While there may have been some theatricality about the Prime Minister’s stay in Arnhem Land, there is no doubting his commitment to progress on indigenous issues of both symbolism and substance. In the face of opposition from some of his colleagues, he is also strongly committed to a successful referendum on indigenous recognition. And on that issue, his instinct to separate the referendum from the partisan process of a federal election in 2016 is sound.
Constitutional recognition of our first peoples is generations overdue. Among intelligent people of good will there is an impatience for this bizarre and repugnant absence from the core document of our federation to be addressed. But Abbott is correct that conducting the referendum during a federal election campaign will reduce the chances of a successful outcome, both because of the intense partisanship that elections engender, and also because it will distract from a proper debate about indigenous recognition.
It should be delayed into the next parliamentary term; whether it is the second term of an Abbott government or the new term of a Labor government, it will ensure the referendum is conducted in conditions that maximise the chances of success — something that both sides of politics must surely want.