Aboriginal Nations and Peoples throughout Australia must take control of all decisions that affect our future and the destiny of our grandchildren. We must not relegate ourselves to the level of the proverbial gambler, who is not happy when he wins, but is satisfied knowing that he had won once, despite later losing it all.
Michael Anderson 2009
Formation of the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC)
In a meeting at the Aboriginal Embassy, Canberra, in February 1972 opposition leader, Mr. Gough Whitlam, and Mr. Kep Enderby, Labor MP for the ACT, came to the Aboriginal Embassy and squeezed into the small tent with Paul Coe, Gary Foley, Chicka Dixon, Gary Williams and myself, Michael Anderson. In those days we did not worry too much about confidentiality because the Tent Embassy did not have a glass dome we could sit under. While Mr. Whitlam and Mr. Enderby congratulated us for our stand and our willingness to take on the Federal government, Mr. Whitlam made the point that we were a small militant movement with a limited constituency. In saying this Mr. Whitlam stressed there was a need for Aboriginal people to elected a true legal representative body, who could represent the views of Aboriginal Australia to the Federal Government, thus being policy advisers on significant matters in their own affairs.
Mr. Whitlam became Prime Minister in 1972 and was true to his word, by ensuring that an elected Aboriginal body formed. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs engaged a specialist working party of Aboriginal people to create and found the first Aboriginal representative body to be the voice of their people to the national Parliament. The key members who made up this specialist working committee included Charles Perkins, Lois O'Donoghue, Chicka Dixon, John Moriarty, Ted Egan (non-Aboriginal who spoke more than eight Aboriginal languages of the Northern Territory), Ted Loben of the Torres Strait, Darcy Cummings and myself.
First ever Aboriginal vote - for the NACC
Within four months we had engaged Aboriginal staff throughout the country to sign up and register adult Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, in order to establish an electoral roll for the election of the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC). This staff had four weeks to sign people up. Having compiled a register, we were absolutely astounded that this first national roll of the Aboriginal electorate consisted of over sixty-seven thousand adults, who could enroll for the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee elections without having to be on the Commonwealth electoral roll. The Commonwealth electoral office who assisted us in conducting the elections provided us with a report detailing the voter turn out. We were overwhelmed when we learnt that the percentage of electors on our roll, and who then voted, far exceeded the number of voters who turned out to elect the first national government of Australia. All subsequent National Aboriginal elections never worked off an electoral roll. The first review of the NAC obviously recommended that there would be no need to maintain an Aboriginal electoral roll.
The NACC becomes the NAC
By mid 1973 Aboriginal people had cast their first ballot for what became known as the Black Parliament of Australia. Between 1973 and 1975 the inaugural body, the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, was subjected to continuous political and bureaucratic interference. At the end of the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee's first two years, it was also subjected to a name change with the review of its purpose and the winding back of representation from forty to thirty-six elected members. The new name given to the organisation was the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC). Within two more years a second review was conducted that wound back the terms of reference of the elected representatives. Each of these reviews was conducted by Nugget Coombs and Lois O'Donoghue.
Capital Hill Protest, Canberra, calls for a Sovereign Treaty
In 1979 during the Capital Hill 'National Aboriginal Government' protest a call came from Kevin Gilbert and the protesters for the Federal Government to enter Treaty negotiations with Aboriginal people. The then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, sent a response to the protesters through his driver. The advice was he would discuss the matter of a Treaty with the NAC since it was the only elected body.
The NAC, without hesitation, agreed to commence proceedings towards the formulation of a Treaty, however, they were made well aware of the Government's opposition to the word Treaty through oral communications with the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. The NAC chose to use a Yolgnu word 'Makarrata', which was first published as meaning 'the resumption of normal relations at the end of a conflict'. I later learnt from the Yolgnu themselves that 'Makarrata' referred to pay-back killings between families or tribes.
The NAC Makarrata/Treaty sub-committee
The founding members of the Makarrata/Treaty sub-committee were Mr. Jim Hagan, Chairman, Queensland, Ms Lois O'Donoghue South Australia, Mr. Lyall Munro Snr, New South Wales, Mr. Cedric Jacobs, Western Australia and Mr. Minyipirriwuy Dhamarrandji, Galiwinku Island, Northern Territory. Staff members to the sub-committee were Pauline Brown, stenographer, and Theresa Colosimo, travel clerk and recordist. They published a report setting out a number of key issues. This report was widely circulated throughout Australia and the NAC began community consultations. It was this brochure of issues that prompted the Federal Government's written response.
Prime Minister Fraser prepared to discuss the Treaty
Within two years from Prime Minister Fraser's announcement that he was prepared to discuss a Treaty with Aboriginal people through the NAC, Nugget Coombs established a non-Aboriginal treaty support committee, designed to promote within the non-Aboriginal population support for this major political initiative. But to Nugget Coombs' dismay he was to learn that the Government had no intentions of giving any support to any non-Aboriginal body to assist in the formation of this Treaty. I know that Prime Minister Fraser held the view that this was something Aboriginal people themselves had to do.
At the conclusion of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples' Conference (WCIP) in 1981 hosted by the NAC, Nugget Coombs realised that the NAC had a higher level of professionalism and a deeper understanding of domestic and international politics and laws associated with human rights than he had originally anticipated. For some reason I could not understand Nugget Coombs' attitude towards the NAC and why he never attempted to engage with the NAC on a personal and professional level. But we were soon to learn of his apparent disdain for the NAC, so much so that he inspired and coordinated the founding of the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils to replace the NAC.
1981 Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs on Makarrata
While all this was going on the Fraser-led government had appointed a Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs. On 26 October 1981 the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr. Peter Baume, wrote to the then Chairperson of the NAC, Mr. Bill Bird, in response to a letter that he had received on 1 October that advised him in a brief of the twenty-seven items that had emerged as a preliminary list of matters that were being considered for inclusion in the Makarrata/Treaty. In his letter he advised two things. One, that:
The Minister continues:
The Minister then added:
Land Rights regime
During the community consultations on the Treaty, the sub-committee of the NAC responsible for the development of the Treaty was quick to realise that, in every sector of the Aboriginal communities throughout Australia, Land Rights was the priority issue. By 1983 the NAC subcommittee for the Treaty had authorised me as the Research Director for the Treaty, to engage specialist legal advice on land and property law in Australia. This led to the engagement of Brian Keon-Coen (now deceased) of the Mabo case notoriety.
