Members of Moree's Aboriginal community unsupportive of constitutional reform to recognise Indigenous people

The Moree community came together for a march during the official opening of NAIDOC Week on Monday.
The Moree community came together for a march during the official opening of NAIDOC Week on Monday.

It's about time the constitution was changed, but will this change be in the best interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?

That's the concern that a number of members of Moree's Aboriginal community have after Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt announced the federal government's plan to recognise Indigenous people in the constitution in the next three years.

"I will develop and bring forward a consensus option for constitutional recognition to be put to a referendum during the current parliamentary term," Mr Wyatt said during a NAIDOC Week address at the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday.

"I have commenced the process of engaging and seeking the counsel of Indigenous leaders.

"The Morrison government is committed to recognising Indigenous Australians in the constitution, and working to achieve this through a process of true co-design."

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Moree man Kenneth Knox said while the constitution does need to change, he's fearful that the changes will give the government full power over Aboriginal people.

"I do understand that it needs to change - the constitution was drafted at a time when Australia was considered terra nullius [land that is legally deemed to be unoccupied or uninhabited] and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at the time were considered a dying race," he said.

"I think it is about time it was changed, but I'm worried about the power that it's going to take from Aboriginal people. It's going to give [the government] power to change what they want in regards to Aboriginal people.

"If they have that power, what's going to happen to our medical and legal services? Will they abolish these and integrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people back into mainstream Australia?"

Aboriginal elder Jacqueline Cain, who grew up in Moree during the years of the Aboriginal Protection Board, when Aboriginal people were considered second class citizens, is distrustful of the government after years of mistreatment of Indigenous people.

"Can we trust them or can't we?" she asked.

"We should be recognised as the first owners of this land but will [constitutional reform] suit all of us? We don't know what they've got up their sleeves.

"I don't support the referendum, not until we get consultation. We need to be consulted about this in the next three years before anyone makes any decision."

Ms Cain said she supports sovereignty and a treaty for Aboriginal people over recognition in the constitution.

Fellow elder Gerald Brennan, who grew up on the Mehi mission and still clearly remembers not being able to swim at the Moree pool, having to go to the back of a bus, and being forced to sit at the front of the cinema after gaining access through the side alleyway, said Aboriginal people should have been recognised a long time ago.

However, he wants to know what we'll be voting for when it does come down to a referendum.

"You can't have a referendum unless you've got a preamble, so what's the preamble?" he asked.

"What is their agenda?"

Mr Brennan is also concerned about what will happen if a referendum is defeated.

In his speech, Mr Wyatt stressed that the government won't go ahead with a referendum until it's certain it will succeed.

"We need to design the right model to progress to a point at which the majority of Australians, the majority of states and territories and Indigenous Australians support the model so that it is successful," he said.

"Constitutional recognition is too important to get wrong, and too important to rush. The successful 1967 referendum was the result of tireless advocacy and an extraordinary nationwide momentum for change. If we want to see that kind of national consensus again, we need to be thorough and take the time to get it right.

"We have allocated $7.3 million for a co-design process to improve local and regional decision-making and $160 million has been set aside for a future referendum once the model has been determined."