This week Australia’s parliament has taken an important step towards constitutionally recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first inhabitants of Australia. On February the 13th The House of Representatives passed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012.
The Bill provides parliamentary recognition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on behalf of the people of Australia. It also requires a review of popular support for a referendum to amend the constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first inhabitants of Australia. Such a referendum would bring the constitution in line with current Australian law that since the High Court Mabo v Queensland judgment of 1992 determines terra nullius to be a fallacy in Australia.
The Bill received firm support from both sides of the House in a rare instance of cooperation between the Labour and Liberal parties and is expected to pass the Senate before the end of February. Five years on from Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Indigenous peoples of Australia it seems that the party politics has left this then contentious issue.
While it may be heartening for recognition activists to see the two major parties united in rhetoric on this issue, there is still a long road ahead before the anticipated referendum. The Bill sets a deadline of two years at which time a report on support for a constitutional referendum must be presented to parliament. There are no provisions for an actual referendum and if public support is found to be low it is unlikely that one will be held in the immediate future.
This puts to onus on organisations such as Recognise to increase public support over the next two years. The current Government has pledged 10 million dollars to a public awareness campaign for recognition. Recognition activists must hope that in this election year this is one promise that will be kept.