In 1984 the NAC, through its sub-committee and legal researchers had formulated a Land Rights regime that was in its final draft form. Once completed it was to be presented to the next meeting of the full plenary session of the NAC for their consideration for approval or rejection. This Land Rights regime was to represent an Aboriginal Land Rights settlement package that was to be presented at a tripartite meeting between the Federal Government, State and Territory governments and the NAC. The terms of the Land Rights regime never saw the light of day thanks to the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils and Clyde Holding, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.
Proposed mining moratorium
In 1983, during the formative stages of this Land Rights regime, the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Natural Resources and National Party leader, Mr. Doug Anthony, referred a question to the NAC regarding establishing a set of negotiating protocols with Traditional Owners throughout Australia on the question of mining on their lands. The advice sought was not restricted nor limited to North Queensland, Northern Territory, West Australia and South Australia. Instead it was to be a set of policies and protocols that would guide all negotiation nationwide on mineral explorations and mining on or adjacent to or near Aboriginal Traditional lands. In response to this request, the NAC instructed me to take whatever steps necessary to formulate a series of recommendations on this matter.
I prepared a preparatory document for circulation and discussion and published it as a booklet on ways forward. This was done so that the NAC could put this as a ways forward policy for mineral exploration on Aboriginal Lands. I convened a meeting with all the main multinational corporations associated with mining in Australia. The New South Wales Coal Board, learning of this meeting, sought leave to attend and leave was granted by the NAC. The meeting was held at the Boulevard Hotel in William Street, Sydney. It was agreed by all parties present that a moratorium be held on the issuing of exploration permits through out Australia for five years and that all existing applications to the date of the meeting be processed. It was also agreed by the mining companies that the proposal put by the NAC to identify all tribal boundaries through out Australia and the locating of the people who had the right to speak for and make decisions for Country were to be placed on a register and to be made known only to the Minister for Minerals and Energy and the Prime Minister.
The NAC would maintain all rights to initiate all future negotiations for those Traditional Owners. However, the NAC would have no rights to participate in any negotiations between the Traditional Owners and mining companies. It's only role was to act as a catalyst. All decisions on mining had to be pursued according to traditional protocols and decision making processes.
The development of this Traditional Owners' register and the writing of all protocols associated with future negotiations was to be funded by every mining company, including the New South Wales Coal Board, with the Federal government being asked to pay two dollars for every one raised by the mining companies. It was agreed the NAC would be responsible for the management of this research project.
Moves by Bureau of Northern Land Council
Unfortunately, the Bureau of Northern Land Council got whisper of this emerging agreement and immediately contacted the NAC Secretary-General and Chairperson. A request was made for me to attend an urgently convened meeting of the full membership of the Bureau of North Land Council in Darwin to brief them on the proposals put by the NAC and the tentative agreement reached. I attended the conference in Darwin, one week after the meeting with mining companies. I flew to Darwin and addressed he full membership of the Northern Land Council. Having explained what the moratorium meant, the NAC was surprised at the support shown by the membership for this initiative, however, the immediate hierarchy of the Bureau of Northern and Council, led by Gerry Blitner, quickly shut down the meeting after the NAC had spelt out the details.
It soon became apparent that Mr. Blitner was not a supporter of this initiative. The NAC was later surprised when they spoke to various individual members of the Northern Land Council. The former Chairperson of the Bureau of Northern Land Council, Mr Gularwuy Yunupingu, quietly confided that Mr. Blitner's objection was on the basis that he had not yet negotiated a mining deal on behalf of Traditional Owners thereby failing to reach his first million dollars.
Mr. Blitner and his administrative bureaucracy within the Bureau of Northern Land Council flew to Canberra after this meeting and gained an audience with the Minister for Mineral Resources. They expressed their objections and threatened to use their own resources to derail any agreement reached, by campaigning amongst their constituency in the northern part of Australia to not participate in this 'southern initiative'.
The Bureau of Northern Land Council's threats won the day for themselves, but denied the rest of the Australian Traditional Owners the right to establish a true and proper series of protocols for negotiating mining deals across Australia with the true and correct people.
It is this type of policy making and discussions on Aboriginal Rights in Australia that the NAC had previously been involved in. The loss of the NAC was detrimental to all future planning on Aboriginal matters. No government after has ever sought this type of inclusive practice of policy development and planning.
The lesson during this experience was, unlike the democracy that the rest of Australia cherishes, majority rule is of no consequence in Aboriginal decision-making. Aboriginal initiative in Aboriginal affairs was different. The governments demand Aboriginal people must have one hundred percent endorsement of plans and programs for their communities with no dissension. This rule, if it continues, could destroy Aboriginal people forever.
Two scenarios leading to the demise of the NAC
With the benefit of hindsight I can propose two possible scenarios for the demise of the NAC. One is simply that the Hawke Labor government had no intentions of pursuing the Treaty. This knowledge must have pleased Nugget Coombs because he had already disbanded his Treaty Support Committee and then began a campaign to discredit the NAC as a true representative voice of Aboriginal Peoples.
Before Nugget Coombs' campaign I gained approval from the NAC Makarrata/Treaty sub-committee to offer Dr Coombs a role to establish a specialist socioeconomic working group, from amongst his chosen colleagues, to formulate advice to the NAC on ways forward, regarding reparations, compensation, royalties and any other businesses that would flow. The NAC needed this advice in order for us to be able to commence in depth discussions on how the NAC would facilitate a major surge of funds into the respective Aboriginal communities throughout Australia, should the negotiations be successful. This proposed working group would have complemented the already established NAC working group, chaired by Professor Colin Tatz, on the politics surrounding the Treaty and its negotiations.
