Australia looks at place of indigenous people | Asia Pacific

Australia looks at place of indigenous people

Australia looks at place of indigenous people

Updated 29 February 2012, 10:30 AEDT

Australia is looking at changing it's constitution to recognise the country's indigenous peoples.

A government appointed panel, tasked with finding the best way to do this, has given its recommendations to Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

They include the prohibition of racial discrimination and acknowledging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People as the first to inhabit Australia.

But any changes to the constitution would require a national referendum, and the prime minister says the task will be a challenging one.

Presenter: Girish Sawlani

Speakers:Julia Gillard, Australian Prime Minister; Mark Liebler, co-chair of Reconciliation Australia and expert panel member; Patrick Dodson, Aboriginal leader and expert panel member; Tony Abbott, Australian Opposition leader.

SAWLANI: For some countries, recognising its original inhabitants, especially where they form a minority, has been a smooth process. For others it's proved controversial and cumbersome for governments to deal with. It was only in 2008, when the Japanese parliament formally recognised the Ainus as an indigenous group, though the near extinct-minority continues to face significant social and economic disadvantages. In Singapore, the Malays, who form around 14 per cent of the population, have been acknowledged as the island's indigenous people since independence and Malays is enshrined as the country's national language.

In Australia, indigenous issues have long been contentious since it became a federation in 1901. It took 66 years, indigenous Australians were allowed to vote, following a historic referendum. But the process of reconciliation against past injustices towards indigenous people has accelerated over the past few years, culminating in the historic apology in 2007 by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Now calls to recognise indigenous Australians in the nation's constitution have taken a significant step forward. A report commissioned by the Federal Government has recommended changing the national constitution, to recognise that Australia was first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. At a ceremony in Canberra, the report was formally handed over to Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Mark Liebler is the co-chair of Reconciliation Australia and a member of the expert panel that published the report.

LEIBLER: After visiting 84 communities across regional, remote and metropolitan Australia, after holding more than 250 consultations and considering more than 3600 submissions, we are pleased to present the unanimous, I stress unanimous report of our 22 member panel to the Prime Minister.

SAWLANI: Among the key recommendations would be to insert new sections into the Constitution that would acknowledge that Australia was first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. It has also recommended prohibiting racial discrimination - with the exception of specific laws designed to address disadvantage, protect a unique culture or help deal with past disadvantage. The panel also says the constitution should recognise that the first languages were indigenous but that English would remain the national language. Aboriginal leader and co-chair of the expert panel, Patrick Dodson, says it's time to take the next step forward.

DODSON: This is the time when truth and respect for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples needs to be achieved, through the recognition in our constitution. Strong leadership and our national interest are critical for our nation to go forward.

SAWLANI: Changing the constitution however would require a yes vote in a national referendum. In Australian history, only 8 out of 44 referendums have been successful since 1901. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard says winning support will be a challenge.

GILLARD: It is going to take the deepest and the strongest sort of bipartisanship. It is going to require each and every one of us involved in politics, whether it be in the federal parliament just down the road, whether it'd be in state parliaments, indeed whether it'd be as local government members or other sorts of community leaders, to find it in ourselves to be our best selves. To advocate this case for change with the maximum degree of unity.

SAWLANI: The Australian opposition has welcomed the report, but with some degree of caution. Previously it said it would support a modestly worded and dignified preamble, along with repealing Section 25, which allows for state laws to disqualify people of a certain race from voting. Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, says the coalition has long supported moves to recognise indigenous Australians in the constitution, and will carefully study the report.

ABBOTT: We have some reservations about anything that might turn out to be a one-clause bill of rights that we accept. But we accept that millions of Australian's hopes and dreams are resting on constitutional recognition of indigenous people. And the last thing I want to do is do anything other than welcome this report today.

SAWLANI: In the interest of simplicity, the report has recommended a single referendum question in relation to proposals for constitutional change.

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