Aborigines greeted Australian Prime Minister John Howard's surprise plan to give constitutional recognition to the country's indigenous people with mixed views today, with many calling it a stunt ahead of elections.
Howard, who has been at loggerheads with indigenous leaders on many issues during his 11 years in power, made an abrupt about-face yesterday, admitting past mistakes and offering a new plan for reconciliation between black and white Australians.
Howard said he would hold a referendum that would ask Australians to enshrine Aborigines in the constitution as the original inhabitants of the country.
If successful, the change would not give Aborigines greater rights but would be powerfully symbolic.
Howard said the referendum would be held within 18 months if he is returned to power at elections he is widely expected to call within days, but which opinion polls show he will struggle to win.
Critics said Howard's conversion to the reconciliation cause was too little, too late and appeared to be an election ploy.
"Mr Howard's actions over 11 years belie his words," said David Ross, the director of the Central Land Council that represents Aborigines in the central desert region of the Northern Territory. "When a snake sheds his skin, he has a shiny new skin, but he's still the same old snake, with the same old venom."
Other Aboriginal leaders said Howard's move was a surprise, but he should be given credit for it, no matter what the timing.
"I think that it's a big shift for him, but this is about the nation's reconciliation, it's not about John Howard's reconciliation," Pat Dodson, a former head of a national reconciliation body, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. "I think it's a positive contribution to the process."