Having had some discussions with Nugget Coombs at the University of New South Wales; he chose to decline the offer without providing any explanation. The NAC was quite surprised that Dr Coombs refused the offer, given his once held enthusiasm for a Treaty.
Role of Nugget Coombs and the Federation of Land Councils
A year later Nugget Coombs coordinated and established the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils in Alice Springs. I was personally invited to this inaugural meeting by Nugget Coombs, and was asked to provide an overview and, in particular, the status of the issues that were being considered by the NAC. I briefed them on issues such as the return of material culture from Australian and international museums; reparations and compensation; the call for reserved seats at all levels of government, but not on the issues that were currently being work-shopped and explored by our expert working groups. I also advised that we had other specialist working groups. I also explained that we had an intention to explore with great vigor the Equal Employment Opportunities of the United States, where Federal lawmakers had established by law a compulsory program that would see one percent of African Americans represented in the workforce (which was their percentage of the total American population). The American model arose from the recommendations of the Kennedy Report of the late 1970s. The one percent did not stop at the public sector workforce but it also included, by law, one percent in the private sector workforce as well. Additionally, all tertiary levels of education were obligated, also by law, to set aside one percent of students' places for African Americans.
I assumed that by being cooperative with this new Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils, the NAC may be strengthened by their support, had they chosen to take that path, but such was not to be the case. Quite the contrary, the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils knew that they already had forty percent of the existing the NAC elected representatives supporting their new agenda. In other words, this forty percent were not loyal to the organisation that paid them their salaries. In some cases they abused their position by using the financial resources of the NAC to travel and coordinate a coup within the NAC, to clear the way for the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils to assume the mantle of absolute national leadership in Aboriginal Affairs.
Interestingly enough, I have a very vivid recollection of Nugget Coombs arguing that the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils would have a broader based membership than the NAC, which would provide them with authority and legitimacy. This statement is quite ironic considering that Nugget Coombs coordinated and personally invited the small group who attended in 1983. It is imperative now for those persons to be named. Key people at this inaugural meeting were: the New South Wales government appointed interim Aboriginal Land Council including Barbara Flick; Northern Territory delegates Pat Dodson and Geoff Shaw; Queensland was represented by the North Queensland Land Council; West Australia was represented by Peter Yu from Kimberley Land Council who was also a representative of the NAC and Michael Mansell represented Tasmania. Marcia Langton was also present.
The NAC were of the view that the formation of the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils had an ulterior motive, with a clearly defined hidden agenda. After the emergence of the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils, the issues surrounding the politics of Aboriginal affairs became very clouded. As a consequence the political division within the NAC failed to comprehend the political dimensions associated with personal political ambitions of some of its representatives.
The more politically minded representatives within the NAC were betrayed by colleagues who were unable to work for the benefit of the Aboriginal Peoples as a single voice. These individuals now found themselves playing both sides of the coin, being themselves members of the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils, or were themselves strong supporters.
1984 Alarm bells - the NAC infiltrated
I recall ringing the alarm bells related to my concern that the NAC was being infiltrated by very strong supporters of the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils. During my presentation I sought an explanation from Mr. Lyall Munro, Snr, the Chair of the sub-committee on Makarrata/Treaty as to why the Executive had decided to engage Les Malezer as the Director of Research on Policy Formation and, at the same time, engage an Aboriginal lawyer from Tasmania, Heather Sculthorpe, to be the legal officer for the NAC. I queried the need to expend large amounts of money on engaging highly paid staff within the NAC bureaucracy.
I recall the only explanation given to me was that the NAC has experienced a high demand, from 1981 to 1983, for policy advice on various matters from the Fraser-led coalition government. Mr. Munro then went on to advise the sub-committee that the NAC had adopted the view that the Makarrata/Treaty was ending its formative stage. The next stage would require all of my energy, because of the need for me to be working with all the expert committees that we had engaged.
Proposal for aggressive leadership on Makarrata/Treaty
At this time the Makarrata/Treaty sub-committee consisted of Lyall Munro Snr, Ossie Cruise, Nessie Skuta (deceased) and Vincent Forrester. The next sub-committee meeting was held in Sydney. It was at this meeting that I proposed that, since we were now beginning the critical stage in the formation of the Makarrata/Treaty, it would be a good for the NAC, to restore a focus and to show aggressive leadership in regards to our political standing. We had to come up with a strategy that would gain maximum media attention, not to mention all governments' attention.
Gough Whitlam agrees to accompany the NAC to Africa
I submitted to the sub-committee that we needed to have a serious look at the revolutionary wars for liberation that had taken place in Africa against the dominant white regimes. To this end I first proposed that we engage a high profile Australian journalist to travel with us, thereby ensuring sensational media reporting of the trip. A number of people's names were thrown about. While these discussions were going on in the sub-committee I phoned a person I deemed to be a very close friend, who would attract worldwide media attention if he would agree to accompany us on a high level diplomatic mission. This person was the former Labor Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. Having explained what we intended to do and the reason why, to my great surprise and pleasure, he asked me to call him back in twenty minutes while he dealt with some business. I returned his call and to my delight he said that he had rearranged all his schedules and the answer to our question was yes, he would accompany our delegation to Africa. I returned to the sub-committee and advised them that the former Labor Prime Minster of Australia, Mr. Edward (Gough) Whitlam, has agreed to accompany us on this diplomatic mission.
The sub-committee immediately planned the trip and I was instructed to make all appropriate arrangements on my return to Canberra and to set an itinerary for a three Nation visit. My first port of call was to the Nigerian High Commissioner, Mr. Bronson Dede, with whom I discussed the purpose of the proposed trip which was, in short, to make these former British colonies aware of our negotiations for a Treaty; secondly, to learn of their own experiences during the process of decolonisation; thirdly, to learn of all social, political and economic pitfalls associated with liberation; and fourthly, to win their support should we have any trouble from the Australian Government and for them to raise these matters in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM).
