Aboriginal Australian leaders are meeting at the sacred landmark of Uluru to decide how the country’s first inhabitants, who date back about 50,000 years before British colonizers arrived, should be recognized in the constitution for the first time.
There are about 700,000 Aborigines in a population of 23 million but they suffer disproportionately high rates of suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and imprisonment, tracking near the bottom in almost every economic and social indicator.
Constitutional recognition of Aborigines is a complex issue in a country which previously administered its indigenous people under flora and fauna laws.
This week’s conference comes before an anticipated national referendum on recognition. If successful, it would bring Australia into line with Canada, New Zealand and the United States as formally recognizing their indigenous populations.
Senator Patrick Dodson, one of Australia’s most senior indigenous politicians, said the conference was about forming a clear view on what indigenous Australians wanted.
“These talks have profound significance as a major chance for indigenous Australians to decide whether they want to be recognized in the constitution or not,” Dodson told Reuters.
“If they do want to be recognized, they need to advise on how they want to be so.”
Progress was made in 1967 when a referendum allowed Aborigines citizenship. But that was all.
Aborigines face a 10-year gap in life expectancy compared with other Australians and make up 27 percent of the prison population, but are just three percent of the total population.
After the three-day event at what was formerly called Ayers Rock, a report will be presented to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the opposition leader ahead of the proposed referendum as early as this year.
A referendum is required to make changes to the constitution.
“It is vitally important our first Australians consider and debate the models of recognition free of political interference and the diversity of views and opinions within the indigenous communities are discussed,” Turnbull told parliament on Wednesday.
Academic Harry Hobbs, who researches constitutional law and indigenous rights at the University of New South Wales, said there were several models of recognition to consider.
“It is quite a broad spectrum of what the referendum proposal might be: a statement of acknowledgement, modifying the law-making power over indigenous people, a racial non-discrimination clause and removing sections of the constitution,” he said.
“Further discussions may include a body made up of elected indigenous peoples who would advise parliament on laws or a treaty between the state and indigenous people.”