Melbourne: Australia on Monday announced a national referendum on recognising the country`s Aborigines in the Constitution, in a bid to improve conditions for the chronically disadvantaged community.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Australia had a "once in 50-year opportunity" with parliamentary support and widespread public backing, three years after former leader Kevin Rudd`s historic apology to the native people.
"We came to government knowing that change was needed on an emotional level as well as a practical level," Gillard said.
"The recognition of Indigenous Australians -- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples -- in the Australian Constitution is the next step in that journey."
Australia has not held a referendum since 1999, when a move to become a republic was rejected. In 44 referendums since 1901, only eight have passed.
Gillard said it was vital to build consensus before holding the vote, which will not take place for at least 12 months. She announced an expert panel to examine the question and report back by the end of 2011.
The move comes almost three years after Rudd, then head of Gillard`s ruling Labor party, delivered an historic apology to Aborigines, the country`s original inhabitants, for wrongs committed since white settlement in 1788.
Once thought to number more than one million, Aborigines now account for just 470,000 out of a population of 22 million, and suffer disproportionately high rates of disease, imprisonment and unemployment.
Aboriginal men have a life expectancy 11.5 years shorter than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. Aboriginal women die 9.7 years sooner than non-Aboriginal women.
Gillard said Australia`s first peoples had "a unique and special place" in the nation but the government`s plans to close the gap could not succeed without greater respect and recognition.
"Now is the right time to take the next step and recognise the first peoples of our nation... to build trust and respect," Gillard said.