Australia has been urged by an expert panel to support a referendum which would give a "Voice to the Parliament" for Indigenous people, but with the federal Parliament keeping the power to determine what shape that voice takes, and what powers it holds.
The independent council advising Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has adopted the recommendation of a summit of Indigenous leaders at Uluru in May – which called for a referendum to establish a body to advise federal Parliament on Indigenous issues, and made it the sole recommendation of its report.
But the council has argued that it would be up to the Parliament to determine the specific functions of the body via legislation. Indigenous leaders had wanted to keep control over the development of the proposal.
However, the fact the proposal has emerged relatively late in the debate about Indigenous constitutional recognition, and that all other previously discussed options have been abandoned, has added to the caution surrounding the proposal voiced by political leaders on Monday.
A member of the advisory council, Amanda Vanstone, also issued a qualifying statement in the council's report, expressing her reservations about the technicalities of getting the referendum proposal developed in time for a vote in 2018.
The council says the proposed body "should take its structure from legislation enacted by the Parliament".
Legislation "would deal with how the body is to be given an appropriately representative character and how it can properly and most usefully discharge its advisory functions".
"It is not suggested that the body have any kind of veto power," it says.
"It is not the intention of the proposal to limit the legislative power of the Commonwealth Parliament but, rather to provide where such power is exercised in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, they have appropriate input by way of advice and consultation."
The Prime Minister reacted cautiously to the recommendation, which he described as a "latecomer" to the debate.
"We do not want to embark – I'm sure none of us do – on some sort of exercise in heroic failure", he said.
"We need to ensure that any changes that are proposed are ones that meet both the expectations of First Australians but also will bring together all Australians because this is a vote of all Australians."
He said he was particularly keen to understand why all the work of previous panels had been dumped.
The new proposal, he said, was "very short on detail, couldn't be shorter on detail in fact, but it is a very big idea. It is a very big new idea".
Mr Shorten said Labor acknowledged the objectives of this report, "including a stronger voice to the Parliament for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and a process for treaty and agreement making".
"These are legitimate aspirations – it is the key recommendation of this report and we can't shy away from that fact," he said.
"They are big changes, as the Prime Minister has said. I do not believe they are beyond us."