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Report due ahead of referendum on Australian Aborigines

December 31, 2011 - AUSTRALIA

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard wants a panel report to parliament before the end of 2011 on ways the country's constitution can be amended to formally acknowledge Aborigines as the first Australians. The next step will be a constitutional referendum on the amendment, probably in 2013. Aborigines are expected to argue for indigenous rights in the text of the constitution and not just symbolic language in the preamble. The prime minister says Australia must acknowledge that first people of our nation have a unique and special place. Aborigines, who make up 2.7 per cent of the nation's population of 22 million, are not mentioned in the constitution, which also permits the government to make racially-discriminatory laws.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard wants a panel report to parliament before the end of 2011 on ways the country's constitution can be amended to formally acknowledge Aborigines as the first Australians. The next step will be a constitutional referendum on the amendment, probably in 2013. Aborigines are expected to argue for indigenous rights in the text of the constitution and not just symbolic language in the preamble. The prime minister says Australia must acknowledge that "first people of our nation have a unique and special place." Aborigines, who make up 2.7 per cent of the nation's population of 22 million, are not mentioned in the constitution, which also permits the government to make racially-discriminatory laws. The panel will also be expected to suggest ways consensus can be built around proposed changes. Australians mainly vote against changes to the constitution. Britain's Guardian newspaper points out that only eight of the 44 referendums that have been voted on since 1901 have succeeded. A referendum was defeated in 1999 that would that would have added a preamble to the constitution honoring Aborigines as "the nation's first people for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country." The move comes almost three years after Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister, issued a historic apology to indigenous Australians who were forcibly taken from their families under government policy. Britain's Telegraph newspaper notes that the government has failed to make significant headway against disproportionately high rates of disease, imprisonment and unemployment among indigenous communities. Life expectancy among Aboriginal men and women is still far lower than among non-indigenous Australians and most still live in poverty and without access to education or training, according to the newspaper. According to the Telegraph, in preparation for the vote, which has bipartisan support, the expert panel of MPs, indigenous leaders and academics set up at the end of 2010 will be expected to report back to parliament at the end of 2011.

Australia plans referendum on Aboriginal recognition (Guardian 8 Nov 2010)

Australians to vote on recognising Aborigines (Telegraph 8 Nov 2010)

Date written/update: 2011-12-31