Labor is planning to hold a referendum in 2023 to entrench the Indigenous voice to parliament in the constitution, eyeing dates from May to November.
Although no final decision has been made, the Albanese government is keen to capitalise on momentum in favour of recognising Indigenous Australians by creating the consultative body and avoid the referendum occurring in 2024, which might be an election year.
The Uluru Dialogue co-chair, the University of NSW’s professor Megan Davis, said the government was keen to hold the referendum “as soon as possible” and it was moving at an “appropriate pace”.
“The window of opportunity closes quickly for any new government,” she said. “They’ve probably got until mid-2024 at the latest.”
Guardian Australia understands Pat Dodson, the special envoy for reconciliation and implementation of the Uluru statement of the heart, favours a referendum on 27 May, 2023.
That is the 56th anniversary of the successful 1967 referendum allowing the commonwealth to make laws for Indigenous people and count them in the census, and the sixth anniversary of the Uluru statement.
In April the Uluru statement leadership launched a campaign ahead of the federal election calling for the voice referendum to occur on 27 May, 2023 or 27 January, 2024, the “day after Invasion day/Australia day”.
In the Yarrabah affirmation, First Nations delegates said it had been 15 years since John Howard promised constitutional recognition, which had been backed by every prime minister since.
“The ‘what’ was decided at Uluru: First Nations people want constitutional recognition through a Voice to Parliament.
“The ‘how’ is near completion. The work is done. We will soon submit our proposed wording for constitutional recognition of a Voice.”
The statement described both as “propitious dates”.
“The time is now right. The stars will soon align. The politicians were not ready for Uluru in 2017. But now the Australian people are.”
UNSW’s Indigenous Law Centre has briefed the government on a referendum question to ask if voters agree to “alter the constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by guaranteeing them a body, to be called the First Nations Voice, that will provide advice to the parliament about the development of commonwealth laws and policies affecting them”.
The draft referendum bill would state that “the powers, composition and procedures of the Voice would be determined by the parliament from time to time”, allowing the referendum to entrench an enabling provision and for the Voice’s design to be settled by parliament.
Davis said Dodson and the Indigenous affairs minister, Linda Burney, had been consulting Indigenous leaders, and the attorney general’s department is “hiring constitutional lawyers in Canberra to progress this work”.
“It’s understandable that people are impatient for details … There’s been a lot of work committed to what a voice might look like, what the amendment might look like, and the ballot question over the past five years.”
“Having a referendum next year cannot be regarded as rushing it. It is not too soon, when you have regard to the past decade of work.”
Burney told Guardian Australia “the government will work with First Nations people and the parliament to arrive at a suitable date for the referendum”.
On Tuesday George Williams, the deputy vice-chancellor and professor of law at the University of NSW, warned that governments have often “failed to win referendums because of complacency and poor management”.
Too often, leaders have assumed that people will see the wisdom in their proposal and vote accordingly,” he wrote in the Australian.
Williams warned that “the chances of the voice being supported at a referendum will be lower if the opposition mounts a no campaign”.
He said it was “encouraging” Burney has said she “will not be rushed”. “A referendum on the voice should be held in the first term of the Albanese government, but only when the strongest platform has been laid for its success.”
Davis said there is “no such thing as a necessary precondition to a successful referendum in 2023”, arguing times had changed since the last successful vote in 1977.
The attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, has said the timing of the referendum would be influenced by seeking support from the Coalition and the Greens.
The Liberal leader, Peter Dutton, has signalled he might be open to supporting the Voice, extending an olive branch by suggesting he made a “mistake” boycotting the apology to the stolen generations.
The Greens have indicated they will not oppose the voice, but have previously advocated a treaty with Indigenous people should precede it.