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''The biggest fabrication was creating a constitution that said nobody was here, that the land was barren and empty,'' Shirley Peisley said 'We definitely were here. It's the biggest lie ever told in this country and we've got to change that. It's about setting the record straight.''
Today, February 13, 2013.
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 (Prime Minister) and Tony Abbott (Leader of the Opposition).
Both 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 ''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 Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples 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.
''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 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,'' Mr Abbott said. ''We need to atone for the omissions and for the hardness of heart of our forbears to enable us all to embrace the future as a united people.''
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.
Many of the politicians, including both leaders, wore badges carrying the letter ''R'' for recognition to signify support for the referendum.
Mr Abbott applauded 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 toward recognition.
''So often in this place we are protagonists. Today, on this matter, we are partners and collaborators,'' he told Ms Gillard.
''So much of what happens here passes people by. Sometimes it even annoys them. May this be an occasion when the parliament lifts people's spirits, makes them feel more proud of our country, and more conscious of our potential to more often be our best selves.''
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.
The indigenous Australians interrupted an answer Ms Gillard was giving on the national broadband network.
"You have been served!" they chanted, while throwing some sheets of paper on to the floor of the House of Representatives, protesting that they had not been included in the constitution.
Speaker Anna Burke briefly stopped proceedings in response.Originally, Labor planned to hold a referendum on constitutional recognition of indigenous people by 2013. Last year, the government decided to shelve the referendum for two or three years, blaming a lack of community awareness.
Both leaders acknowledged that the challenge of agreeing on the wording of the referendum remains, with Mr Abbott saying: ''It won't necessarily be straight forward 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.''
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 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,'' said congress co-chair Jody Broun. ''Congress calls for constitutional reform that protects rights and prohibits discrimination.
''We now expect clear commitments from all sides of politics to a referendum timeframe and the concrete steps required to make it happen,'' she said.
Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/political-news/nations-wound-closer-to-being-healed-20130213-2ec4y.html#ixzz2KpDHZn6p