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Last Updated: Friday, 12 October 2007, 05:49 GMT 06:49 UK
Mixed reply to Howard vote plan
By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

Aboriginal people gather in a street in Alice Springs (file image)
Many Aboriginal leaders want a formal national apology
Australian PM John Howard's plan for a vote to recognise Aborigines in the constitution has had a mixed response.

Mr Howard wants to hold a referendum on including a statement of reconciliation towards indigenous people in the preamble to the nation's constitution.

Some Aboriginal leaders welcomed the move, but many more want a national apology, which the PM refuses to give.

Others have questioned the timing of the speech, ahead of elections which many expect Mr Howard to lose.

'One element'

The offer of a statement of reconciliation marks a radical shift for a prime minister who has long and controversially argued that symbolic gestures have little worth in repairing the breach between white and black Australia.

Mr Howard wants to change the constitution to formally recognise indigenous Australians, their history, unique culture and special, though not separate, role in an indivisible nation.

In a pre-election mea culpa, he accepted blame for not making greater progress on the question during his 11 years in office, but refused still to issue a national apology for past injustices, arguing it would reinforce a culture of victimhood.

Some Aboriginal leaders have welcomed the idea of a referendum, though most want Mr Howard to make a further mental leap and say sorry.

"The constitutional change proposed is one important element of the reconciliation process and there are others, such as an apology," said Barbara Livesey of Reconciliation Australia.

"It would be fantastic if this was part of a package that builds the reconciliation process in the way that people have been calling for for some time," she said.

Many have questioned the timing of the announcement, noting it feels like the deathbed conversion of a prime minister contemplating defeat, worried about how history will judge him.

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