• Photo taken in Townsville, 1981 - left to right: Professor Noel Loos, Captain Reg Saunders, Stephen Hagan, Jim Hagan, Sandra Bond and Geoffry Coombs (NITV News)Source: NITV News
More than thirty years ago, Jim Hagan demanded a treaty with the Federal Government. He along with his colleagues put their life’s work into reaching a resolution, but the hard work went nowhere.
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8 Aug 2017 - 1:21 PM  UPDATED 9 Aug 2017 - 12:08 PM

Jim Hagan was a pioneer of his time. 

He was the first Aboriginal person to speak to the Australian Parliamentary Cabinet, and the first Aboriginal person to address the United Nations.

During the 1970s and 80s, he headed up the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC) – originally established under the Whitlam Government in 1977.

The body was created to provide a forum for the expression of Aboriginal views – their work eventually led to asking for a treaty with the Commonwealth Government.

Fred Chaney was the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs at the time.

He says the government was happy to talk and pursue agreements, but they asked NAC to drop the word treaty and think of an Aboriginal one. 

“We said we would prefer not to use the word treaty because it was open to misunderstanding, [it was] talking about an international situation, this was a domestic situation,” he told NITV.

It was the Aboriginal people who came with the word Makarrata.

“We thought that was a terrific contribution, we thereafter talked about Makarrata with them,” he said.

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But of course, the proposal for Makarrata didn’t happen. The Liberal Fraser Government lost the 1983 election to the Labor Party.

It was in the same year that NAC presented their Makarrata report to Parliament. But the politics of the day dominated, and ultimately disrupted the hard work of the Committee.

Jim’s son, Dr Stephen Hagan, worries that the calls for a Makarrata will be pushed off the agenda like they were in his father’s era.

“Turnbull could have made a commitment but he made absolutely no commitment. Shorten made a broad, sweeping comment but it was really nothing. Now they’re back in Canberra talking about same-sex marriage. It’s off the agenda,” he told NITV while attending the annual Garma Festival of traditional Culture.

Stephen says his dad worked hard all his life. Jim Hagan was asked, along with his colleagues at NAC, by the then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser to seek out the feasibility of a treaty.

“They came back and gave the report, but no-one knows what happened to the report,” Stephen says.

“I think it’s an insult to all those hard-working Aboriginal men and women who participated in the extensive consultation process.”

The Makarrata report of 1983 was the result of national consultations with Aboriginal communities and government, and an international survey of treaties.

It called for a list of 24 demands including; the acquisition of land by the Commonwealth for Indigenous people, self government for different Indigenous groups, return of remains and artefacts and some form of reparations.

But Jim would never see any outcome from his life’s work. He passed away last year at age of 83, still waiting to see a resolution.

“He was disappointed that he spent all that time consulting extensively and he was upset, they put in so many years, these old leaders, and they were elected by their people, not appointed, elected by their community, so much hard work went into it and to be so flippantly dismissed. Maybe I'll be proven wrong,” Stephen said.

Stephen hopes recent calls for a Makarrata looks like history repeating itself.

“Were in a very precarious position at the moment, the Government is making all the right noises saying they want to consult but what are they actually doing, I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel.”

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Calls for Makarrata, more than 30 years on

The Referendum Council has provided its final report to the both the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

The Council, appointed by the Prime Minister, recommends a constitutionally-enshrined voice to Parliament with a Declaration of Recognition to sit outside the constitution.

It also calls for a treaty commission to seek Makarrata and a truth and justice commission.

But the response from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been criticised for his lack of commitment.

Prominent Aboriginal Australian Noel Pearson on Friday delivered a scathing assessment of the "miserable" political leadership shown by Mr Turnbull and Mr Shorten towards constitutional reform.

Many senior Aboriginal figures had hoped for a bipartisan commitment to an Indigenous advisory body referendum question at the four-day annual Garma Festival on Gove Peninsula in the Northern Territory.

But Mr Pearson echoed the bitter disappointment of Referendum Co-chair Pat Anderson, who slammed the "empty platitudes" offered by both politicians as gutless.

"It is such a miserable scene, the leadership scene in Australia," Mr Pearson said.

"Political cycles come and go, but this agenda will never go away."

Andrea Mason is a member of the Prime Minister’s handpicked Indigenous Advisory Council.

She says she isn’t sure when Malcolm Turnbull will be meeting with his Cabinet to progress the matter.

“No not in terms of when he'll be meeting with them but I understand that that is the next step.”

“There is a parliamentary process that he is required to follow, so his next step is to speak to cabinet about the report, to speak to his colleagues about the recommendation of the report and the framing of that, that came through the Uluru statement,” she told NITV.

She says its now up to the people to support the proposal.

“It's not just about speaking to Government, this is truly from the people then we have to reach out to people who are wanting to support and promote this right across the community.”

 ""We live side by side, but we're not yet united."

Townsville 1981, left to right: Professor Noel Loos (who, as Eddie Mabo's lecturer at Townsville College of Advanced Education, encouraged him to take the Mabo case to the High Court), Captain Reg Saunders (NAC Secretariat who traveled with Jim on his Makarata consultation), Stephen Hagan (then a trainee teacher at Townsville CAE), Jim Hagan, Sandra Bond (TCAE lecturer) and Geoffry Coombs (TCAE lecturer). 

Meanwhile, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten called for a joint parliamentary select committee to finalise a question to put to voters, but Ms Anderson said Indigenous Australians needed another expert panel "like a hole in the head."

She said Mr Turnbull, who delivered some of his opening ceremony speech in Yolgnu Matha language, had been disrespectful to land rights champion Dr Galarrwuy Yunupingu, who stressed the urgent need to resolve unfinished business of reconciliation and self-determination.

"We live side by side, but we're not yet united," Dr Yunupingu said.

Dr Yunupingu says in monthly essay, Rom Watangu – The Law the Land, that

“My ancestors and my fathers have dreamed of this future and I have tried in my life, in my times, to bring it to a reality. But I will not see it all, and I will not see the reality, only the dream.”

Indigenous academic Marcia Langton told the final Makarrata session at the Garma Festival that she wants to see action before its too late.

“I don’t wanna die before we have a resolution, I don’t want another generation telling me what to do. We are panelled out, we are experted out, we are royal commissioned out… Enough. Let’s do it,” she said.

Pat Anderson echoed the same fear.

“Many lifetimes have come and gone, generations have us have been in this space. For me, I’ve been working since I was fifteen being in this space. I think there is some urgency around time, we can’t wait another ten years. We gotta go now,” she told NITV.

Stephen hope’s today’s leaders won’t have wait like his dad Jim.

“It's very frustrating. There is so much black talent out there but I don't think the government has the good will or the intent to negotiate on a level playing field, they're always changing the goal posts. I don't know.”

“Does it require our people to go back into the streets like the Tent Embassy days?

I don't know, what do we do, what do we do?”

But the question is can Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull do what Malcolm Fraser couldn’t and bring the aspirations of a treaty to life.

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