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Top Australian sporting bodies endorse Indigenous referendum as support dips

By Praveen Menon

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Two of Australia's top football codes on Thursday backed a proposal to constitutionally recognise the country's Indigenous population in a referendum, as latest opinion polls show public support for the government-backed plan dipping.

In a full page statement published in The Sydney Morning Herald, Rugby Australia (RA) said the proposed referendum is "too important a contest to watch in silence".

"If we are ever going to achieve true union as a nation, we must take every opportunity we have to close the gap which still separates so many of us," the statement said.

"Provision for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament in our Constitution is long overdue," it added.

The Australian Football League (AFL), the top flight of Australian Rules football, also announced its support in a separate statement, saying while it encouraged everyone to form their own views, "the AFL proudly supports the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution through the Voice to Parliament."

Australians will be asked to vote, likely between October and December, if they want to change the constitution to include a "Voice to Parliament", a committee that can give non-binding advise to lawmakers on matters that affect the lives of Indigenous people.

Making up about 3.2% of Australia's 26 million population, Aboriginal people were marginalised by British colonial rulers and are not mentioned in the 122-year-old constitution.

The support from the groups in sports-crazy Australia is seen as a huge endorsement for those who want the constitutional change, after a poll earlier this week showed support for the Indigenous voice has dropped to 53% from 58% earlier this year.

RA and the AFL join the National Rugby league (NRL), several AFL clubs, and other sports governing bodies like soccer's Football Australia, Tennis Australia and the Australian Olympic Committee in formalising support for Indigenous recognition through a referendum.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who has staked significant political capital on the referendum, has been keen to get the support of leading sports bodies and players.

Some of Australia's top athletes are Indigenous, like NBA star Patty Mills, former Olympic sprinter Cathy Freeman and former woman's tennis world number one Ash Barty.

(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Ediitng by Michael Perry)