13 Feb 2013

Unanimous support for Indigenous recognition vote

10:38 pm on 13 February 2013

The Australian House of Representatives has passed legislation recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first inhabitants of Australia.

The bill paves the way for a referendum for constitutional change.

Before a packed public gallery the act of recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as Australia's first inhabitants passed with bi-partisan support in Canberra on Wednesday, the ABC reports.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said it is a deed of reconciliation in its own right and "as a sign of good faith for the referendum to come".

"No gesture speaks more deeply to the healing of our nation's fabric than amending our nation's founding charter," she told Parliament.

"This bill seeks to foster momentum for a referendum for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples."

Opposition leader Tony Abbott matched the commitment.

"We are equal to this task of completing our constitution, rather than changing it."

Mr Abbott paid tribute to those who have worked to achieve reconciliation over a long period of time, including former prime ministers Gough Whitlam, Harold Holt, John Howard and Kevin Rudd.

He has also recognised the efforts of Ms Gillard. "So often in this place, we are antagonists. Today on this matter, we are partners and collaborators."

The Act of Recognition is an interim step and allows up to two years to prepare for a referendum on constitutional recognition.

Its passage through the Lower House was greeted with applause from the public gallery and coincides with the five-year anniversary on which former prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generations.

An expert panel, including Djawa Burarrwanga from Yirrkala, set up to consider the options for constitutional change recommended amendments to recognise that Australia was first inhabited by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

It also suggested there should be an acknowledgement of the need to "secure the advancement" of Indigenous people.

The panel recommended English be declared Australia's national language, but that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages be recognised as the country's first languages.