Australia shelves Aboriginal referendum

2012-09-20 10:02
An aboriginal boy stands outside a store in the remote outback town of Wadeye in the Northern Terrritory of Australia. (AP, File)

An aboriginal boy stands outside a store in the remote outback town of Wadeye in the Northern Terrritory of Australia. (AP, File)

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Sydney - Australia on Thursday shelved plans to hold a referendum on formally recognising the country's Aborigines in the constitution, saying there was not enough public support for the move.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard described the vote as a "once in 50-year opportunity" when she first unveiled plans for the referendum in 2010, saying there was a rare moment of widespread public and parliamentary support.

Gillard had said the vote, which would have followed a historic 2008 government apology to Aboriginal Australians for wrongs committed since white settlement in 1788, could be held before or in conjunction with next year's national elections.

But Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin said the plan had been shelved for two or three years due to a lack of community support, with the government instead set to pass a special "Act of Recognition".

"I understand that people are disappointed. I'm disappointed myself," said Macklin.

"All of us would like to see the recognition of indigenous Australians in the constitution as soon as possible, but nobody wants it to fail, most of all indigenous Australians," the minister added.

Counted as part of population

"I think we also have to acknowledge that there isn't the community awareness for a change to the constitution."

Macklin said it could take several years to gather enough support.

Australia has not held a referendum since 1999, when a move to become a republic was rejected.

In 44 referendums since 1901, only eight have been passed, including a resoundingly successful 1967 vote on counting Aboriginal Australians as part of the population.

Macklin said the Act of Recognition would address the recommendations of an expert panel into the proposed referendum in the interim.

They included recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as Australia's original inhabitants and acknowledging the need to secure the advancement of these groups, the nation's most disadvantaged minority.

Once thought to number more than one million, Aborigines now account for just 470 000 out of a population of 22 million, and suffer disproportionately high rates of disease, imprisonment and unemployment.

Aboriginal men have a life expectancy 11.5 years shorter than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. Aboriginal women die 9.7 years sooner than non-Aboriginal women.

Read more on:    julia gillard  |  australia
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