The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill was passed unanimously by the House of Representatives to applause from a packed public gallery and paves the way for formal constitutional recognition.
It comes five years to the day after former leader Kevin Rudd apologised to the nation’s Aborigines for wrongs committed since the arrival of British settlers in 1788, including the forced removals of children from their parents.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the vote was a sign the parliament was committed to righting wrongs committed against Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the past.
“I do believe the community is willing to embrace the justice of this campaign because Australians understand that indigenous culture and history are a source of pride for us all,” Gillard told parliament.
Indigenous groups welcomed the vote as an important symbolic step. The bill will now pass to the upper house, where it is expected to be voted into law.
Gillard had originally intended a referendum on amending the constitution to recognise Aborigines as Australia’s original inhabitants to accompany this year’s national elections, but shelved the plan citing low public support.
Gillard said there would be a review in 12 months to gauge levels of public support for a referendum on the issue.
Any change to Australia’s constitution must be approved by a national referendum in which all citizens vote and such ballots have typically had low levels of success. A 1999 referendum on Australia becoming a republic failed.
The most recent referendum on Aborigines, a vote in 1967 to count them as full citizens, passed by a resounding margin. Before then Aborigines were governed by special laws and not allowed to vote.
Aborigines are the most disadvantaged Australians, with indigenous children twice as likely to die before their fifth birthday as other children and Aboriginal men estimated to die 11.5 years earlier than other males.
They are believed to have numbered around one million at the time of British settlement in 1788, but there are now just 470,000 out of a total population of 22 million in Australia.