Arrangements were then finalised and the countries to be visited were Nigeria, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. The media surmised that the purpose of the trip was to have these countries call upon other African nations to boycott the forthcoming Commonwealth Games to be held in Brisbane. But we had a larger agenda. In fact, at no time during our visit were the Commonwealth Games discussed.
Prior to our departure, we were advised that the World Council of Churches in Geneva had also heard of our forthcoming diplomatic mission and extended an invitation for us to address the full plenary session of the World Council of Churches, as this international conference coincided with our mission to Africa. The NAC willingly accepted. Mr. Whitlam then arranged us to meet with the lawyer and CEO of the International Labor Organisation in Geneva. This meeting was important because the International Labor Organisation had just announced that they were reviewing Articles 107 and 169 concerning Indigenous Peoples' rights.
Meeting with India's foreign minister during stop over
Ossie Cruise and I were impressed with the itinerary organised by the Nigerian High Commissioner, who had played a leading role in organising the whole of our visit. In fact, having set the itinerary, the High Commissioner alerted other countries that we were passing through and arranged us to be treated with the highest regard and importance. We learnt this when we arrived in India on a stopover. We were led from the plane to the VIP room at the international airport. We were pleasantly surprised to be introduced to India's Foreign Minister and a number of other Foreign Affairs officials. During the meeting we informed them of the NAC's ambition to have our Peoples decolonised by way of the proposed Makarrata/Treaty. We also took the opportunity to advise them that we would be seeking their support in the event of Australia failing to negotiate with us as equal partners.
Our next stopover was in Rhyad in Saudi Arabia, where we were treated as visiting international dignitaries. No-one was allowed out of the plane until we were escorted by Arabian Foreign Affairs officials and placed in a small entourage on the tarmac, then driven by way of police escort to the VIP room of the Rhyad International Airport, where we were met by senior Foreign Affairs officials. The stopover time was long enough to advise them of the purpose of our trip.
We were quite alarmed during our transit stop in Ethiopia, because the officials who met us were demanding to take our travel documents and passports for a time and left us amongst the crowd, Mr Whitlam included. We objected and said this was highly inappropriate. I have vivid memories of this experience because it was like no other airport I had ever visited in the world. It was total bedlam and chaos. It appeared that there was only one long counter with everyone wanting to be served immediately, just like an out of control bar in Australia on a Friday night. We became very agitated when we realised our connecting flight had less than ten minutes to go before boarding. We had agreed earlier only to hand over our travel documents, but not our passports and we were left standing in the airport. We became frustrated and a little angry because we could not sight anyone who looked official and we were without our travel documents. We realised that we had little hope of catching our connecting plane to Nigeria. Then with very little time to go a lady and two men emerged and apologised for the delay, saying that they would now escort us to our departure area. We became extremely concerned when we were taken to a different departure area from where the commercial flight was to depart. We maintained decorum, but it was very trying. We were then advised that the single jet that was sitting on the tarmac in front of us was an official Nigerian Government aircraft sent to fly us to Lagos.
On our arrival in Nigeria there was a full motorcade with military gunships at both ends waiting for us and Ossie Cruise was absolutely bewildered that they had sent one car for each of us. When we realised this was the case, Mr. Whitlam and Ossie Cruise said: Thank you, but we will all travel in the one car! Whilst in Nigeria we had meetings with the Vice-President, as the President was out of the country, the Foreign Affairs Minister and the Speaker of Parliament. After this initial meeting we were advised that arrangements had been made for us to address the Nigerian Parliamentary Foreign Affairs committee.
Our next stop was Tanzania, where we were met by senior officials of the Foreign Affairs Department and representatives from the President's office, who advised us of the program that had been organised. Our first port of call was a private audience and luncheon with President Julius Kambarage Nyerere, who at the time was also the Chair of the Joint African Heads of Government Organisation, the Organisation for African Unity (OAU), which was basically the African equivalent of the South Pacific Forum of today.
An anecdote to this visit left a lasting impression on myself and Ossie Cruise as well. During our meeting, the President invited us to accompany him to his opening of the Tanzanian Expo. Being part if his motorcades made us two Blackfellas feel for the first time proud that we were being treated as two Senior Diplomats, representing their people, a status we would never be afforded in our own country. The most impressive experience we had, was sitting in the official cordoned area with other foreign dignitaries, during the opening of the Expo. However, to be invited to walk beside the President during his official walk about at the Expo, gave us a firsthand inside look at the reverence of this man in the eyes of his people. Never before, nor since, have we ever witnessed this type of leadership. The people had full confidence, trust and hope in this man. Tanzania was not a country full of violent disorders and haunted by military coups against their elected government that exist in other parts of the world. Tanzanians may be poor, but they strive to build their Nation by themselves.
We were met in the Zimbabwean airport by officials and by the Whitlam-appointed High Commissioner to Zimbabwe, Mick Young, who was a former high profile Labor official prior to and in the early days of Whitlam's government. Our first meeting was in the Presidential office with the President himself, Mr. Robert Mugabe. It was a private meeting between our three NAC delegates, the President and his senior advisor on Foreign Affairs. We were very well received by the President and were surprised when he asked Mr. Whitlam why, when he was Prime Minister, he failed to offer a reparations/compensation package to settle, once and for all, the issue of invasion and dictatorship of the lives of Aboriginal people. He expressed alarm that a country as wealthy as Australia did not have the moral capacity to offer a reparations/compensation arrangement to give closure the historical injustices. I recall Mr. Whitlam's response, which suggested that governments of the past, including his own, had considered this as an option. Mr. Whitlam, however, advised the President that this option had a number of possible pitfalls and it was because of these pitfalls that the Government never raised it as an option. The two matters that were expanded on were - if we dealt with every man, woman and child of Aboriginal descent and they were paid a reparations/compensation package, it would leave the Aboriginal people who were semi-literate or illiterate open to confidence people, whose only objective was to deceive and cheat the people of their wealth. He explained that no form of protectionism would be able to prevent such people engaging with Aboriginal people for the purpose of divesting them of their wealth and thereby leaving them with absolutely nothing. The second reason was that, if Aboriginal people received these monies, they potentially could or would have had the power to take absolute ownership of land businesses, commerce and trade within the greater percentage of rural Australia. It was, because of these two factors, the Whitlam Government decided not to encourage a reparations/compensation program, instead opting to increase welfare assistance to communities and individuals.
