Aborigines see a way for revenge on the Crown

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The Independent Online

"Mate, anything that gives the Kooris [Aborigines] a fair go, I'll vote for it," said the doleful-looking Aborigine perched on a wall outside the railway station in Redfern, a Sydney suburb with a large indigenous community. Taking a swig from his can of Victoria Bitter, he added: "A republic has to be better than what we've got now."

"Mate, anything that gives the Kooris [Aborigines] a fair go, I'll vote for it," said the doleful-looking Aborigine perched on a wall outside the railway station in Redfern, a Sydney suburb with a large indigenous community. Taking a swig from his can of Victoria Bitter, he added: "A republic has to be better than what we've got now."

With opinion divided in the run-up to the referendum next month that will determine whether the country becomes a republic, many indigenous people welcome the prospect of breaking the final constitutional links with Britain and replacing the Queen with an Australian head of state.

To Australia's 365,000 Aborigines - 2 per cent of the population - the Crown represents the foreign power that robbed them of their land 211 years ago. A republic, they believe, would mean a fairer and more progressive society in which they would have a better chance of achieving social justice and recognition of their rights.

The move is backed by such Aborigines as the athletes Cathy Freeman and Nova Peris-Kneebone, and Aden Ridgeway, a member of the Senate and Australia's only Aboriginal federal politician. It is also backed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (Atsic), the independent statutory authority for indigenous Australians, and influential community leaders.

Linda Burney, deputy director-general of the New South Wales Department of Aboriginal Affairs, says: "We would finally be cutting our ties to the nation that invaded and dispossessed us. That's the importance of a republic for me."

For indigenous Australians, the 6 November referendum has an additional focus. A second question asks if the constitution should be given a new preamble that includes a sentence "honouring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation's first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country".

The symbolism of these words is enormous, for they would enshrine for the first time in the constitution the principle that Aborigines were the original inhabitants of Australia. But not everyone is satisfied with them and the preamble has caused bitter wrangling among Aboriginal figures - with Mr Ridgeway, who helped the Prime Minister, John Howard, to write it, accused of selling out to "the white fellow's world".

Mick Dodson, head of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra, says the preamble reads like a shopping list. "Where's the poetry in it?Can't we do better than that? Take a look at the preamble to the South African constitution. It's pure poetry, it's inspirational, it's got substance." Some community leaders are not content with a mere preamble; they want Aboriginal rights to be recognised within the body of the constitution.

For Ms Burney, the change to a republic is an integral step in the formal process of reconciliation between indigenous people and white Australians. That process began in 1990, when the National Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was established. It is supposed to conclude next year with a document, a kind of peace treaty, signed by all the main parties.

Ms Burney says: "This is the perfect opportunity for the country to go forward in terms of healing."

In Redfern, though, many have not bothered registering to vote. They have more pressing concerns: unemployment, poverty, poor housing, juvenile crime.

In Eveleigh Street, one of Sydney's most notorious, a young Aboriginal man emerging from the row of squalid, graffiti-laden terraces known as "The Block" spat derisively at mention of the referendum. "What do I care?" he asked. "What do we want a republic for? It's not going to change my life, not one little bit."

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