Prominent indigenous rights leader Noel Pearson sees constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians as the looming “big issue” for the nation.
And he is confident Prime Minister Tony Abbott has the conservative confidence to pursue it.
Speaking at the 2013 Gough Whitlam Oration in Sydney, Mr Pearson said there were two problems with the current constitution – non-recognition of indigenous people and racial discrimination.
The Cape York Group chair said while we should do all we can to assist disadvantaged people, it should be done on the basis of individual need, not race.
“A person is not automatically disadvantaged because he or she is indigenous,” he said on Wednesday night.
“A person should be rewarded on their merits and assisted on their means.
“Race and indigenousness should be irrelevant to matters of public welfare and government assistance.
“We need to move away from indigenous non-recognition to a recognition.”
On making constitutional recognition a reality, Australia needs someone in conservative territory to gain the votes, Mr Pearson said.
“I think (Mr Abbott) can carry the confidence of rural and regional Australia and the old conservative Australia,” he told AAP outside the event.
The question would be finding common ground on the constitution wording, he added.
Mr Abbott has flagged a shake up of indigenous affairs and has set up an indigenous advisory council to review relevant spending.
Mr Pearson supported the review, which he expects will find some programs are not serving the people they were meant to help.
“There is a lot of waste and a lot of need that is not being addressed so I see this as an opportunity really,” he said.