NOEL Pearson has appealed to both sides of politics to back all of an expert panel's recommendations for recognising indigenous Australians in the constitution, insisting politicians - not public opinion - are the biggest threat to a successful referendum.
''I think the Australian people, properly informed through a campaign, will come on board. The main barrier for me is getting a political consensus in Parliament,'' Mr Pearson, pictured, said.
The Cape York indigenous leader insists constitutional reform would represent the ''most substantive, important shift'' in indigenous policy and remove an ''entire confusion'' about the way indigenous disadvantage is tackled.
His comments came as new polling showed that barely one in every three Australians is aware of the push to recognise indigenous Australians in the constitution, almost 12 months after an expert panel laid out its blueprint for the referendum.
Polling commissioned by Reconciliation Australia has found that there continues to be strong majority support for the change, with only 15 per cent of voters saying they are opposed. Awareness of the proposal among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has increased from 46 per cent in March to 60 per cent, while it has dropped from 39 per cent to 31 per cent in the non-indigenous population.
Mr Pearson was a member of the expert panel that recommended constitutional change including recognising indigenous languages and a ban on racial discrimination.
The Gillard government conceded in September that a referendum was likely to fail if put before, or with, next year's election and announced plans for an Act of Recognition with the aim of building momentum for a referendum in the next two years. While the expert panel has broadly supported the move, Mr Pearson is at best ambivalent, saying: ''My concern is that it ticks a box and then puts it on the never-never.'' The imperative was for the Parliament to advance discussions ''with an eye to bipartisanship to take the panel's recommendations forward''.
Other indigenous leaders, including Marcia Langton, are urging that the panel's recommendations be included in the proposed act.
Mr Pearson said the twin threats to the referendum were that the Coalition would not embrace all the proposals and that Labor would ''go forward with something that is mealy-mouthed and too politically cautious''. He said he had only recently come to realise the referendum's potential to remove Australia's indigenous people from the category of race and instead recognise their heritage and include them as equal citizens. ''Then our efforts should be aimed at treating us as citizens who have needs, just as other citizens might also have needs, and not on the basis of our race,'' he said.