Australia

Australian Indigenous wounds still raw, warns Nova Peris

Senator Nova Peris speaks during the Australian Olympic Committee Annual General Meeting at Museum of Contemporary Art on 9 May 2015 in Sydney, Australia. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ms Peris has been a strong advocate for Indigenous rights

Australia's first female Indigenous MP has said the country cannot recognise Aboriginal people in the constitution until its racist past is acknowledged.

Senator Nova Peris also said in a speech on Sunday that government policy was hindering Indigenous Australians' ability to take control of their lives.

Indigenous Australians are not mentioned in the constitution.

The government is consulting with Indigenous leaders on how it could possibly refer to them in the document.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has pledged to hold a referendum in 2017 that could see Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders recognised as the first Australians.

'A problem with the truth'

Speaking at a festival in the Northern Territory on Sunday, Ms Peris said past wounds needed to be healed before that decision was made.

"You can only move forward when you acknowledge the truth and right now this country has a problem with the truth of Aboriginal people," she said.

"Every time we come out and tell our story, it's like 'shut the book, we don't want to deal with it'," she said, adding that her mother and grandfather had been taken away from their families during a government campaign to assimilate Indigenous children by placing them with white families.

Opinion polls show there is widespread community support for including Indigenous people in the constitution. However, there is still disagreement over the wording of any amendments.

The constitution has two controversial so-called "race provisions" which allow Australian states to disqualify people on the basis of their race from voting, and allow laws to be made based upon a person's race.

What's at stake:

The Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples has recommended these changes to the constitution:

  • Recognising that the continent and its islands now known as Australia were first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • Acknowledging the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their traditional lands and waters
  • Respecting the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

Repealing the two so-called "race provisions":

  • section 25 that recognises that the states can disqualify people on the basis of their race from voting
  • section 51(26) that allows laws to be made based upon a person's race.

Ms Peris also said government policy was hindering Indigenous Australians' ability to take control of their lives, saying government funding for programmes to help poor Aboriginals was not being sustained long enough.

"Aboriginal affairs should be left alone. Don't touch it for 10 to 15 years," the Olympic gold medal winner said.

"Leave it alone and let Aboriginal people make decisions for themselves."

AFL row

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Adam Goodes (centre) has been booed and abused on the field by spectators

Senator Peris's comments come as a race row engulfs one of the country's most high-profile sports stars.

Adam Goodes, an Indigenous Australian, may end his Aussie Rules Football career with the Sydney Swans Club because of constant booing at games, which he and his supporters says is racism-inspired.

Ms Peris said Goodes's efforts in taking a stance against racism took "enormous guts".

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