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Australia to hold Aboriginal constitutional recognition referendum

The campaign to include them in the constitution has stirred heated debate in Canberra.

FILE: Australian aboriginal elders perform a smoking ceremony to welcome members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society on the voyaging canoe Hōkūleʻa on its 47,000 nautical mile journey over four years to engage a global community in creating a healthy and sustainable planet in Sydney on 19 May 2015. Picture: AFP

SYDNEY – Australia will hold a landmark referendum on recognising Aboriginal people in the constitution within three years, the minister for indigenous affairs said Wednesday.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders lived on the land for tens of thousands of years prior to British colonisation, and make up roughly three percent of the population today, but remain by far the country's most disadvantaged community.

The campaign to include them in the constitution has stirred heated debate in Canberra.

But last week right-leaning Prime Minister Scott Morrison agreed to work with the opposition Labor party, clearing a path for indigenous affairs minister Ken Wyatt to promise a constitutional referendum on the issue within the three-year term of the current parliament.

Wyatt acknowledged, during a speech in Canberra, that "there are diverse views" in the country on granting constitutional recognition to Australia's first people.

"I am prepared to walk with people on all sides of politics, all sides of our community to hear their views and reach a point in which they can agree," he said.

Wyatt, who in May became the first Aboriginal Australian to hold the indigenous affairs portfolio, said the question put forward to Australians for a vote must be carefully crafted.

"Sometimes we can aspire to an optimum outcome but we also have to accept that there is a pragmatic element to (a) constitutional referendum and I would rather us in the psyche of this nation have a win on a referendum than to have a loss."

Voting in a constitutional referendum is compulsory in Australia, and since 1901 just eight of 44 proposals for constitutional change have succeeded.

"We all know how difficult it is to achieve referendum change in Australia on any subject," opposition shadow minister for indigenous Australians Linda Burney, who is also Aboriginal, told national broadcaster ABC.

Burney, whose Labour party supports the referendum, said she expected a "pretty ugly" no campaign run against the proposed change, but believes the "Australian public, in the main, is ready for constitutional reform".

Advocates of the reform say it will help remove discrimination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders while creating a more inclusive national identity.

Government efforts to improve outcomes in the areas of health and education for Aboriginal Australians have consistently fallen short.

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