December 11, 2014 – 9:05PM
Political editor, The Age
“It is more important to get this right than to try to rush it through”: Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo: Andrew Meares
Tony Abbott wants a referendum to be held in May 2017 to recognise Indigenous Australians in the constitution, but won’t commit to a date until he is confident it will succeed.
“I am prepared to sweat blood on this,” the Prime Minister declared at a Recognise dinner at Redfern on Thursday night, saying the cause was “at least as important as all the other causes this government has been prepared to take on”.
While he favoured putting the question on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, Mr Abbott said: “But I do not want it to fail because every Australian would be the loser. It is more important to get this right than to try to rush it through.
“We cannot finalise when the referendum should be held until we are comfortable that we have the proposal with the best chance of success.”
Mr Abbott told the fundraising dinner he was a supporter of constitutional recognition because he wants our country “to transcend the ‘them and us’ mindset to embrace ‘all of us’ in the spirit of generous inclusion that has always marked Australians at our best”.
“Like John Howard before me – and like Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard and it seems at least 60 per cent of the population – I am a supporter of constitutional recognition,” he said.
“But 60 per cent support for a principle certainly doesn’t guarantee success at a referendum. I know, because I helped to defeat the republican cause that was overwhelmingly supported by the Labor Party, significantly supported by the Liberal Party and backed by every major newspaper editorial in the country.
“So the question that we have to ask ourselves is not whether we support constitutional recognition but whether we want it passed – because to be passed, constitutional change has to satisfy a majority of the people in a majority of the states.”
Mr Abbott recalled how he had told his former colleagues at Australians for Constitutional Monarchy to suspend their scepticism. “I said that it was impossible to cherish every clause of a constitution except the provision to change it.”
“The country we created has an Aboriginal heritage, a British foundation and a multicultural character and it’s high time that this reality was reflected in our Constitution.
“We have got to get the words right because words are our only way to say what we mean and we need to know exactly what we mean before we put anything to a vote.”
Speaking after Mr Abbott, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the referendum question needed to be settled before the next election to allow the campaign to move forward.
“Without a specific change to advocate, it’s not possible to raise awareness beyond the abstract,” Mr Shorten said.
Until the question was finalised, Mr Shorten argued, there would be a “vacuum” which could be filled by misinformation.
He said a constitutional convention should be convened to develop the question, and the process should be overseen by a referendum council, “a council of elders if you like”, to ensure it was not hijacked by extremists.
He said change needed to be “substantive”, not merely “symbolic”, and he said he believed the “great silent majority” of Australians wanted to banish discrimination from the constitution.
Mr Abbott’s remarks came ahead of a report showing that $30 billion was spent on services for Indigenous Australians last financial year, while outcomes went backwards in a range of key areas, including mental health, self-harm and incarceration.
Publication of the Productivity Commission report has prompted widespread calls for an independent evaluation of programs, with critics saying too much of the money is spent on dealing with negative outcomes, like the rise in incarceration rates, and not enough on prevention.
The report estimates that total spending per person was $43,449 for Indigenous Australians and $20,900 for other Australians – a ratio of 2.08 to 1. It says spending on services for Indigenous Australians made up 6.1 per cent of total direct government spending, while Indigenous Australians made up 3 per cent of the population.
A range of experts stressed the need to “unpack” the figures and called for an independent evaluation of programs.
“I think there is a crying need for the Productivity Commission to have a broader brief to look at this issue of effectiveness,” said Fred Chaney, whose experience across a range of Indigenous areas spans several decades.
“I can understand that Aboriginal people are very sceptical about those figures and I think they require further analysis,” Mr Chaney, a former indigenous affairs minister, said. “The critical defect is that we are sensibly measuring levels of disadvantage and sensibly measuring expenditure, but doing very little to examine the effectiveness of expenditure.”
The chief executive of Reconciliation Australia, Justin Mohamed, supported a Productivity Commission evaluation of programs, saying there was plenty of evidence that programs run by Indigenous organisations with good governance produced positive results.
“We’ve got to support the programs and activities that are delivering the best results,” he said.
A breakdown of the figures shows a big increase in spending on police services, prisons and corrective services since 2008-9.
Social justice and human rights advocate Tom Calma said the figures highlighted the need for a new approach, saying: “They’ve got to engage more with people in the communities on how programs are developed and delivered.”
Dr Calma also argued that higher spending was needed because of the 10-year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, the higher cost of services in remote Australia and the high proportion of under-25s in the Indigenous population.
Source : The Brisbane Times