Not only was President Mugabe shocked at this response, but so too were Ossie Cruise and myself.
WCC and ILO in Geneva
Our next port of call was to be Geneva, where both Ossie Cruise and myself learnt about another side of our former Prime Minister. Before addressing the general plenary session of the World Council of Churches (WCC), we sat in a room with about thirty church groups from various religious denominations. I was amazed that the world had so many sects for a single religious belief. But to Ossie's and my surprise, Mr. Whitlam provided a brief explanation of the various religious sects, including the ability to point out which religious sects the most ruthless and unforgiving dictators belonged to, including Hitler's sect of the Lutheran church.
When introducing himself to the World Council of Churches, he stated that he was a lapsed Catholic. I don't know how or if the World Council of Churches were able to see the funny side of Mr. Gough Whitlam. After introductions we then proceeded to each tell our stories. Mr. Whitlam expressed his eagerness to support Aboriginal people in their struggle for justice. He never said anything else other than that.
The following day we met with the principal lawyer and the CEO of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), where we discussed our thoughts and conclusions on the rights of Aboriginal Peoples, including the ILO Articles 107 and 169 that deal with Aboriginal rights. I strongly believe that it was important for us to have met these officials of the International Labor Organisation.
Our journey was over after this meeting and we returned to Australia only to be falsely accused of having a constant difference of opinion throughout the trip with the former Prime Minister of Australia. These unfounded allegations no doubt had evil expectations but in this case I can say goodness and truth prevailed.
International recognition and success of NAC Diplomatic Mission
The international recognition, which we had sought to gain for our Diplomatic Mission, succeeded beyond all expectations. I was not surprised that Mr. Whitlam should say that he had learnt from authoritative sources that never before had there been such a wealth of dispatches between Australia and the African States on any other issue.
Despite the success of this mission, we came home to where we were met with absolute dysfunctionalism within and without the NAC. It seemed to me that the only group that had a certain destiny was the sub-committee on the Makarrata/Treaty. I recall talking to the sub-committee's Chair, Mr. Lyall Munro Snr., about the fact that we knew our job and we did not attempt to involve ourselves in anyone else's business. Rather we were settled and focused on the task for establishing for our people a Treaty based upon their hopes and aspirations and that only time would judge whether we were correct or wrong.
I now come back to my expressed concern for the NAC being infiltrated by the Federation of Land Councils sympathisers and supporters.
Last days of the NAC
The following passages are my story of the last days of the NAC and the shutting down of the Makarrata/Treaty negotiations. 1985 was the year that saw the end of the Fraser Liberal coalition and Mr. 'Hope and Expectations' Hawke was elected to office. I had previously worked with Bob Hawke, (who at the time was the ACTU President) to defend the right of the communities at Mornington Island, Aurukun and Doomadgee not to be re-designated from Aboriginal Reserves to local shires by the Joh Bjelke -Peterson Government. This would have placed them under the management of Russ Hinze, the then Minister for Local Government. The Aboriginal Councils' view was that they would be thrown out of the pot into the fire, a destiny they did not want to be faced with.
From my previous experience with Mr. Hawke I had personally assumed that he would be much more proactive in his efforts by working with Aboriginal Peoples to cast off the horrors of the past two centuries. I was so wrong. The lack of integrity to stand by their stated policy to improve the plight of Aboriginal Peoples astounds me. Maybe we, as Aboriginal Nations, should accept the fact that irrespective of which political party is elected to office they each follow a single objective - "assimilation". Maybe we should accept the notion that, like the military, the Government will decide not go off course to change their strategic plan, because it is consistent with international programming to stabilise and keep in check any possible challenges to the current order of power.
Colonial power over Aboriginal lands
There is another scenario, which is associated with the guilt of all colonial powers, who have invaded the lands of Indigenous Peoples throughout the world. The most significant aspect of these invasions and the taking over of Aboriginal Peoples' ancestral lands was, according to the religious minders of this period, a decreed divine right that was entrenched in their minds influenced by the covenants between God and Abraham. By divine decree, his children had the right to spread throughout the known world and take over the lands of others and they would become kings and queens.
We now know, that prior to the early period of the colonial expansion when explorers set sail from their homelands to find new places and settle new lands, the main players were - the French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and the British - who had become locked into a constant state of war in Europe. Realising they had no capacity to locate peaceful solutions, they appealed to the Pope in Rome for a solution. His solution came from core Christian beliefs and he prepared Papal Bulls (bulletins) dividing the unknown world between the waring European parties. Having located new lands and Peoples, the Europeans exerted their right to rule over Aboriginal Peoples, because their God said so. The colonisers made every effort to assimilate the pagans into their fold, through conversion to their religious beliefs and, in doing so, destroyed all that the Aboriginal Peoples knew.
Today, Aboriginal Peoples throughout the world find themselves confronted with the ramifications from this western reality, that is, in different parts of the world, war was acknowledged and declared between the invader society and the Aboriginal people, e.g. New Zealand and North America. To settle these disputes treaties were entered into. For us here in Australia, despite the guerilla wars and the constant slaughtering of Aboriginal people throughout the continent, every Governor resisted the call for treaties to be entered into. Research shows that the view held was that we were regarded as British subjects with all rights being afforded to us, when, in reality, we were considered vermin to be eradicated.
Our resilience and will to survive
Our resilience and will to survive exceeded all expectations of those who sought to exterminate us and, instead of locating humane solutions, the authorities chose to imprison us. Experimental eugenic programs were set in place to forcefully assimilate us by the rule of law. Surviving this horrible history now causes grave concerns for the modern politicians, for they now realise that no matter what mould they design for Aboriginal people they can never terminate our inherited connection to our Dreaming and Country.
