Bill Shorten Promises Indigenous Recognition Referendum Within A Year

10/02/2016 1:29 AM AEDT | Updated February 10, 2016 16:18
Stefan Postles via Getty Images

CANBERRA -- A Shorten Labor government would hold a referendum on constitutional recognition within its first year in office, the opposition leader has promised.

Labor leader Bill Shorten will outline the commitment in a speech on Wednesday morning, as the Closing The Gap report into indigenous social outcomes is officially released in parliament. In the speech, the text of which has been seen by The Huffington Post Australia, Shorten will promise to hold a referendum on recognition in May 2017 if Labor is elected at this year's election, to make indigenous justice the first item on the agenda at his first Council of Australian Governments meeting, to encourage more indigenous members of parliament and to eliminate eye disease trachoma -- rife in two-thirds of remote indigenous communities, according to the speech -- by 2020.

"May 2017, the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 referendum, would be an auspicious time for a national vote on recognition, and a Labor Government will deliver a referendum then," Shorten's speech reads.

"We hear a lot about the risks of rushing this process. But when justice has been denied and delayed for so long, inaction is far more dangerous than urgency."

Shorten says such constitutional recognition "must eliminate racism, and signal a declaration of national intent."

"Today, eight years after Prime Minister Rudd extended a hand of healing, grasped in friendship, we examine our progress on Closing the Gap... To recognise the progress we have made is uneven and too slow. And to redouble our efforts, in an equal, engaged and empowered partnership with the first Australians."

Shorten will call for action to attract more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples into politics, so they are "not lobbying from outside" but "making change inside."

He will call indigenous incarceration rates "appalling," saying that an Aboriginal man is 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than a non-Aboriginal man, and that imprisonment rates for young Aboriginals are higher than school retention rates.

"This is a national disgrace, that is up to each and every one of us to address."

Shorten will outline a promise to support the launch of three launch sites -- a major city, regional town and remote location -- for a justice reinvestment program, a form of early intervention and diversionary model to help people avoid prisons rather than focusing on the jail system.

In closing, Shorten will make a bold promise to eliminate the infectious and preventable eye disease trachoma, which he claims is present in two-thirds of indigenous remote communities.

"Addressing vision loss alone would close 11 per cent of the current gap in health. And every dollar spent in the area would return $2.50 in economic benefit," the speech reads.

"So, today, I am pleased to announce that a Labor Government will commit $9 million to close the gap in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander vision loss. With this additional funding, we can and we will eliminate trachoma from Australia by 2020.

And begin to turn the tide on this endemic health problem."

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