After apology comes recognition

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 moments of unity between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.

The two leaders committed themselves to address 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 it ''this stain on our soul''.

The passage through the lower house 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 Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples and is designed to give momentum for constitutional recognition after the election.

It passed the House of Representatives on the fifth anniversary of the apology by the former prime minister Kevin Rudd to the stolen generations.

''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 handwritten notes, Mr Abbott told Parliament Australia was the envy of the world, except for the fact that ''we have never fully made peace with the first Australians''.

''We have to acknowledge, that pre-1788, this land was as Aboriginal then as it is Australian now, and until we have acknowledged that we will be an incomplete nation and a torn people,'' he said.

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

Mr Abbott applauded the former Labor prime minister Paul Keating's Redfern speech of 21 years ago and paid tribute to those on both sides of politics who played roles in progress towards recognition. ''So often in this place we are protagonists. Today, on this matter, we are partners and collaborators,'' he told Ms Gillard.

Despite the support for the Act of Recognition, question time was interrupted on Wednesday afternoon by a small group of protesters in the public gallery. ''You have been served!'' the indigenous Australians chanted, while throwing some sheets of paper on to the floor of the House, protesting that they had not been included in the constitution.

Originally, Labor had planned to hold a referendum on constitutional recognition of indigenous people by this year, but it was deferred because of a lack of community awareness.

Both leaders acknowledged that the challenge of agreeing on the wording of the referendum remains. Mr Abbott said: ''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.''

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

with Judith Ireland

The story After apology comes recognition first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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