Leaders unite on need to recognise first people

AUSTRALIA has moved one step closer to recognising its first people in the country's founding document after one of the Federal Parliament's rare and uplifting moments of unity between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.

Both leaders committed themselves to tackle what the Prime Minister called ''the unhealed wound that even now lies open at the heart of our national story'' and the Opposition Leader dubbed ''this stain on our soul''.

The passage through the House of Representatives of an Act of Recognition was met by applause from the public galleries and from indigenous leaders including Patrick Dodson and Lowitja O'Donoghue, who had been invited to witness the moment from the floor of the House.

The legislation recognises the ''unique and special place'' of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and is designed to give momentum for constitutional recognition after the September election. It passed the lower house on the fifth anniversary of the apology by former prime minister Kevin Rudd to the stolen generations.

The legislation has a two-year sunset clause, in the expectation that momentum towards a successful referendum campaign will have built in that time.

As part of the campaign, football legend Michael Long, whose Long Walk from Melbourne to Canberra highlighted the plight of indigenous Australians in 2004, will lead a ''Journey to Recognition'' before the Dreamtime at the 'G game between AFL clubs Essendon and Richmond on May 26.

''We must never feel guilt for the things already done in this nation's history, but we can - and must - feel responsibility for the things that remain undone,'' Ms Gillard told Parliament. ''No gesture speaks more deeply to the healing of our nation's fabric than amending our nation's founding charter.''

Speaking from hand-written notes, Mr Abbott replied: ''As the Prime Minister said, we should not feel guilty about our past but we should be determined to rise above that which now makes us embarrassed. We have that chance. Let us grasp it.''

Both leaders acknowledged that the challenge of agreeing on the wording of the referendum remains, with Mr Abbott saying: ''It won't necessarily be straightforward to acknowledge the first Australians without creating new categories of discrimination, which we must avoid because no Australians should feel like strangers in their own country.

''But I believe that we are equal to this task of completing our constitution rather than changing it. The next Parliament will, I trust, finish the work that this one has begun.''

Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin said the referendum would recognise Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and their unique history, culture and connection to this land; remove all references to race in the constitution; and acknowledge additional effort is needed to close the gap on indigenous disadvantage.

Ms Gillard described the absence of recognition in the constitution as ''the great Australian silence'' and expressed the hope that legislation for the referendum could pass in 2014.

The National Congress of Australia's First Peoples welcomed the passage of the Act of Recognition, but said the hard yards in substantive constitutional reform were just beginning.

''Today is the first test of multi-partisan leadership. Now all parties must continue to work together to achieve a referendum involving substantive reform, not just symbolic recognition,'' congress co-chairwoman Jody Broun said.

''Congress calls for constitutional reform that protects rights and prohibits discrimination. We now expect clear commitments from all sides of politics to a referendum time frame and the concrete steps required to make it happen.''

This story Leaders unite on need to recognise first people first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.