In our brief history of freedom from the clutches of the prison camps and child institutions we remain proud and dignified Peoples. Using the invader's system we have proven that even their highest court in the land cannot locate a legal affirmative that would grant the unconditional sovereign title to this country, thereby affirming that this decision belongs to another jurisdiction that cannot be located within Australian law.
According to Brennan J in the High Court Mabo No.2 Judgment:
We know that the only international legal jurisdiction that can decide the sovereignty question is the International Court of Justice, but we are stuck between a rock and a hard place, because only Member States accepted by the United Nations have a right to have issues such as this heard. On the other hand, we can have this matter heard in the International Court of Justice providing a Member State sponsors an application on our behalf.
Let me return to the Mabo judgment No. 2. This landmark High Court case emanated from the NAC Makarrata/Treaty sub-committee and our legal consultant, Mr. Brian Keon Cohen, when concluding the land regime proposal. The NAC legal research directed us to a possible flaw in the land laws of this country and it was agreed by the Makarrata/Treaty sub-committee that maybe the NAC should locate Traditional Owners and run a test case on our findings. After the NAC was disbanded Mr. Keon Cohen, supported by Barbara Hocking, pursued our legal hypothesis, which resulted in the High Court's decision in Mabo No.2. Significantly, the two prerequisites chosen by the NAC for any negotiations on a Makarrata/Treaty were, one, that the Federal Government recognise the pre-existing possessory rights of Aboriginal people to their land; the second being the continuing sovereign status of Aboriginal Peoples. We argued this was not just a matter of fact but was, in fact, the law.
Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils
The newly founded Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils never made any efforts to engage in negotiations with the NAC, requesting to be fully briefed on what we were proposing on the land rights issue. Had they done so I know what is presented in this document would have eased their anxiety. They would have learnt of the extent of the Land Rights regime that was being finalised as part of the ongoing Makarrata/Treaty negotiations.
The Makarrata/Treaty sub-committee was keen to start the tripartite negotiations between the Commonwealth, States and the NAC, because they had felt that they needed to show to their Aboriginal constituency and the general Australian public that we had the capacity to diplomatically negotiate a settlement on one of the most politically sensitive issues confronting Australia at that time. The view held by the NAC was that we needed to instill confidence in both the Aboriginal community and the non-Aboriginal community that the Makarrata/Treaty process was of a beneficial nature to the whole of this country.
I believe that Nugget Coombs deliberately wielded a stick of interference to deny us the right to take control of our own destiny. Unfortunately he was able to create false hopes and expectations within a dissenting minority Aboriginal group, who presided over the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils. History now shows that the efforts of this group not only threw out the bath water, but the baby as well. Since that day Aboriginal Peoples have lost all that we had gained in the lead up to this time. Maybe one day members of that Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils can publish what they had hoped to gain by destroying the NAC and the Treaty process. Members of the Federation now owe it the Aboriginal population of Australia to explain what they had hoped to gain by taking the course that they did.
One thing is for sure, they cannot claim the origins and success of Mabo No.2. They may be able to claim recognition for working with the Keating government to assist in draughting the Native Tile Act. If this is the case then before they boast success it will be necessary for them to visit a statement made by their mentor and founder, Nugget Coombs, when he wrote that the Native Title Act was not an Act for Aboriginal people, but rather the mining companies. What makes this whole Native Title Act creation even more bizarre was Noel Pearson's realisation, after the Wik judgment came down in the High Court when he admitted a major strategic blunder, referring to the Magnificent Seven's agreement that leased lands had extinguished Native Title. The Magnificent Seven of seven chosen Aborigines appointed by the Keating Government to advise and have input into the draughting of the Native Title Act, included Noel Pearson, Mick Dodson, David Ross, Darryl Pearce, Marcia Langton, Gularwuy Yunupingu and Peter Yu.
The Dismissal of the NAC
My concerns for the future of the NAC were well founded when Mr. Lyall Munro, Snr, the then Chair of the NAC came to my office and informed me that the National Executive had decided to shut down the Makarrata/Treaty negotiations. Mr. Munro Snr then explained to me that the Queensland, West Australian and the top end of the Northern Territory representatives had colluded by stacking the vote to shut down the whole operation of the Mkarrata/Treaty process. This gave free access to the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils to assume the leadership role on all matters relating to mining and land issues. When I questioned Mr Munro about all the other outstanding issues of the Makarrata/Treaty, he said nothing was said and this appeared to be of no concern to the new power brokers. The greatest shock came when Mr. Munro Snr advised me that Mr. Rob Riley (now deceased), a representative from Perth, and Mr. Peter Yu had attended the Canberra hearing of Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, who were looking at the feasibility of a Makarrata /Compact. Unknown to myself and the Makarrata/Treaty sub-committee, Rob Riley and Peter Yu advised the Senate Standing Committee, no doubt to their shock as well, that they would not be speaking to our written submissions as the NAC had decided to no longer pursue the Makarrata/Treaty.
I was further informed by Mr. Munro Snr that the executive had resolved to retire Mr. Graham Poulson, the Secretary-General of the NAC to fully paid leave of absence. I was then informed that despite my senior standing as the Deputy Secretary-General of the NAC, I was overlooked by the executive in favour of Mr. Norman Johnston, a Queenslander and the recently appointed Les Malezer was made his Senior Deputy, with Heather Sculthorpe in charge of all legal matters. I recall my response being one of shock and horror, not for myself, but for what I could see coming. Both Les Malezer and Heather Sculthorpe were strong supporters and believers in the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils.
Time for election of a new NAC Chairperson
From my perspective, the end of the NAC came in the following manner. Mr. Munro Snr, Chair of the NAC, was requested by the National Executive to convene a plenary session in Perth of the full National Aboriginal Conference body to elect a new Chairperson. There was no mention, nor reference to the idea that the recent actions, relating to the termination of the Makarrata/Treaty, taken by the Executive were to be raised and validated or rejected as the course of action for the NAC. That is, the decisions taken by the Executive before this national plenary forum were absolute and could not be overturned.
