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Aboriginal referendum long overdue

Aboriginal referendum long overdue

A leading constitutional law expert believes a referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the constitution has a good chance of success.George Williams, the Anthony…

A leading constitutional law expert believes a referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the constitution has a good chance of success.

George Williams, the Anthony Mason Professor and Foundation Director of the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law, at the Faculty of Law, University of NSW.

He told Lawyers Weekly that such recognition for Indigenous Australians is long overdue and he is cautiously optimistic that it would be passed.

"We should have had appropriate recognition of Aboriginal people in the constitution since 1901," Williams said. "I think our national founding document as a nation should recognise the many thousands of years of history of the people that are here."

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced yesterday (8 November) that there will be a referendum to recognise Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in the Australian Constitution either before or at the next federal election.

Gillard said that an expert panel will be formed to provide possible options on the nature of the proposed amendment to be put to the Australian people.

"To achieve this historic reform we must make sure we build the most robust and persuasive case for change," she said.

The Prime Minister has written the Opposition leader Tony Abbott and Greens leader Bob Brown, as well as independent members and senators, inviting them to nominate parliamentary and community panel members.

A survey from Griffith University in October showed that 75 per cent of respondents wanted a referendum on Indigenous recognition.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has welcomed the Prime Minister's announcement, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda saying that "constitutional recognition will address a history of exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the life of the nation and put the final piece of the Australian jigsaw puzzle in place to complete our national identity." Only eight of 44 referendums have been approved in Australia, including a failed attempt to include Indigenous Australians in the preamble to the constitution in 1999.

Williams, who recently released the book; People Power: The history and future of the referendum in Australia, believes the proposed referendum model outlined by the Prime Minister yesterday is superior to what was offered in 1999.

"The problem then (1999) was that the wording was accompanied and drafted by politicians," he said. "Aboriginal people had very little say in the wording, and that meant, not surprisingly, that Aboriginal people and the broader community rejected what was the politicians' preamble.

"This time, the chances of success are very positive, because it will work its way up from the grass roots."

Nominations for the expert panel are open until 18 November.

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