Australian PM Tony Abbott to 'sweat blood' for Aboriginal recognition

This file photo taken on Nov 12, 2013, shows Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott (centre) speaking with Aboriginal performers at the opening of the 44th Parliament in Canberra. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has declared himself ready t
This file photo taken on Nov 12, 2013, shows Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott (centre) speaking with Aboriginal performers at the opening of the 44th Parliament in Canberra. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has declared himself ready to "sweat blood" to ensure that Aborigines are recognised in the nation's constitution, hopefully by 2017. -- PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has declared himself ready to "sweat blood" to ensure that Aborigines are recognised in the nation's constitution, hopefully by 2017.

Written more than a century ago, Australia's constitution does not recognise Aborigines as the nation's first inhabitants, with one section also saying people can be banned from voting based on race.

Australian lawmakers formally recognised indigenous peoples as the country's first inhabitants last year, five years after an historic apology to the nation's indigenous for past wrongs, including the forced removal of children.

Abbott did not lock in a date but said a referendum on constitutional recognition could happen on 27 May, 2017 - the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum which allowed indigenous peoples to be counted in the census.

"I am a strong supporter of constitutional recognition," the conservative prime minister told a dinner in Sydney late Thursday.

"I am prepared to sweat blood on this. This is at least as important as any of the other causes that this government has been prepared to take on."

Aborigines are still the most disadvantaged Australians, with significantly lower life expectancies than others and with many living in remote and poor communities.

Abbott said he had not experienced racial discrimination himself, saying "Anglo-Australian males from middle-class families tend to have had a magic carpet ride through life".

"Still, this hasn't stopped the 'whispering in my heart' that our most serious failure as a nation has been our difficulty in acknowledging the people we displaced," he said.

Abbott vowed to spend a week each year in a remote indigenous location when he was sworn in as leader in 2013, seeking to be the "prime minister for Aboriginal affairs".

In September he shifted his office for almost a week to a tent in an isolated Aboriginal community on the outskirts of Nhulunbuy on the northern tip of Australia, nearly 1,000 kilometres east of Darwin.

'ONE UNITED PEOPLE'

A fierce monarchist keen to retain ties with Britain, Abbott said he supported constitutional recognition because he wanted the country to transcend the "them and us" mindset.

"But there is almost nothing that this generation of Australians could do that would more impress posterity than enabling black and white Australians to walk forward together, forever, as one united people," he said.

Abbott said that while about 60 percent of the population supported indigenous recognition in the referendum, it needed overwhelming support to pass.

For this reason, the process should not be rushed, "because nothing would set back the cause of our country and the rightful place of Aboriginal people at its heart, than a referendum that failed," he said.

Abbott said constitutional recognition - when it comes - would likely be a heartfelt pact between indigenous people and conservative Australia.

"Indigenous people have to accept that any proposal put forward is worth doing because it does sufficiently acknowledge them as the first Australians," he said.

"And conservative Australia has to accept that any proposal put forward really is completing our constitution rather than changing it." The prime minister said he hoped that consultation from people from all walks of life on the issue would accelerate and intensify in the new year.

Aborigines are believed to have numbered around one million at the time of British settlement in 1788, but there are now just 470,000 out of a total population of 23 million.