Australia targets 2017 referendum on Aboriginal recognition

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra on Feb 5, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Thursday (Feb 11) said a referendum on recognising Aboriginal people in the Constitution was possible in 2017, but he cautioned a lot of work needed to be done.

Written more than a century ago, the nation's founding document fails to mention Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people and a campaign has been under way for several years to "recognise" the continent's first inhabitants via a referendum.

The Torres Strait, part of the state of Queensland, lies to the north of mainland Australia and its indigenous people are ethnically and culturally distinct from the country's Aboriginal community.

"I would like to see it get up," Mr Turnbull told Fairfax Media on whether 2017 was achievable.

"But it's got to have something that enthuses indigenous people, that they see as meaningful, and then it's got to be in practical, political terms achievable."

A referendum council was established by the government in December last year to consider the issue and its timing, with debate on the content of any changes under way.

Mr Turnbull said he was ready to do what he could to help shape a constitutional amendment that was agreeable to indigenous leaders.

"The first thing is that we've got to come up with some words, an amendment that is meaningful for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders," he said.

"If, through their consultative process, the referendum advisory council comes back with some language that fits that bill and then we, as the Parliament, are comfortable with it, and are comfortable that we can get it passed, then it would go forward." But the Prime Minister cautioned that changing a Constitution was not easy.

Support for the "recognise" movement is high, with a Fairfax national poll last year putting it at a record 85 per cent. Eleven per cent were opposed.

Australian lawmakers formally recognised indigenous people as the country's first inhabitants in 2013.

Aborigines are believed to have numbered around one million at the time of British settlement in 1788, but there are now just 670,000 out of a total population of 23 million.

They have significantly lower life expectancies than others in the country, with many living in remote and poor communities.

On Wednesday (Feb 10), Mr Turnbull admitted Australia was failing to close the "unacceptably wide" gap in life expectancy between Aboriginal and non-indigenous people.

He also highlighted the devastating impact of drugs and alcohol on the country's original inhabitants in the government's annual Closing the Gap report, introduced in 2009 to help address issues facing the indigenous population.