As was the case with the government’s intervention in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, the good intentions in John Howard’s speech last night have been met with justified cynicism in many parts of the community.

Everything John Howard does in politics springs from his long and often bitter experience of partisan conflict. Short-term political considerations are never far from his mind – hence the understandable reaction from those such as the SMH’s Peter Hartcher in his description of Howard’s “deathbed conversion”.

It is difficult to see, though, where Howard could expect to gain political benefit from talking up reconciliation. If stemming the tide of small “L” liberals leaving his party was his intention, last week’s kerfuffle on capital punishment wasn’t a good start. Like Hawke’s late embrace of a “compact” with Aboriginal Australia, perhaps Howard is turning his mind to his legacy as prime minister.

Howard expressed in last night’s speech sentiments similar to those Peter van Onselen and I outlined in John Winston Howard: The Biography. Howard’s suburban Sydney upbringing made him an unlikely champion of reconciliation. Australia’s shameful treatment of its indigenous people’s flew in the face of Howard’s optimistic view of the nation’s history. His desire for social cohesion, grounded in his distaste for religious sectarianism, left him unsympathetic to notions of Aboriginal self-determination.

His view that individuals progress in our society through ambition and hard work gives little concession to those from backgrounds different to his own. Yet, even in Howard’s chosen paradigm of practical reconciliation, the government has simply not been attentive enough to indigenous issues to make real progress.

Let’s assume that Howard is re-elected and keeps his promise to campaign for a referendum changing the preamble to the constitution. Finding consensus on the right form of words will prove difficult. Already this morning, we have heard a range of views from Aboriginal leaders on the sentiment behind Howard’s speech ranging from encouragement to cynicism.

Howard was quite pointed in saying that his preamble will recognise the “special – though not separate” position of indigenous Australians. We can expect better handling of indigenous issues from Howard’s successor, be it Rudd or Costello.

Too little, too late, Mr Howard.