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"Aboriginal policy has become personal rather than just political": Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Tony Abbott has delivered the most powerful, heartfelt and gracious speech of his short prime ministership, crediting a political nemesis in Paul Keating with responsibility for his ''watershed moment'' on Aboriginal Australia.

Committing himself to ending ''the tyranny of low expectations'' in indigenous affairs, Abbott has also vowed to bring new urgency and horsepower to the task of closing the gap on disadvantage.

He has also declared that his government is as serious about Aboriginal policy as it is about ''stopping the boats, fixing the budget, and building the roads of the 21st century''.

The speech was hailed as a potential defining moment in Australia's long march to reconciliation by three veterans of indigenous policy: Senior Australian of the Year Fred Chaney, indigenous leader Warren Mundine and prominent academic Marcia Langton.

''I'm prepared to lay my life and reputation on the PM's sincerity,'' Chaney said later. ''You can't fake it. He's determined to make a difference and that's great.''

Mundine expressed optimism that Australia was on the cusp of a transformation, saying he was unaware that Keating had been the catalyst for Abbott's journey on indigenous policy. Langton said the commitment to a bipartisan approach showed Abbott had been listening to indigenous Australia.

''When Prime Minister Keating made his famous Redfern speech in 1992, I was an opposition staffer,'' Abbott began his address on Wednesday. ''My job was to disagree with everything he said.''

In the Redfern speech, Keating said the starting point in Aboriginal policy was ''to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians'' - ''that it was we who did the dispossessing, we took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life''.

Abbott said the longer his journey had gone on, ''the more, for me, Aboriginal policy has become personal rather than just political''.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten replied with a vow to be constructively bipartisan in addressing disadvantage, and a prediction that setbacks and stumbles would be outshone by moments of joy and healing.

The sixth annual Closing the Gap report is a reminder that, in Abbott's words, the politicians will not have to await history's judgment on their performance in this area. It is now measured as clinically and as annually as a school report card - and the report tabled on Wednesday is a reminder that it will be harsh unless a lot more political will, or horsepower, is applied to reaching the agreed targets.

Abbott's reference to stopping the boats was a genuine statement of commitment, but it was the only sentence of his speech that jarred. ''Closing the gap'' was one three-word slogan that barely rated a mention in the election campaign.

His pledge is personal, including the commitment to spend a week in East Arnhem Land later this year. But, as Shorten's address made plain, many specifics are unclear. What will be the nature of constitutional recognition that will be proposed? Will the money be made available to teach those who go to school? What will be done to address increasing grog-related violence in the Northern Territory?

For all the unanswered questions, the overwhelming reason for optimism was underscored by Abbott, who said: ''There is probably no aspect of public policy on which there is more unity of purpose and readiness to give others the benefit of the doubt.''

The onus is now on all the players to act on it.