'If not now, when?': Emotional Australian PM advances Indigenous referendum

FILE PHOTO: Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders wearing traditional dress stand in front of Government House after performing in a welcoming ceremony in Sydney, Australia, June 28, 2017. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia took a step on Thursday towards a historical referendum to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders recognition in the constitution and, for the first time, a voice on matters that affect their lives.

In an emotional address, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese revealed the question the government wants to set in the referendum later this year, urging Australians to back what he described as a long overdue vote.

"For many ... this moment has been a very long time in the making," Albanese said, choking up during a televised press conference, standing alongside several Indigenous leaders supporting the proposal.

"Yet they have shown such patience and optimism through this process, and that spirit of cooperation and thoughtful, respectful dialogue has been so important at arriving at this point in such a united fashion."

The referendum question to be put to Australians will be: "A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?".

Making up about 3.2% of Australia's near 26 million population, the Aboriginal people were marginalised by British colonial rulers and are not mentioned in the 122-year-old constitution. They were not granted voting rights until the 1960s and track below national averages on most socio-economic measures.

Albanese urged Australians, who will be asked to vote between October and December, to amend the constitution to create a consultative committee in parliament called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

"If not now, when?," he asked.

The committee would provide non-binding advice to parliament on matters that affect First Nations people.

The government will introduce the bill next week, hoping to pass it in the parliament by the end of June. Any constitutional alterations require a national referendum.


Opposition leader Peter Dutton said the government still had not responded to his queries on how the consultative panel would function and he needed more details.

"We will decide in due course whether we support the Voice or oppose it," Dutton told reporters.

The rural-based National Party, the junior partner in the opposition coalition, has said it would oppose the Voice, while the left-wing Greens party and some independent lawmakers have promised support.

A Guardian poll out on Tuesday showed public support for the referendum was down 5% but was still backed by a majority, with 59% in favour.

Albanese has staked significant political capital on the referendum. Since Australian independence in 1901, there have been 44 proposals for constitutional change in 19 referendums, and only eight have been approved.

In the last referendum in 1999, Australians voted against changing the constitution to create a republic and replace the British monarch as head of state with a president.

Opponents criticised the wording of that referendum, and Albanese has said he would aim to frame the current question as simply and clearly as possible.

The opposition conservative coalition had been demanding funding for campaign groups who support and oppose the referendum but the government has made no promise.

The federal government said the 'Yes-No' pamphlet, containing arguments on both sides, will be sent to all households.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Lincoln Feast and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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