A rare meeting of Australian Aboriginal leaders will take place at Uluru from May 23, 2017.
Mark Kolbe/Getty Images
A rare meeting of Australian Aboriginal leaders will take place at Uluru from May 23, 2017.

Story highlights

The Uluru meeting is a rare mass meeting of Australia's Aboriginal people

"Substantive" change is required from the country's government, one leader says

CNN —  

When Australia’s founding constitution was agreed to in 1900, it completely failed to mention the original inhabitants of the country – the nation’s Aboriginal people.

Over a hundred years later, up to 300 indigenous Australians from across the country will gather together Wednesday at a rare meeting in the “spiritual heart” of the nation, Uluru, in a historic bid to be recognized by their own country.

One of the oldest civilizations in the world, the Australian Aboriginals lived in the country for tens of thousands of years before British colonizers arrived.

But in 2017, Australia’s indigenous population lag behind on basic well-being standards, such as life expectancy, literacy and infant mortality.

The once-in-a-generation mass meeting is organized by the Referendum Council, a government backed initiative aimed at canvassing the views of Australia’s aboriginal communities.

Opening ceremony of the First Nations National Convention held on Tuesday at Uluru in Australia's Northern Territory.
Jimmy Widders Hunt
Opening ceremony of the First Nations National Convention held on Tuesday at Uluru in Australia's Northern Territory.

“We’re not prepared to just take some kind of statement inserted into the constitution or recognizing us because we already know who we are … We want changes that are going to make changes to our lives and (ensure) we have a say,” Referendum Council co-chair and member of the indigenous Alyawarre people, Pat Anderson, told CNN.

In her discussions with the Australia’s first citizens, Anderson said she’d hear calls for “substantive, structural reform” to the way they were treated.

Why it’s important

The new push to include Aboriginal Australians in the constitution started in 2010 under former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Unlike most developed nations, Australia’s colonizers never signed a treaty with the native Aboriginal population.

“Constitutional recognition is an important step to building trust and respect, it’s an important step to building and acknowledging that the first peoples of our nation have a unique and special place in our nation,” Gillard told reporters at the time.

In Australia, changes to the constitution can’t be made without a national referendum.

“It’s important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to know that in our country we are recognized and it does have a massive impact,” Tom Calma, co-chair of advocacy group Reconciliation Australia, told CNN.

Torres Strait islanders are the native inhabitants of a string of islands between Papua New Guinea and northern Queensland, which are also claimed by Australia.

After much debate, a 16-member Referendum Council was appointed in 2015 by the Australian Government and Opposition to consult with Australia’s indigenous population as to what question should be put to voters.

The First Nations Convention at Uluru will help create the recommendations which will then be given to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The council held 12 regional dialogues in states and territories across the country, in the lead up to this week’s national convention.

“It has been truly inspiring,” Anderson said. “We are, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, we’re up for this, up for a national conversation

Australian Aboriginal men at the First Nations National Convention in the Northern Territory, held between Wednesday and Friday this week.
Jimmy Widders Hunt
Australian Aboriginal men at the First Nations National Convention in the Northern Territory, held between Wednesday and Friday this week.

Two different Australias

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders number around 670,000 people in total, according to 2011 census data.

Despite Australia’s general affluence and quality of life, the country’s indigenous Aboriginal population still falls far behind the rest of the country on a number of social indicators.

Indigenous infant mortality rates are double those for the non-indigenous population, while literacy and numeracy rates are significantly lower for Aboriginal students, according to the Australian government’s 2017 Closing the Gap report.

Additionally, the unemployment rate for indigenous Australians is almost four times higher than for their non-indigenous peers. Their life expectancy is also about 10 years lower than for the rest of Australia.

But Calma said many of the indicators had been heading in a positive directions in recent years.

“It’s all very positive, going from completions of year 12 to university attendance … we’re seeing more people giving up smoking or not taking it up which is a very positive story,” he said.

Despite this, Calma said the Australian government needed to do a lot more. “Whichever political party we’re talking about, we see glimmers of hope and some attention but none of them you can say in any meaningful way have embraced (Aboriginal assistance),” he said.

Anderson said over the past seven years since Gillard’s call for action there had been two reports, both of which had seen no government response.

Aboriginal leaders from around the country have come together for a national convention in the Northern Territory, starting Wednesday
Jimmy Widders Hunt
Aboriginal leaders from around the country have come together for a national convention in the Northern Territory, starting Wednesday

“Although this is government-funded, they could do like they’ve done with a whole lot of other stuff – say thank you very much and pop it in a draw,” Anderson said.

“But we’re hoping from these three days in Uluru we will build some momentum, not just among our families but also the wider Australia public … there is a strong desire for change.”