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Recognising the first Australians

Aboriginal people won a referendum in 1967 for the right to vote, and now all Australians will be asked to go to the ballot to give them recognition in the Constitution.

Page MP Janelle Saffin said it had been an honour to be a part of the panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples for the past year. The panel handed their report to Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin last Thursday and the government will now consider the recommendations and how best to frame a question to take to a referendum.

Over the past 12 months the panel has hosted 250 consultation sessions all over the country including one in Lismore and has received over 3500 written submissions. Ms Saffin was one of only four parliamentarians on the 22-member panel and said it was a great thing to be a part of. It was co-chaired by Indigenous leader Pat Dodson and lawyer Mark Leibler and was made up of other prominent Indigenous and non-Indigenous

Australians including Liberal MP Ken Wyatt, Greens MP Rachel Siewert and Independent MP Rob Oakeshott.

"We were a microcosm of Australia that came together and had to ask ourselves, 'how do we approach this?'

"We had four principles to guide us that served us well which were that whatever we came up with had to be technically and legally sound, it had to be capable of being supported by the overwhelming majority of Australians, it had to benefit the wishes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and contribute to a more unified and reconciled nation," Ms Saffin said.

The panel has enjoyed the support of all political parties and aims to create a Constitution that recognises the continuing cultures, languages and heritages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples; remove racist elements; and prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race, colour or ethnic or national origin.

Ms Saffin said 82% of Australians supported Constitutional reform to acknowledge Aboriginal people and said there was still a lot of work to do to ensure that the wording of a referendum was supported by both the Opposition and the ALP.

"Some people say it is symbolic, but we can't forget the power of symbolism on how we see ourselves and how we feel... The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists said there is a positive effect and improved self-esteem and mental health from symbolic changes."

The report can be viewed at www.youmeunity.org.au.


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