Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has used his speech at the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land to further defer any official response to the Referendum Council’s recommendation of constitutionally enshrining a voice for Aboriginal Australians in Parliament.
Mr Turnbull said he had learned from his involvement in the failed 1999 referendum on whether to make Australia a republic.
“Many people talk about referendums, but few people have knowledge in running one,” he said.
“An all-or-nothing approach often results in nothing.
“I respect deeply the work of the Referendum Council, and I respect it by considering [their report] very carefully.”
Mr Turnbull said the recommendations of the Referendum Council were being considered by Cabinet, and the final approach would have to be bipartisan in order to succeed.
“That’s our way,” he said, “that’s how we give respect to serious matters.”
Mr Turnbull said he accepted that many people involved in the Referendum Council’s process wanted to see their recommendations implemented immediately, but urged for a careful consideration of how exactly they would be rolled out.
Shorten pushes for decision by end of year
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten followed the Prime Minister’s speech, and said the Uluru Statement from the Heart had articulated old ideas for a new generation.
“No more solutions should be imposed without the consultation and consent of first Australians,” Mr Shorten said.
“Labor supports a voice for Aboriginal Australians in our constitution. We are not confronted by the notion of treaties with our first Australians.
“The question is not if we should do these things, but when and how. We are not chained to the prejudices of the past. We cannot let the failure of  govern the future of the constitution.”
Mr Shorten said agreeing on a referendum question should be the very next step and there was “no reason why that can’t be done by the end of this year”.
“The Parliament could agree on the question by the end of this year, with the referendum to follow soon after that,” he said.
Former Referendum Council chairwoman “deflated”
The former chairwoman of the Referendum Council says she is “distressed” and “deflated” by the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader’s “disrespectful” behaviour at the Garma festival.
“They will do anything and everything except talk to us,” Pat Anderson said.
Ms Anderson, a prominent academic, led the Referendum Council which consulted widely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on constitutional change.
Last month, the council delivered its report recommending a referendum be held to establish a First Nations assembly to advise the Federal Parliament.
At a convention in May, 250 leaders released the Uluru Statement from the Heart calling for a referendum and, ultimately, a Makarrata — a Yolngu word for a treaty.
Land rights champion Dr Galarrwuy Yunupingu cautioned politicians on Friday that Indigenous people expected they would come to Garma for “serious business”.
“We live side by side, but not yet united,” Dr Yunupingu said.
Ms Anderson said she was deeply disappointed neither Mr Turnbull nor Mr Shorten had accepted the Uluru Statement’s recommendations.
“We have nothing more to give you,” she said.
“We give you a ceremony, and our leaders didn’t get it, they can just stand here and give empty platitudes.”
Mr Shorten wrote to the Prime Minister this week suggesting a joint parliamentary committee be established to finalise a referendum question.
But Ms Anderson said that was unnecessary.
“We need another committee like a hole in the head,” she said.
“They didn’t respond to the expert panel [on constitutional recognition], they didn’t respond to the parliamentary committee.”
At Garma, Cape York author and lawyer Noel Pearson said an Indigenous representative body could be a “persistent and belligerent voice” to advocate for First Nations people.
“This is our country; we want to have a say,” Mr Pearson said.