Australia will hold a national vote within three years on whether to include recognition of indigenous people in its constitution, the government said on Wednesday.
The country has struggled to achieve reconciliation with the descendants of its first inhabitants, who arrived on the continent about 50,000 years before British colonists but are not recognised in the national constitution.
With public support on the issue growing, Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt, the first indigenous Australian to hold the portfolio, promised a referendum before 2022.
“I will develop and bring forward a consensus option for constitutional recognition to be put to a referendum during the current parliamentary term,” Wyatt said in a speech in Canberra.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative coalition government was returned to power in a surprise election victory in May and the next polls must take place by 2022.
To meet the timetable Wyatt will need to work out an agreement between the government and indigenous leaders, who have demanded a bigger voice in the running of the country.
In 2017, indigenous leaders proposed establishing an advisory body made up of elected indigenous Australians, but the government rejected the proposal, claiming it would create a de facto third chamber in parliament.
The government has come under growing pressure since then to revisit the issue, with several corporate giants insisting that meaningful recognition is the only way to bridge the divide in Australia’s population.
“A first nation’s voice to parliament is a meaningful step towards reconciliation,” BHP Chief Executive Officer Andrew Mackenzie said earlier this year.
Indigenous Australians account for about 700,000 people in a total population of 23 million and are near the bottom in almost every socio-economic indicator, suffering disproportionately high rates of suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and imprisonment.
Denied the vote until the mid-1960s, they face a 10-year gap in life expectancy compared with other Australians and make up 27 percent of the prison population.