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Indigenous leaders barred from discussing constitutional reform

Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt has set an ambitious deadline of October this year to “test options” for a voice to Parliament, in parallel with a separate process to consider constitutional recognition for First Australians.

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The peak advisory group on the voice includes indigenous leaders such as Tom Calma, Marcia Langton, Mick Gooda, Noel Pearson and Galarrwuy Yunupingu, but the group also has non-indigenous members such as journalist Chris Kenny.

Members of the group were given the terms of reference last October and Mr Wyatt’s office said none had complained about the guidelines over the subsequent months.

But the limitations highlight the way the government will prevent the group recommending constitutional change to empower the new voice.

The confidential documents declared it “out of scope” for advisory group members to make recommendations on constitutional recognition, including the timing of a referendum or the question to be put to Australians.

The rules also barred “making recommendations through this co-design process on the establishment of a Makarrata Commission, agreement making, treaty and truth-telling”.

Also forbidden were deliberations on the “overall budget” of the exercise and the “overarching timeframe” for the process.

Constitutional reform has become one of the flashpoints in the debate over a voice to Parliament because Indigenous leaders have called for the voice to be written into the constitution so it cannot be curtailed by Parliament.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison closed off this option last July after Mr Wyatt made a speech to the National Press Club that left the option open, triggering a backlash from Liberal and Nationals MPs who are wary of constitutional change.

A spokesman for Mr Wyatt defended the terms of reference on the grounds that constitutional recognition would be considered by a separate process.

“The government has been very clear that the co-design process for an Indigenous voice to government would not consider constitutional recognition; this will be a separate process undertaken by the government,” he said.

“Members are allowed to express their views regarding constitutional recognition, however they will not form part of the government’s consideration on an Indigenous voice to government. While some in the Indigenous community have called for a Makarrata Commission, the government has made it clear that this won’t be considered.

“No one has expressed views to the Minister that they are being silenced as part of this process.”

As well as the peak advisory group, Mr Wyatt is seeking to establish local and regional groups to help design the voice, with the Makarrata Commission and legislation also ruled “out of scope” for their deliberations.

The government timeframe asks for options for these local and regional voices by May so Mr Wyatt could consider the recommendations.

Professor Langton has argued for the Makarrata Commission to be part of the debate over a voice to Parliament.

The government has been stung by some of the public commentary by members of its advisory group, with Mr Wyatt removing Indigenous businesswoman Josephine Cashman after she pushed for an investigation into the indigenous heritage of author Bruce Pascoe.

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