Australian prime minister Tony Abbott with Cape York Enterprises chairman Noel Pearson
Australian prime minister Tony Abbott with Cape York Enterprises chairman Noel Pearson Travey Nearmy AAP

$33k contract precedes Pearson's backflip

PRIME Minister Tony Abbott's department awarded a company run by indigenous figure Noel Pearson a $33,500 research contract in the months before Mr Pearson publicly reversed his position on entrenching a ban on racial discrimination in the Constitution.

The contract was awarded in June after Mr Pearson wrote to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet asking for funds for the Cape York Institute, which he leads, to research constitutional recognition.

An institute spokeswoman has told APN Newsdesk the research helped Mr Pearson develop "further ideas", including "possible alternatives to a racial non-discrimination clause", at the same time he was writing an essay on the issue.

In the essay published in September, Mr Pearson reversed his long-standing support of including a prohibition on racial discrimination in the Constitution, rather than simply addressing the issue in the Racial Discrimination Act, as it now stands.

The indigenous leader's reversal has appeased constitutional conservatives, including Mr Abbott, who was concerned the prohibition could become a "quasi bill of rights".

But the stance conflicted with many other indigenous people who urged the 22-person expert panel and parliament's Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition to include the racial non-discrimination clause.

The contract for Cape York Institute paid for staff and others linked to the Empowered Communities program to go to New Zealand and meet with Maori leaders and legal experts, but Mr Pearson did not attend the trip.

Labor's indigenous affairs spokesman, and Joint Select Committee member, Shayne Neumann said the government had "questions to answer" about the contract, and it was "curious" the government chose to "commission a private organisation to provide a report which is undisclosed and unpublished".

"The government has a phalanx of lawyers available to it in the department of the Attorney-General - there's very significant and substantial advice it can obtain from department of indigenous affairs which is now a part of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet," he said.

"They should publish the advice and explain why it was necessary to do this."

A department spokesman confirmed Mr Abbott's office was "aware" of the contract and the department was not planning such research before Mr Pearson's letter.

He said it was funded "on the basis of the nature of the proposal and their expertise in legal research and commentary on indigenous recognition".

The spokesman added the matter was "still under consideration".

The institute's spokeswoman said it was "entirely appropriate" indigenous organisations were supported to research the issue of constitutional recognition.

"Solutions can't just come from government; they need to come from indigenous people and organisations," she said.

The Prime Minister's office did not respond to questions, and Mr Pearson was unavailable to comment.

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