Having been shocked into disbelief, I walked out of the offices of the NAC to gather my thoughts. During my walk I recall very vividly my attempt to find reason why our Aboriginal colleagues could be so foolish.
I am reminded of a verse by Kevin Gilbert (1933-1993) in his poem "Look Koori"
I also recall asking myself: If the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils wanted total and absolute control for issues around land and mining, then why did they choose not to commence negotiations on this matter with the NAC Executive, given that we had learnt that they had a majority on the Executive, which would have ensured the transfer of this power and corporate knowledge.
Return of sacred material culture
That evening Mr. Munro and Mr. Ossie Cruise came to my home in Canberra for dinner. My wife, Pat, and I were devastated, especially Pat because Pat had been assigned the responsibility of dealing with museums and other such matters. She had commenced negotiations on behalf of the NAC on the return of all sacred objects to Traditional Owners. Her duties called for her to deal with lifting the oppressive rules that had denied our people the right to religious freedoms. Her negotiations for the return of the sacred material culture to the Traditional Owners would permit them to restore that part of the rituals and sacred ceremonies that could not be practiced without the objects themselves.
Within twelve months of Pat's appointment, she facilitated the reuniting of Traditional Owners from Central Australia with their sacred objects that had sixty years before been taken and deposited with the South Australian Museum ethnology department. I recall at the time Pat's excitement, yet being saddened at seeing these old men crying and hugging her after being left alone with their sacred objects.
It is outcomes like this, and the fact that the NAC was the only Aboriginal body to have ever been afforded the status of equal parties with the Federal Government during the Treaty deliberations that shocked us into disbelief that our colleagues could be so foolish as to be manipulated to this degree. Never before, nor after Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, has a Prime Minister and his full Cabinet ever met with an elected Aboriginal representative body to discuss the settlement of issues in Aboriginal affairs that had dominated all proceedings since invasion in 1788.
Vote for new NAC Chairperson in Perth
I recall asking Mr. Munro the next day if he was going to be asked to brief the full meeting in Perth on the status of the Makarrata/Treaty. I did this because I was of the belief that I may have been able to salvage the Makarrata/Treaty, given that the full membership of the NAC had not been consulted on the shutting down of the Makarrata/Treaty process. Mr Munro advised me that he would make an effort to have the matter put on the agenda. History shows that we never made it.
On the Monday morning of this plenary in Perth, Mr. Ossie Cruise phoned me and advised me that Mr. Malezer, who was responsible for coordinating and organising this meeting had not made travel arrangements for the members who supported Mr. Munro's effort to continue as Chairperson of the national body. Mr. Cruise said that the New South Wales group realised that this was a very deliberate act, as the vote for Chairperson was listed as the first item on the agenda and that the Munro camp supporters had no possible way of attending in time for this vote. I then advised Mr. Cruise that the New South Wales delegation should not return to the conference for the rest of the day, because the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils' supporters would not have the appropriate number for a quorum. Within three hours of these discussions I learnt that Mr. Rob Riley was elected Chairman and Mr. Munro the Deputy Chairperson. I was absolutely confused as to how this could possibly happen. I then learnt that the New South Wales block did return to the conference room and sat in the back without intending to participate. The number crunchers, however, included them as attending just by their presence in the room, thereby establishing a quorum to do business.
On the second day of the conference I was informed that the new Chairperson, Mr. Rob Riley, had taken leave from the conference for its remaining duration and Mr. Munro took up the Chair. Later I learnt why Mr. Riley absented himself. Mr. Riley caught the midnight flight from Perth to Melboune where he had a series of meetings with the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr. Clyde Holding. Within a few months of this political coup the NAC was advised that the Government intended to sack them.
Unfortunately for Aboriginal people, 1985 saw the demise of the NAC courtesy of Clyde Holding, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, under the Bob Hawke-led Labor government. Clyde Holding used existing national organisations to justify and demonstrate that the NAC no longer had a role to play in providing policy advice to the Federal government on Aboriginal issues. Holding gave the impression that the National Aboriginal Education Committee (NAEC), the National Aboriginal and Islander Legal Service (NAILS) and the National Aboriginal Health Organisation (NAHO) each provided their own policy advice to him on these matters.
A report was commissioned by the Hawke government on the purpose and function of the NAC and its future. It was authored by Nugget Coombs, Lois O'Donoghue and Patrick Malone. This report recommended the amalgamation of the policy advisory role, which the NAC had, the economic and enterprise operations of the Aboriginal Development Commission (ADC) and the managerial and administrative role of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs into one body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).
Mr. Munro in his role as Deputy Chair secretly sought legal advice from his legal team on the powers of the Minister and the Government to sack the NAC. I recall the advice quite vividly. The advice was very adamant that neither the Minister, nor the Parliament had the power to dismiss the NAC. This was on the premise that the NAC itself was an independently registered corporation under the Federal Government's Aboriginal Councils and Associations Act.
Last NAC National Executive meeting
Being still employed by the NAC, I was invited to attend the last National Executive meeting at the Deakin Hotel conference room in Canberra. Mr. Munro presented the legal advice that he had obtained and I was asked for an opinion. With that invitation I rose to my feet and presented them with my written resignation from the NAC. In doing so made my last comments to them. I recall expressing my great disappointment and asked them: How could they have done this? I continued: You were trusted with a great responsibility when you were elected to put everything above yourself and to work towards improving the plight of our people Australia wide. My resignation was on the basis that all the work that we had done to that date had been completely disregarded and was subsequently shut down. My parting words were in relation to the legal advice that was provided to Mr. Munro about the Minister's and Government's inability to sack them. I said to them that the Government already knew this and that the Achilles Heel of the NAC, like every other Aboriginal community in Australia, we are totally financially dependent. This meant that the Minister could shut the NAC down simply by refusing to sign the next cheque, which is exactly what happened.
