SYDNEY, Australia — Prime Minister John Howard promised Thursday to hold a referendum giving constitutional recognition to Aborigines as Australia's first inhabitants — a major policy shift just weeks before elections.
But he again ruled out making a formal apology on behalf of the nation to Aborigines for past policies that included the forced removal of children from their families.
Howard's comments, made in a speech in Sydney, appeared to be a bid to raise Aboriginal affairs as a campaign issue and soften his image as unbending on a topic that polls show many Australians are more sympathetic about.
Howard's conservative government has been trailing the opposition Labor Party for months in opinion polls, although he has maintained that he will call elections before early December. Opposition leader Kevin Rudd said he supported the idea of a referendum on Aboriginal recognition.
Howard, who has often been at odds with Aborigines over an apology, land rights and other issues, said he had changed his mind about the importance of recognizing Aborigines' contributions to Australia.
"The time is right to take a permanent, decisive step toward completing some unfinished business of this nation," Howard said. "The worst blemish of all has been our treatment of indigenous Australians."
If re-elected, Howard said he would hold a referendum within 18 months asking that Australians "formally recognize indigenous Australians in our constitution — their history as the first inhabitants of our country, their unique heritage of culture and languages, and their special, though not separate, place within a reconciled, indivisible nation."
Recognizing Aborigines as the inhabitants of Australia when British colonialists arrived in 1788 would enshrine their place in the document that forms the basis of Australia's federal government. While it would not grant new rights to Aborigines, such recognition has enormous symbolic significance.
In a rare admission of mistakes, Howard admitted that he had struggled with Aboriginal issues ever since becoming prime minister in 1996, and said he accepted "my share of the blame" for poor relations between the government and Aboriginal leaders.
He said his change of heart brought him more into line with the feelings with most Australians.
Still, a national apology "fails to provide the necessary basis to move forward" because it would "only reinforce a culture of victimhood and take us backwards," Howard said.
Aborigines are an impoverished minority of 450,000 within Australia's population of 21 million. They have the highest rates of unemployment, imprisonment and infant mortality of any group.
Olga Havnen, spokeswoman for a group of Aboriginal groups in the Northern Territory, said Howard's rhetoric promised no new solutions to problems of poor Aboriginal health and housing, and unemployment.
"It's too little and too late," Havnen told Sky News.