Australia moves closer to Aborigine recognition referendum

Australian politicians meet with Aboriginal leaders to change decades old constitution which fails to mention country's indigenous inhabitants

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Updated Jul 28, 2015

Australia's ruling and opposition party leaders met with indigenous leaders in Sydney to find a solution to a constitutional issue that has been described by Prime Minister Tony Abbott as an “echoing silence.”

The country hopes to change its founding document, which fails to mention its original inhabitants - the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people - and give them recognition in the constitution which first came into effect in 1901.

The Australian constitution can only be changed by a referendum, and the country's politicians seem to have agreed to hold a referendum on the issue after years of heated debates.

About 40 public forums will be set up to discuss a possible question to be put to voters, but a referendum is only possible in 2017, at the earliest, if most of the country’s states and territories approve. Then the whole country will be able to vote. Analysts say the “double majority” necessary for changes to the constitution will be hard to achieve.

“I’m confident the time is right to move down this path,” Abbott said after the meeting with some 40 Aboriginal leaders and Labor opposition head Bill Shorten.

“We are good enough, big enough and brave enough to do this but it is important that we get it right.”

One of the sticking points in ongoing discussions is how to include a racial non-discrimination clause to the constitution, local media reported. It is also said that in the Aboriginal community there are wide differences on the issue in negotiations with the government. Some indigenous leaders have accused those who met with the PM of having "sold out."

According to the latest polls, the Australian public overwhelmingly back the recognition of the Aboriginal population, with the latest survey carried out by The Sydney Morning Herald Monday putting support at a record of 85 percent.

Around 500,000 Aborigines live in Australia today, almost half the number that existed when British were settled in the Island in 1788. Australia's population is now 23 million.

In 2008, then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised for the mistreatment of Aboriginals in the federal parliament. The Australian parliament formally recognised indigenous people as the country's first inhabitants two years ago, but changing the constitution requires harder work.

TRTWorld and agencies