Twenty-four years have now passed since the demise of the NAC and a number of former representatives have concluded in their minds that the Hawke Labor government followed advice from its senior bureaucrats and specialist advisors, that the Fraser-led Liberal Coalition Government were far too generous in supporting the Treaty campaign. The Labor party no longer wanted this to be an issue during their term in office.
The irony, on the other hand, was Prime Minister Bob Hawke's gamesmanship with Aboriginal Peoples at Barunga in the Northern Territory. He so proudly hoisted and boasted of the Barunga Statement, which under Hawke's leadership led down a dead end road and nothing ever came from it. This showmanship was an insult to all those involved in the Makarrata/Treaty negotiations. In 2007 Gularwuy Yunupingu personally called for the Barunga statement to be returned to the Yolgnu because he was angry over the continuing appalling treatment of his people.
Impact of the African Diplomatic Mission
I now realise that the success of the African Diplomatic Mission had triggered major concern and a hive of activity within the bureaucracies and the corridors of power within Canberra. This activity focused, I now believe, on self preservation and maintaining the status quo of the colonial authoritarian rule over Aboriginal affairs. I must admit the last thing I expected was for the NAC to implode, as I believed that the NAC had by this time emerged as a serious power within Australian politics. To destroy this emerging power from within has the markings of a very professional and elite operation.
I can also see another influence that I had not considered at the time. In a speech given by Dr Henry Kissinger, the then American Secretary of State, in Sydney that Mr. Ossie Cruise and I attended. During his speech he revealed that Australia's ambition to be considered a key international economic power was totally dependent upon how the government of Australia dealt with Aboriginal Land Rights.
I now believe that we have come full circle and the Australian government continues to be repugnant and void of any concern for locating true and meaningful solutions.
During the first three years of the 1970s a small group of Aboriginal youth set aside their differences to commence an Aboriginal movement that took the mountain to Muhammad because we knew Muhammad would not come to the mountain. Carrying this massive weight of uncertainty, the Black Power Movement as it was known, made great strides and significant changes occurred, but more importantly it laid the foundation for all to come. What was achieved by this movement has now been totally eroded and all administrative decisions for Aboriginal people reside in the power of the bureaucracy of Australia. There is only one thing that continues to haunt the Australian Government and that is the threat that Aboriginal Nations and Peoples may form a collective union to prosecute their case.
Patrick Dodson says No to Treaty
I find that I must go back in time to the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs at their hearing in Alice Springs that I attended. Mr. Patrick Dodson, Chairperson of the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils, is recorded in the transcript of that Senate hearing as saying, during his oral submission, words to the effect:
Now, more than ever, the issue of sovereignty stands alone as the sole beacon that can possibly help us to finally rewrite the history of this country as a nation. We do know that this is an issue that must one day be dealt with. I firmly believe that in this new millennium the time has come.
I should point out that during the NAC cross-table discussions with Prime Minister Fraser, it was generally agreed that the issue of the recognition of continuing Aboriginal sovereignty, as being a pre-requisite for Makarrata/Treaty negotiations, has always been of major concern to the Government. Everyone understood that, whilst this was a major concern, it would not preclude our ability to proceed on all other pertinent matters that had emerged.
The fundamental issue of sovereignty was put in a practical context by the Prime Minister when he said to the NAC Executive with words to the effect:
What if we sign the Treaty as the Executive Government on behalf of the Australian Nation and then we pass it to you on the other side of the table for your signatures and you decide not to sign it? Where will that leave us?
I recall Mr. Munro Snr responding with humour:
The NAC was mindful that this was the reason the Federal Government would only canvas one option for a Treaty and that is why the Federal Government reaffirmed and asserted that the Federal Government of Australia would then represent the entire population, which included Aboriginal Peoples.
The NAC knew full well the Federal Government would only have a single position on the issue of sovereignty while, on the other hand, the NAC was already exploring various other options, both domestically and internationally. Our African tour was the NAC's way of informing the Government that we knew other options were available to us, as colonised Nations and Peoples.
The NAC was fully aware of the position the Federal Government had chosen for themselves, because the Government was constantly arguing over what we considered were semantics. This was best illustrated in the Government's written response by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Peter Baume, to the Makarrata/Treaty sub-committee declaring on 3 March 1981:
The real measure of the Federal Government's seriousness and commitment to these negotiations can be best demonstrated by understanding the depths of their thoughts in their written response.
In fact, in the same document on the issue of nationhood of Aboriginal Peoples, Minister Baume expressed concern that if the government were not diligent and serious enough about the Treaty negotiations, they were facing a potential disaster. He wrote:
He went on to cite a United States court case The Cherokee Nation v The State of Georgia (1831). Using this case, Minister Baume continued:
At the end of this quote the Minister cited in brackets an example when he referred to the United States (sic) Charter, Article 1, and the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.
In concluding this point Minister Baume said in clause 8:
I have been recently reminded that within the first few months of Mr Patrick Dodson being made Chair of the Reconciliation Council of Australia he publicly stated that Treaty was not on the agenda.
I respectfully submit that we, as Aboriginal Nations and Peoples throughout Australia, must take control of all decisions that affect our future and the destiny of our grandchildren. We must not relegate ourselves to the level of the proverbial gambler, who is not happy when he wins, but is satisfied knowing that he had won once, despite later losing it all.
(©) Michael Anderson, 2009
The terms of these negotiations are on the basis that the Federal Government recognises.
It is further suggested that:
1A. The Commonwealth acquire all lands that were originally set aside for the use and benefit of Aboriginals since colonisation, and where possible the Commonwealth acquire an equivalent size parcel of land adjacent or within close proximity to such reserves and that these lands be given to Aboriginal communities in perpetuity with inalienable Freehold Title, if original lands are not able to be acquired.
1B. That all vacant Crown Land throughout Australia be acquired by the Commonwealth Government and given to Aboriginal Communities who are within close proximity and that such land be given in perpetuity with inalienable Freehold Title.