Australia recognises indigenous peoples

Thu, Feb 14, 2013, 00:00

Australia’s lower house of parliament yesterday passed legislation recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the country’s first inhabitants.

The Bill, which coincided with the fifth anniversary of the government’s apology to the “stolen generation” of forcibly adopted Aboriginal children, is the first step towards a referendum for constitutional change.

The Australian constitution currently does not acknowledge indigenous Australians.

Prime minister Julia Gillard said the legislation, which passed with unanimous support, is a “sign of good faith” that parliament is committed to righting previous wrongs.

“No gesture speaks more deeply to the healing of our nation’s fabric than amending our nation’s founding charter,” she told parliament. “This bill seeks to foster momentum for a referendum for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

Opposition Liberal party leader Tony Abbott says constitutional recognition for indigenous Australians is long overdue.

‘United people’

“We need to atone for the omissions and for the hardness of heart of our forebears, to enable us all to embrace the future as a united people,” he said.

Mr Abbott, who is widely expected to become prime minister after the federal election in September, praised Ms Gillard’s work.

“So often in this place, we are antagonists. Today on this matter, we are partners and collaborators,” he said.

Ms Gillard said that in the “decade of deliberation” that created Australia’s constitution, there was no record of any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person taking part.

“Indigenous people did not ordain our constitution nor contribute to its drafting. They had no opportunity to vote for it, and yet all were affected by what it said and what it failed to say. They were affected by provisions that even by the standards of the time seem questionable and strike us now as harsh and inhumane.

“Because among the 128 sections of the constitution, there is no acknowledgment of Australia’s first peoples. No mention of their dispossession. Their proud and ancient cultures. Their profound connection to the land. Or the unhealed wound that even now lies open at the heart of our national story,” she said.

Indigenous rights campaigner Pat Dodson welcomed its passing but says there is much more work to be done.

“The passing of the act of recognition today is one hill we have climbed but it does not mean we have conquered the mountain,” he said.