Tony Abbott says Adam Goodes is an excellent Australian of the Year and he now wants to press ahead with constitutional recognition of indigenous people.

Tony Abbott thinks Adam Goodes is an excellent choice of Australian of the Year as he believes the indigenous footballer stands for decency in national life.

But while the prime minister’s sentiment was echoed across the nation it was not universal, with an Aboriginal activist labelling the choice a move to offset debate on celebrating Australia Day on January 26.

Mr Abbott, who has committed to striving for constitutional recognition of Australia’s indigenous people, used the national holiday on Sunday to reiterate his intention to try to achieve what New Zealand did with the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi.

“If we had known in 1901 what we know now, if our hearts had been as big then as now, we would have acknowledged indigenous people in the constitution back then,” he told reporters at Australia Day celebrations in Canberra.

Similarly, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten told reporters in Melbourne that Australia’s finest moments came in turning the national will to ending exclusion and bringing people in from the margins.

He, too, wants Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have a place of honour in the constitution and to see real progress in the fight against indigenous disadvantage.

Mr Goodes, a champion AFL player with the Sydney Swans, was named Australian of the Year on Saturday for his leadership and advocacy in the fight against racism, both on the sporting field and in society more broadly.

He has confronted racism head-on, using an incident last year, when a teenage girl called him an “ape” from the grandstand, as a tool to teach indigenous Australians and minority groups to say no to racism.

However Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell said giving the award to a high-profile Aboriginal was a desperate move by the Australia Day Council to offset debate on the appropriateness of January 26 as Australia’s national day.

He said Australia Day awards were inextricably linked to the celebration of Australia Day, a date that marked the arrival of white people on January 26, 1788.

“Adam Goodes’ standout qualities are that he is a good footballer and was abused by a 13-year-old girl at a football match. In themselves, these attributes hardly warrant a best of the best award,” he said in a statement.

Mr Abbott said Mr Goodes stood for excellence in sport and decency in national life.

“Yes, I think he has been an excellent choice,” the prime minister told reporters.

Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs said the award acknowledged Mr Goodes’ significant contribution to understanding human rights and anti-racism initiatives.

NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell said Mr Goodes had displayed outstanding leadership.

“His stand against racism last year brought the issue into the national spotlight and helped educate all Australians that racism in any form shouldn’t be tolerated,” he said.