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Divisions Arise Over Australia's Plan for Constitutional Recognition for Indigenous Peoples 


FILE - A sticker of the Australian Aboriginal Flag along with the word 'RESPECT' is pictured on a structure at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, a site of protest since 1972, in Canberra, Australia, May 4, 2022.

Critics of Australia’s plan to recognize Indigenous people in the country’s constitution say it risks diverting attention from serious social problems in First Nation communities.

The recently elected center-left government in Canberra wants to hold a referendum to change the constitution to recognize the country's original inhabitants.

Australia has an indigenous history going back 65,000 years. The continent was settled by the British in 1788 and was initially a prison colony. Ever since, Indigenous leaders have sought recognition for injustices including mass killings, dispossession of customary lands and forced assimilation.

FILE - Aboriginal traditional dancers carrying clap sticks and spears and with faces painted white with clay perform in front of Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, Nov. 28, 2016.
FILE - Aboriginal traditional dancers carrying clap sticks and spears and with faces painted white with clay perform in front of Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, Nov. 28, 2016.

There is, however, disagreement about the benefits of a proposed referendum. Some critics have argued that constitutional recognition would simply be symbolic and would not address deep-seated issues.

Senator Jacinta Price, an Indigenous politician, said the plan was “dangerous” because of its lack of detail. She told Australian television that the referendum was being driven by “elites” with little regard for impoverished communities.

FILE - Gwenda Stanley, an Indigenous Australian of Gomeroi descent, organizes belongings in front of a historical image of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, in Canberra, Australia, May 4, 2022.
FILE - Gwenda Stanley, an Indigenous Australian of Gomeroi descent, organizes belongings in front of a historical image of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, in Canberra, Australia, May 4, 2022.

First Nation Australians suffer disproportionately high rates of poverty, imprisonment, domestic violence and unemployment. The problems have persisted despite years of state and federal government promises and policies.

Australia’s independent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that she hoped constitutional reform would bring about practical change.

“With the conversations around the aspirations of the proper acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the founding document of this land is something that will help in our response to these other priorities that we have, that we have been dealing with every day for years and years and years. So, I think we are very capable of doing both,” said Oscar.

FILE - Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese attends the Quad leaders’ summit, in Tokyo, Japan, May 24, 2022.
FILE - Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese attends the Quad leaders’ summit, in Tokyo, Japan, May 24, 2022.

The plan for a proposed referendum was unveiled Saturday by prime minister Anthony Albanese in a speech at an Indigenous festival in the Northern Territory. He said it was “an opportunity for us to demonstrate our maturity as a nation, to uplift our whole nation.”

The vote could be held within three years before the next federal election. If approved, it would enshrine a so-called Indigenous Voice to Parliament in Canberra.

Experts have said that a successful referendum "would amount to an important message to Indigenous Australians about how [they] are respected and heard in Australia."

The Australian constitution, which came into effect in January 1901, does not refer to the country's First Nations people, who make up about 3% of the national population.

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