SYDNEY, Oct 11 (Reuters) Australian Prime Minister John Howard today placed racial reconciliation on the election agenda promising to hold a national vote on whether to recognise Aborigines in the constitution, if he was re-elected.
Howard, who is expected within days to call an election for November or December, has been criticised for a lack of reconciliation with disadvantaged black Australia.
But Howard said a re-elected conservative government would not issue an apology to Aborigines for past injustices -- a long standing demand by Aborigines -- or agree to a treaty with indigenous Australians.
''I believe we must find room in our national life to formally recognise the special status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first peoples of our nation,'' Howard said in a major speech in Sydney.
''It goes to the heart of our national identity and shared destiny,'' said Howard, who lags behind the opposition Labor in opinion polls, as even conservative voters desert his government.
Howard will seek a fifth consecutive term based on a strong economy and a tough security stance. Political commentators said his announcement will not win black votes, but may be aimed at promoting a national vision, which many voters say he lacks.
There was no immediate reaction from aboriginal leaders.
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 per cent of the 20 million population, and have a life expectancy 17 years less than white Australians.
They have far higher rates of unemployment, imprisonment, alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence.
REFERENDUM Howard said he would hold a referendum within 18 months to determine whether Aborigines and their unique rights are recognised in a ''new statement of reconciliation'' in a preamble to the constitution.
Until 1967 Aborigines were governed under flora and fauna laws. A referendum in that year saw Australians vote to include Aborigines in the national census and be granted citizenship.
The plight of Aborigines was ''a source of deep sorrow and deep hope'', said Howard, who declared a national emergency in June and sent police and troops to aboriginal settlements to end reports of widespread binge drinking, violence and sexual abuse.
Many aboriginal leaders criticised the action as paternal.
But Howard said today that his action and subsequent public reaction meant there was now a mood and opportunity to act to resolve ''unfinished business''.
''I'm the first to admit that this whole area is one I have struggled with during the entire time that I have been prime minister,'' Howard said.
''I still believe that a collective national apology for past injustice fails to provide the necessary basis to move forward. It would, I believe, only reinforce a culture of victimhood and take us backwards.'' Howard said his ''new reconciliation'' would place individual rights and national sovereignty above group rights and that he would fight to end the ''cancer of passive welfare''.
Throughout his 11 years in power, Howard has targeted practical measures to improve aboriginal disadvantage, often angering critics with his tough-love approach at the expense of symbolism, such as an apology for past injustices.
REUTERS AE ND1550