Australia's Aborigines deliver PM a roadmap to constitutional recognition

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia’s aboriginal leaders delivered a report to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Friday recommending the indigenous population be recognized in the constitution as the country’s first people, with a history dating back some 50,000 years.

Dancers from East Arnhem Land at the opening ceremony for the National Indigenous Constitutional Convention in Mutitjulu near Uluru in central Australia, May 23, 2017. Picture taken May 23, 2017. AAP/Lucy Hughes Jones/via REUTERS

The report also called for a representative body be set up to advise parliament on indigenous matters.

Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders make up 2.8 percent of the 24.5 million population but have disproportionately high rates of suicide and incarceration, ranking near the bottom in almost every economic and social indicator.

Denied the vote until the mid-1960s, they face a 10-year gap in life expectancy compared with other Australians and make up 27 percent of the prison population. The United Nations has criticized their living standards.

Australia’s constitution currently makes no reference to the indigenous population and aboriginal leaders have struggled for generations to gain recognition for past injustices since European colonization in the 1700s. The government only issued a formal apology to indigenous people in 2008.

Aboriginal leader Joe Morrison said the report provided a guide to the country’s politicians on how to amend the constitution to include indigenous recognition.

“Getting the report is one thing, but the prime minister has got to provide the requisite leadership in responding to the matter now put to him and do it in a bipartisan way,” Morrison told Reuters.

The exact contents of the report have not been made public and the government declined to immediately comment.

But Friday’s report builds on a constitutional convention last month at Uluru, a sacred aboriginal site and iconic sandstone monolith in the country’s outback, where indigenous delegates called for “substantive constitutional change”.

Delegates also called for an advisory voice in parliament, and the creation of treaties between the government and indigenous people which could eventually form the basis of reparations for past injustices.

Constitutional recognition of Aborigines is a complex issue in a country where Aborigines only began to be included on population census figures after a referendum to amend the constitution in 1967.

Constitutional change requires a national referendum which must be passed by a majority of votes and a majority of Australia’s six states. Most referendums fail.

“If a great deal is asked for, there is always a danger that the referendum won’t go through,” said political historian David Black, warning a referendum to include Aborigines in the constitution could alienate large sections of the population.

“And if the referendum is held and doesn’t pass, that would be disastrous for relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.”

Editing by Michael Perry