( Reuters ) - A vote to recognize Aborigines in Australia's constitution pledged by Prime Minister John Howard was met with suspicion on Friday by indigenous elders and dismissed as a "deathbed conversion" of a leader facing defeat.
Howard -- expected within days to call a national election for late November or December -- promised on Thursday a national vote on Aboriginal recognition if re-elected, saying he had learned symbolism was important during 11 years in power.
But a re-elected conservative government would not apologize to Aborigines for past injustices -- a long standing demand by Aborigines -- or agree to a treaty with indigenous Australians, Howard said.
"He has got a problem with that five letter word called sorry and he really needs to come out and make a proper apology," Northern Territory indigenous representative John Ah Kit told Australian Broadcasting Corp. Radio.
Aboriginal leaders were divided over whether Howard had genuinely reversed years of opposition to symbolism in seeking a "new reconciliation," or whether he was looking for a "vision" to capture jaded voters and reverse months of terrible polls.
"John Howard has been in power for over 10 years, one of the longest serving prime ministers in Australia, and there was never any mention about this," said Ray Robinson, the former deputy of a national Aboriginal affairs body disbanded by Howard.
Howard, 68, will seek a fifth consecutive term based on a strong economy and a tough security stance, as well as reconciliation, which he said went to the heart of Australia's national identity and sense of shared destiny.
Howard blamed his previous opposition to symbolism on his suburban upbringing before postwar immigration transformed conservative Australian society.
"There have been low points when dialogue between me as Prime Minister and many indigenous leaders dwindled almost to the point of non-existence. I fully accept my share of the blame," Howard said.
Aborigines are Australia's most disadvantaged group with many living in third world conditions in remote outback settlements.
Aborigines and indigenous Torres Strait Islanders number only 460,000, 2 percent of the 20 million population, and have a life expectancy 17 years less than white Australians.