Politics, Asia - Pacific

Australia to hold referendum to formally recognize Indigenous peoples as first citizens

Cabinet vows to collaborate on constitutionally mandated 'Voice to Parliament' to recognize Aboriginals, Torres Strait Islanders as Australia's First Peoples this year

Islamuddin Sajid  | 03.02.2023 - Update : 03.02.2023
Australia to hold referendum to formally recognize Indigenous peoples as first citizens People participate in an ‘Invasion Day’ protest in Sydney, Australia, on January 26, 2023. Thousands of protesters have descended on city streets in solidarity with Indigenous Australians to commemorate Invasion Day. ( Steven Saphore - Anadolu Agency )


The Australian government pledged on Friday to amend the country's constitution to officially recognize Indigenous peoples as the country's first citizens before the 236th anniversary of British colonization, through a referendum in the second half of this year.

The cabinet in its meeting reaffirmed its commitment to working collaboratively to support a constitutionally enshrined “Voice to Parliament” by signing a Statement of Intent to recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia.

The country's constitution currently does not recognize Indigenous peoples.

"Today, all First Ministers, in recognition of our commitment for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as Australia's first peoples, and also with a Voice to Parliament being enshrined in our Constitution, re-signed, recommitted and signed up to a Statement of Intent to secure a successful referendum in the second half of this year," Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters after the meeting.

The referendum is expected to be held after August of this year.

Following the election victory of Albanese's center-left Labor Party in May of last year, he announced that his government would include indigenous people as original inhabitants in the constitution.

An indigenous body would be established in parliament to advise on indigenous issues, he said.

"To achieve this important reform for Australia's national interest later this year when the referendum is held, and to indicate through a signing of the Statement of Intent, the commitment that all states and territories have for this vital reform," the premier said, according to a transcript posted on his official website.

Just weeks after Albanese took office, lawyer Lincoln Crowley was appointed as the first Indigenous Australian state or territory justice in Queensland in June last year.

"It's remarkable in so many ways. Remarkable for me that I am the first, and remarkable for our community that it has taken so long for this occasion to arrive," Crowley made a remark after taking the oath.

Before him, Ken Wyatt became the first indigenous Australian to be appointed to the cabinet of then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison in 2019.

Since the colonization of Australia by British settlers in 1788, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have experienced extreme hardships, ranging from the loss of traditional culture and homelands to the forced removal of children and denial of citizenship rights, according to Australian Human Rights Commission.

"This history of injustice has meant that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been denied access to basic human rights, such as rights to health, housing, employment, and education," the commission stated.

According to the Australian Healing Foundation, an organization that works for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, tens of thousands of children were forcibly removed by authorities from indigenous families between 1910 and 1970 under government policy.

Under such policies, children were forced to assimilate into white society and culture, while parents were not allowed to meet their children. Furthermore, children were not allowed to speak their native language.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), around 33,600 survivors of the stolen generations live in different states of the country, with 27,000 of them over the age of 50.

On Feb. 13, 2008, then-Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd formally apologized on behalf of the nation to the Indigenous Australians for the inhumane treatment in the past.

*Writing by Islamuddin Sajid

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