SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Aboriginal leaders agreed on Friday to seek treaties with national and state governments as preferable to symbolic acknowledgement of the indigenous minority in Australia’s constitution.
Australia has struggled for decades to reconcile with Aborigines, who arrived on the continent some 50,000 years before British colonists, and the government only issued a formal apology for past injustices in 2008.
Aborigines, who comprise about 700,000 people in a population of 23 million have tracked near the bottom in almost every economic and social indicator, suffering disproportionately high rates of suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and imprisonment.
Some 250 Aboriginal leaders have been meeting at the sacred monolith landmark of Uluru in central Australia to decide how they should be recognized.
The scope of the treaties they agreed to seek was not clear, but the leaders said on Friday treaties would be preferable to symbolic charter change.
They said in a communique they did not want cosmetic changes to the constitution “rather constitutional reform that makes a real difference in their communities”.
The near-unanimous agreement to seek treaties came after divisions and walkouts by some delegates over the value of altering Australia’s founding document.
The government had no immediate response.
A treaty would be a legal agreement between the government and indigenous people, which could eventually form the basis of reparations for past injustices.
Constitutional recognition would formally acknowledge Australia’s first inhabitants and could remove the government’s ability to make different laws for indigenous and non-indigenous people.
Changing the constitution requires approval in a referendum, with a majority of votes in a majority of states - a rare feat achieved only 8 times in 44 attempts since 1901.
On top of that, indigenous issues in Australia only sporadically capture public attention.
The community representatives proposed forming a body to advise parliament on indigenous matters as well as “agreement-making between governments and First Nations”.
“If there is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representative body, authorized by the constitution to provide advice to the parliament, that’s a more substantial act of symbolism than simply putting some flowery words at the front of the constitution,” delegate Noel Pearson told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
The issue, which has been talked about for years, has gained a lot of attention this week, and politicians have started preparing the public for a possible vote on a constitutional amendment, though they have made no promises to hold one.
Constitutional recognition of Aborigines is a complex issue in a country where Aborigines only began to be included on population census figures after a referendum to amend the constitution in 1967.
Formal constitutional recognition of the community would bring Australia in line with Canada, New Zealand and the United States, which formally recognize their indigenous populations and could also afford legal privileges to Aborigines.
Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Robert Birsel