Australia today 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," Ms 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.
Ms Gillard said it was vital to build consensus before holding the vote, which will not take place for at least 12 months. The only other referendum dealing with Aborigines was in 1967 when an overwhelming majority voted that they should be counted as part of the population.
Ms Gillard established an expert panel to examine the question and report back by the end of 2011, and said the vote could be held before or in conjunction with the next national election, due in 2013.
The move comes almost three years after Mr Rudd, then head of Ms 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.
Ms 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.
"For too long there has been a false divide between working practically and working to generate trust. I think these two things go together," Gillard said.
"Now is the right time to take the next step and recognise the first peoples of our nation... to build trust and respect," Ms Gillard said.
The minority Greens party made Ms Gillard promise to hold a referendum on Aborigines before agreeing to form a coalition government with her after she failed to win an outright majority at August polls.
Greens senator Rachael Siewert said Australia would only get "one shot" at the vote and it would be "a long time before we get to do it again."
Ms Gillard went further, saying she was "certain if this referendum doesn't succeed there will not be another one like it."
Mick Gooda, the country's commissioner for Aboriginal social justice, said the vote would have a dramatic impact on the self-worth of Aborigines.
"More importantly, we now have three years to build the relationship that will change Australia forever," he said.
According to a Newspoll survey published last month for Griffith University law school 75 per cent of Australians thought it was important to have a referendum on recognising Aboriginal history and culture in the constitution.
Griffith's Ron Levy said "bold thought" was needed on ways to engage the community in a debate on the question. A referendum can only succeed when a majority yes vote is achieved in a majority of states.
"Without a process that enables the concerns and desires of ordinary citizens to be truly aired and met ... we should not expect any great difference from the last constitutional failure," Mr Levy said.
The 1967 referendum elevating the status of Aborigines is widely considered the country's most successful according to the government, with its 90.8 percent agreement the highest ever yes vote.