Bob Hawke considers himself a good campaigner, having won a few in his time, and now he’s campaigning for something he wasn’t able to achieve while prime minister – constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians.
A movement towards a referendum is slowly gaining momentum around the country, and has strong bipartisan support.
Mr Hawke told a private dinner at the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land on Saturday night that recognition was long overdue.
While visiting the Burunga community in the Northern Territory in 1988, he promised Australia would enter into a treaty with its indigenous population by 1990, and says it “saddens” him this did not happen.
“Before us right now is the opportunity to take a step in the right direction,” he said.
“Importantly, it is an opportunity that does not foreclose on a treaty.”
Indigenous leaders had called for recognition for many years, he said.
The federally funded Recognise campaign is raising awareness about the push to include indigenous people in the constitution and remove sections that discriminate on the basis of race.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised in January to finalise by September a draft for changing Australia’s foundation document, and changes would be put to a referendum.
“It will be a chance for all Australians to acknowledge the inspiring achievements of the First Australians, reflected in the world’s oldest living cultures, are the rightful opening chapter of Australia’s story, and it will be a chance for us to say no more shall we permit the exclusions and discriminations of the past,” Mr Hawke said.
But he warned that a referendum could not succeed without popular support.
“I am one voter among millions of our fellow Australians, but I am a campaigner and I love a good campaign; I’ve even won a few,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to being able to cast my own vote on the day of a referendum that will remedy the silence of the omission in our constitution about the long presence in this land of the first Australians and to ensure there is no place for discrimination in our nation’s highest document.”