SYDNEY – Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd used the 50th anniversary of the indigenous land rights movement Wednesday to pledge a referendum on recognizing the country’s Aborigines in the constitution if his Labor Party is re-elected.
His predecessor, Julia Gillard, shelved a plan to hold a vote this parliamentary term, citing low public support, but Rudd made clear that recognition of Aboriginal people as the country’s first inhabitants was a priority.
“I therefore, as prime minister, want to see this matter brought to the people of Australia by referendum within two years of the election of the next parliament,” he said, with national polls scheduled for later this year.
Rudd said he wanted to work with the conservative opposition to draft an appropriate question.
“I want us to agree on the question to be put to the Australian people,” he said. “No more delays, no more excuses, no more buck-passing. It’s time the nation got on with this business.”
Any change to Australia’s constitution must be approved by a national referendum in which all citizens vote, and such ballots typically have low levels of success.
Rudd was speaking ahead of an event in the remote Aboriginal community of Yirrkala in the country’s north, where the indigenous land rights movement began 50 years ago with the signing of two bark petitions protesting against a government plan to confiscate a massive block of land to mine for bauxite.
The petitions became the first native title documents recognized by Australia’s parliament. While they failed to win their case in the courts, they set in motion the push for the eventual recognition of Aboriginals as full citizens in 1967, and the statutory acknowledgement of land rights in 1976.