Australian lawmakers have passed a new law that recognizes its indigenous population as the continent's original inhabitants. Prime Minister Julia Gillard called on parliament to put the issue to a referendum vote.
The House of Representatives approved the bill in a unanimous vote on Wednesday, giving the nearly 500,000 indigenous Australians legal recognition as the nation's first inhabitants. Prime Minister Julia Gillard stressed the importance of gaining national support for an amendment to the constitution in order to continue the healing process, calling earlier work toward improving the population's rights "incomplete."
"Among the 128 sections of the constitution, there is no acknowledgement of Australia's first peoples. No mention of their dispossession, their proud and ancient cultures, their profound connection to the land or the unhealed wound that even now lies open at the heart of our national story," Gillard said before parliament.
Opposition Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott also expressed his party's support for the decision.
"We need to atone for the omissions and for the hardness of heart of our forebears, to enable us all to embrace the future as a united people," Abbott said.
While the legislation, entitled The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill, is expected to also gain approval in the upper chamber the Senate, Australians must vote in a referendum to amend the constitution.
A referendum has not yet been scheduled, as it is reportedly unknown whether the proposal would garner a majority among Australian voters. Nevertheless, the prime minister appeared optimistic that indigenous Australians would not have to wait much longer for an amendment.
"I do believe the community is willing to embrace the justice of this campaign because Australians understand that indigenous culture and history are a source of pride for us all," Gillard said.
The new legislation on Wednesday coincided nearly to the day with the fifth anniversary of the government's first official apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
In 2008, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized on behalf of the government for past mistreatment of the indigenous peoples. His speech acknowledged the wrongs perpetrated repeatedly that followed soon after the arrival of the first British settlers in 1788.
Rudd also apologized for the forced removal of children from their families in the 20th century, when the Australian government attempted to "assimilate" an estimated 100,000 children by placing them in orphanages or with white foster parents.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Peoples were first recognized as full citizens by the Australian government in 1967.
kms/ipj (AFP, dpa)