The referendum will be important for local communities. Photo: Somaya Langley via Flickr

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A leading Indigenous campaign group is optimistic about a referendum on Indigenous recognition in the constitution, but warned that a “no” vote would be “a terrible outcome” for the country.

In his New Year’s Day message Prime Minister Tony Abbott said his government would attempt to hold a referendum recognising Indigenous Australians as the traditional owners of the land in the federal constitution.

“We want it to happen as quickly as possible but a rushed job might be a botched job,” Mr Abbott told reporters on Australia Day.

Shannan Dodson, digital campaign manager for the advocacy group Recognise, said there are fears that a referendum may be voted down by the public.

“If this went to a referendum and failed it would be a terrible outcome for reconciliation and our future as a country,” Ms Dodson told City Hub.

“We’re determined to make sure that doesn’t happen,” she said.

“There are many Indigenous Australians and Indigenous organisations in Sydney that have been campaigning for decades for the rights of Indigenous people and constitutional recognition, so it coming to fruition would mean all this hard work has paid off.”

Marrickville councillor Sylvie Ellsmore said even if it was only a symbolic change, it would still be important to the community.

“If it’s a symbolic amendment, whether it wins or fails will depend on how the community gets engaged behind understanding what it means to recognize Aboriginal people as the first owners,” Ms Ellsmore said.

“That process of the campaign would be one of the big achievements if it gets passed,” she said.

Ms Dodson said that getting a federal constitutional change approved by the public in the past has been difficult.

“History tells us when people don’t know, they vote no,” she said.

The previous Labor government initially pledged to put the issue of recognition to a public vote before the 2013 election but later decided to delay it amid fears that there was not enough public support.

Ms Ellsmore is more optimistic and said even though  the Howard government’s 1999 attempt to attach a preamble to the constitution failed people did not give up.

“When John Howard put up the preamble that failed, which included some quite soft and not very meaningful words, people didn’t feel let down and that we shouldn’t try again,” she said.

“People weren’t happy to settle for a wishy-washy change.”