deeply – regardless of where we actually live,” Mr Gooda said.
“It triggered in our collective memories all the past injustices that we experienced.”
But Mr Gooda is convinced building a “Yes” campaign for constitutional recognition could restore healthy relationships.
“It’s a nation-building exercise, it’s an exercise in changing relationships,” he said.
The Gangulu man told the press club it wouldn’t be enough to simply achieve the requisite majority of votes Australia-wide combined with majorities in a majority of states.
Rather, Mr Gooda wants to emulate the historic 1967 referendum when over 90 per cent of Australians voted to amend the constitution to ensure Aborigines were counted in the census.
“I think we’ve got to achieve the 90 per cent result,” he said.
“The bar’s been set in 1967. It would be a disaster for this country if this referendum just fell over the line.”
The Aboriginal leader also flagged the possibility of other changes to the commonwealth constitution.
“It’s still possible under our constitution to make special laws for different races in this country,” Mr Gooda said.
“There’s been talk with the constitutional experts whether we should address that.”
But at the end of the day he’s aware change will probably be gradual.
“We’ve got to be realistic and end up going with what the coalition will wear,” he said.
“Because this won’t be bothered going ahead (with) if we don’t have bipartisan support.”