The prime minister has committed to “throwing everything” at implementing an Indigenous voice to parliament at a surprise appearance in his home suburb of Marrickville.
Speaking at a packed Uluru Statement from the Heart summit on Friday night, Anthony Albanese addressed the first meeting of volunteers who have signed up to educate Australians about the voice.
Enshrining an Indigenous voice in the constitution is the first step to reconciliation prior to treaty, Albanese said.
“The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a generous, gracious and optimistic invitation to all Australians.
“It is a hand of friendship outstretched. It is extraordinarily generous given the history of this country since 1788. It asks that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be consulted on matters that affect them.”
Albanese said he had been told by some that a referendum was a “risk” but “no one ever won a grand final by not running on the field, by being scared of losing”.
“Unless we have a vote, and we will do the next financial year … that momentum and opportunity for advancing reconciliation would be lost,” he said.
“If not now, when? We’ve spoken about recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our constitution for a very long period of time. We haven’t been able to achieve it. But I think that Australians are ready for this debate.
“For those people who say, I want all of the detail out there, I’m very consciously not saying ‘here, this is the government proposal, take it or leave it’. This is a process we’re going through at the moment … I want this to not be my proposal … I want it to be Australia’s proposal.”
In a nod to reports the businessman Warren Mundine had enlisted the Greens senator Lidia Thorpe to fight against constitutional recognition – a claim repeatedly denied by the party – Albanese said he wanted the voice to be a consensus embraced “across the political spectrum”.
“I’m trying to give space for people, whether they be from the Coalition or from minor parties, to embrace this opportunity as well,” he said.
“We’ve read in the last weeks of rather strange alliances forming in opposition to this proposal. But the door is open.
“I’ve said very clearly to Peter Dutton and David Littleproud and to Adam Bandt and other party leaders, I want you to be a part of this positive change for the nation.”
The minister for Indigenous affairs, Linda Burney, said the current moment was for “having conversations”, with formal campaigning for the voice to begin in 2023.
“We’re not going to be rushed by Sky After Dark or The Australian,” she said.
“I have established a … working group and an engagement group of First Nations people who are helping guide us through this process.
“There are the groups that will be established as we go forth. Every single step of the way is being taken carefully. It’s been taken … in a very deliberate way.”
Burney said the government had started polling on the referendum, which was “very positive” but “soft”.
“People want to know a little bit more,” she said.
The Inner West mayor, Darcy Byrne, said the council had committed to training 1,000 volunteers to participate in a civic education program, which would build awareness about the upcoming referendum. So far, 600 residents had registered to participate in what Byrne said could be a model for “councils all over Australia”.
“This country is changing,” Byrne said. “We all know this chance will not come again. Tonight, we begin on a long run, at the end of which is a precious reward.
“This is a civic education program, not a political campaign, the time for that will come. Building understanding is a prerequisite for the success of the referendum.”
Torres Strait Islander man and advocate of the Uluru statement Thomas Mayor travelled from Darwin to attend. He said he was feeling “so many strong emotions of happiness and relief” to witness the packed hall.
“After five years of building this campaign, that there’s this town hall packed with people ready to go out and do the work to win the referendum is really special,” he said.
“There’s all sorts of commentators out there, not just positive, but that’s to be expected [with] something that’s nation changing, and nation building.
“Part of all of that commentary is having to inform people.”
Myf Waddell was among hundreds gathered in the hall with her two young sons, Xander and Caleb.
“I just think it needs to happen, and the kids need to learn about it,” she said. “They get taught a little bit at school, but it’s not enough … it should be instilled in them from an early age.”