Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard yesterday used a trip to a remote Aboriginal community to reaffirm her hopes for a change to the constitution to recognize Australia’s first inhabitants.
Gillard, who is on a three-day tour of north and central Australian lands occupied by Aborigines, has proposed a referendum on changing the nation’s founding document to mention the continent’s indigenous people.
“Recognizing the unique and special place of the first Australians in the Australian constitution can be a wonderful national goal,” Gillard said in a speech at Arnhem Land. “An opportunity to recognize, in the founding document of our nationhood, our shared pride in being Australian and our shared pride in Australia’s continuing indigenous culture.”
Welsh-born Gillard said when Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were noted in the constitution, it would be “an uplifting, uniting moment for our nation; a day of great national pride, a day of shared respect.”
The government has promised to hold a referendum on recognizing indigenous people in the constitution, most likely by inserting a statement in a preamble or placing one in the body of the document.
In her speech, Gillard noted the 1967 referendum to recognize Aboriginal people in the census, as well as the later recognition of land rights and an historic 2008 apology for past injustices suffered since British settlement.
However, Australians do not have a good record of approving referendums, and a 1999 plebiscite on becoming a republic and introducing a preamble to the constitution that would have recognized Aborigines both failed.
Gillard was in Arnhem Land to witness the signing of an agreement between traditional landowners in the Northern Territory’s Gove region and mining giant Rio Tinto Alcan.
She said the deal, which secures the future operations of a bauxite mine and alumina refinery as well as providing economic and work benefits for local Aborigines, was a cause for celebration.
Key to the long-sought agreement was cooperation between the community and the miner, she said.
“I believe that in the coming years, our nation can shape a shared future in which we cooperate to end the disadvantage in the lives of our people and mark that cooperation in the life of our nation with a spirit of respect,” she said.
Aboriginal Australians are the most disadvantaged group in the country, suffering significantly lower life expectancies than other citizens, higher rates of incarceration and lack of opportunities.
On Tuesday, Gillard visited the outback town of Alice Springs, her first since becoming prime minister a year ago, and spoke of the decades of “overcrowding, squalor and neglect” in Aborigine town camps.