By Brittney Hodnik
Impunity Watch Reporter, Oceania
CANBERRA, Australia – For the first time in 224 years, Australia is voting on a Constitutional amendment that will recognize Aborigines as the first people of the country. Similar to Native Americans, British settlers displaced the Aborigines and they have suffered racism and discrimination ever since. The new changes will finally bring an end to all state-sponsored racism.
After the Aborigines were dislocated from their land, their lifestyle, health, and equality decreased dramatically. According to News One, Aborigines are one of the poorest, unhealthiest, and most-disadvantaged people with an average lifespan of 17 years shorter than other Australians. Furthermore, they have endured racism and discrimination from the beginning.
Originally, different sections of Australia’s constitution actually promoted discrimination against Aboriginal people. As reported by The Guardian, Section 25 recognized that states could disqualify people (i.e. Aborigines) from voting. Section 51 allowed federal parliament to make laws based solely upon race.
The Guardian reports that these sections were included in the constitution in 1901 to prevent certain races from living in primarily white neighborhoods.
According to News One, a panel of 19 people, made up of indigenous leaders, politicos, entrepreneurs, and legal eagles will revamp a document that still contains racist Aboriginal references. The report was handed to Prime Minister, Julia Gillard who is strongly supporting the changes.
“This is a time when truth and respect for the Aboriginal and Torres 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,” said Professor Patrick Dodson, an Aborigine who headed the expert panel, according to The Telegraph.
Aborigines did not even receive “citizen standing” until 1967 in Australia, according to the New Zealand Herald. That was the first time that Aboriginal people were included in the census, and that referendum passed with 90% support. However, since then, only 8 out of 44 proposed amendments relating to the advancement of Aborigines have succeeded.
In Australia, in order for a Constitutional amendment to pass, there must first be federal legislation followed by a referendum that must be supported by a majority of voters in a majority of states, according to The New Zealand Herald.
The new legislation basically calls for respect for Aboriginal culture and promotion and historical recognition of language and heritage.
The country has progressed slowly in supporting the Aboriginal people. Other historical movements include the 1992 decision that gave native title to Aborigines over traditional lands. Then, in 2008, former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd finally delivered an official apology on behalf of the nation, according to The New Zealand Herald.
Prime Minister Gillard says “time is right to say yes to an understanding of our past, to say yes to constitutional change, and to say yes to a future more united and more reconciled than we have ever been before,” according to The Telegraph.
Gillard would like to hold the referendum before the next election (which will be held in 2013). However, she admitted, bipartisan support will be crucial to its success, and that is not always easy to come by, reported by The Telegraph.
Opposition leader, Tony Abbott said that he would support any measure that did not amount to a Bill of Rights, reported The Telegraph. Abbott is quoted as saying that he hoped the referendum would serve as “a unifying moment for the nation.”
Furthermore, The Telegraph reports, Abbott said, “We have some reservations about anything that might turn out to be a one-clause bill of rights. But we accept that millions of Australians hopes and dreams are resting on constitutional recognition of indigenous people.”
Human Rights Commission President Catherine Branson believes that the Australian government needs to focus on building a consensus between the Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander peoples, according to The New Zealand Herald. Also, the report said that a major public education campaign is necessary to ensure voters knew what they were voting on and what exactly they were approving.
Overall, the 300 page report said that some kind of recognition should be given to the Aboriginal peoples as the first inhabitants of Australia. They should have some recognition within the body of the constitution. Leaders hope that the referendum will be passed before elections in 2013.
For more information, please visit:
The New Zealand Herald — Report Seen as Chance to Redefine Australia — 21 Jan. 2012
News One — Australia to Finally Recognize Aborigines as First People — 20 Jan. 2012
Sydney Morning Herald — Aborigines Plan Street Protest to Revive Calls for Sovereignty — 20 Jan. 2012
The Guardian — Australia Set to Recognise Aborigines as First People of Continent — 20 Jan. 2012
The Telegraph — Australia on Verge of Historic Decision to Recognise Aborigines ats First People of Continent — 20 Jan. 2012