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'Change the Constitution'

Australia has a unique opportunity to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the constitution - but if a referendum on the issue failed it could lead to disastrous consequences for the nation, Prime Minister Julia Gillard was told today.

A panel tasked with investigating the best way to achieve reform, including Patrick Dodson, Reconciliation Australia co-chair Mark Leibler, Fred Chaney, Marcia Langton, Noel Pearson and a cross-bench selection of parliamentarians, handed down its report today.

The launch was attended by 25 indigenous and non-indigenous young people, Aboriginal elders and support staff - who last year recreated the legendary 2300km Freedom Ride across NSW by late Charles Perkins to gather the views of 21 communities for the panel, Ms Gillard, Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin and guests.

The report recommended that, rather than introduce a new preamble to the Constitution, which could lead to "too many unintended consequences", Australia should introduce a statement of recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the body of the Constitution.

This could include new sections, including the statements "Recognising that the continent and its islands now known as Australia were first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; Acknowledging the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their traditional lands and waters; Respecting the continuing cultures, languages and heritages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; [and] Acknowledging the need to secure the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples."

It also noted that the Parliament, subject to the Constitution, would continue to have the power to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The report's authors recommended that the prohibition of racial discrimination be contained within the Constitution, but gave the government an out for its intervention policies: "[the clause] does not preclude the making of laws or measures for the purpose of overcoming disadvantage, ameliorating the effects of past discrimination, or protecting the cultures, languages or heritage of any group".

Crucially, though, it recommended that any referendum on the question should only be held when it was likely to be supported by all major political parties and a majority of state governments.

"While we believe that the options outlined in this report are capable of succeeding at a referendum, the consequences of failure would be damaging to the nation."