"The right of an Aboriginal Australian to live on remote communal land and to speak an indigenous language is no right at all if it is accompanied by grinding poverty, overcrowding, poor health, community violence and alienation from mainstream Australian society," he said.

'Shared responsibility'

But he warned that the cycle of disadvantage would be broken only if Aboriginal communities worked with the government to improve their lives.

First person

Gary Williams tells
Al Jazeera what the 1967 referendum means to him 40 years after he voted as a 21-year-old in Sydney

"This vision can only be realised within a culture of shared responsibility."

In 1967, more than 90 per cent of Australians voted to include Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the national census, meaning they would no longer be counted among flora and fauna like kangaroos and koalas.

The vote also gave the government powers to legislate on indigenous issues and removed words from the constitution which discriminated against Aborigines.

Four decades after the vote, Aborigines, who make up 2.3 per cent of the country's population of 20 million, remain its most disadvantaged group and have a life expectancy 17 years lower than other Australians.

Indigenous infant mortality and coronary heart disease rates are three times higher than for non-indigenous Australians, and Aborigines are over-represented in jails, making up 25 per cent of the prison population.

Living standards

Mal Brough, Australia's indigenous affairs minister, said on Sunday that living standards for Aborigines had actually got worse in some areas since 1967.

"There are hundreds, thousands of indigenous people that have been through university, who have got houses and all of the normal things that all of us take for granted, jobs, trades, etc," he said.
  
"But then there is the other side of the coin. In remote communities, commonly known as the long grass, in other words the fringes of town, there has been, I believe, not just no progress, but in some cases we've gone backwards."

Howard's government plans to increase spending on programmes for Aborigines, but many indigenous leaders accuse him of trampling on their hopes for land rights that could give them an economic share in mining and farming developments.

Galurrwuy Yunupingu, a prominent indigenous leader and land rights campaigner, has said he will not be taking part in the referendum celebrations.
  
He said Aborigines should have been "left as the indigenous of Australia" and "given our own sovereignty".

About 1,000 people marched through the centre of the capital of the South Australia state, Adelaide, on Sunday to mark the anniversary and call for reconciliation between white and black Australians. Many hundreds more took part in rallies on Saturday in Sydney and Melbourne.