LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Today a 77-year-old Aboriginal man has taken legal action against the Queensland Government to recover his stolen wages.
Hans Pearson is one of 300 elderly Aboriginal people suing the Government in a class action to get back money he earned but was never paid. His nephew, the prominent Aboriginal leader, Nole Pearson, says Indigenous disadvantaged today can be traced back to this kind of injustice.
Michael Atkin has this exclusive report.
MICHAEL ATKIN, REPORTER: For a young Hans Pearson working as a stockman on a cattle station in Far North Queensland was a big adventure.
HANS PEARSON, FORMER STOCKMAN: After dark, you'd get up about 5 o'clock in the morning to muster the horses. Get them ready for the muster for the day. And get back to the camp. Stock yards till about 5 or 6 o'clock at night. I loved it. I thought we were cowboys at the time.
MICHAEL ATKIN: Hans lived the life of a cowboy from 1954 to 1964, working dawn to dusk, six to seven days a week.
HANS PEARSON: It was hard work, mate. It was hard, especially when you're crossing rivers, alligator-infested rivers.
MICHAEL ATKIN: But there was a catch. Like most Aboriginal people, his wages were mainly kept from him by the Queensland Government. It said for safe keeping and to stop money being wasted.
HANS PEARSON: As a 15-year-old I was on about five pound a week and there were supposed to be I think 10 shillings supposed to come to your hand. But I never received that.
MICHAEL ATKIN: Hans only discovered his money was missing when he went to collect it after 10 years of hard labour.
HANS PEARSON: When I was called up to the police station, me and the wife went up and he had a cheque there waiting for me for 28 pounds. I said, "Is this all I'm getting?" He said,
"That's all you had."
MICHAEL ATKIN: Hans estimates he should have earnt 7,000 pounds, enough for a new house for his wife and kids. He's one of thousands of Aboriginal people whose wages were lost or stolen over an 80 year period.
ROS KIDD, HISTORIAN: A worker like Hans was a key part of the pastoral industry and thereby wealth of Queensland. What happened is that Hans never even got that piece of his money.
HANS PEARSON: The first 10 years of your life, you're working to buy yourself a home, to set your family up. That's every person's dream.
MICHAEL ATKIN: Hans has been living in Townsville Public Housing for 46 years.
NOEL PEARSON: For him to be still living in a social housing, a public housing house 50 years later because of that thwarted ambition, it's like a great bitterness inside me.
MICHAEL ATKIN: Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson feels his uncle's pain.
HANS PEARSON: We used to break counters. You know counters.
NOEL PEARSON: Your horse?
HANS PEARSON: Mine. I was going to make a fortune out of the cattle industry. It didn't happen.
NOEL PEARSON: If you want to understand Indigenous disadvantage in 2016, it has its roots back then. Where would he and his children be and his grandchildren be if that virtuous cycle had taken place? Namely, he had a house in the '60s and when his oldest children started getting married in the '70s and '80s, Mum and Dad, with their family home, helped the next child.
MICHAEL ATKIN: Hans Pearson is the lead claimant in a legal class action filed today against the Queensland Government to recover stolen wages.
HANS PEARSON: Work followed 10 to 12 years for nothing. We can't just let this slip by the roadside. We can't.
NOEL PEARSON: I had no idea Uncle Hans was preparing this case. He had been working hard on it with his lawyer.
MICHAEL ATKIN: This statement of claim obtained by 7.30 argues the Queensland Government breach the trust of Aboriginal people by failing to protect their money.
JOHN BOTTOMS, SOLICITOR: It was clearly a breach of trust. So we're intending to take the matter to court, along with all the other people and we have already got 300 claimants.
MICHAEL ATKIN: Historian Dr Ros Kidd is a consultant to the class action. She believes there is substantial documentary evidence to support the claim.
ROS KIDD: There were internal inquiries, there were investigations and there were audit reports every year and I've got every one of them from 1940 to 1990 and they time after time after time that's what they said.
This money is going missing. You need for people to be able to see a record of their accounts to stop this sort of fraud.
MICHAEL ATKIN: In 2002, in an attempt to avoid court action, the Queensland Government set up a reparation scheme paying each person up to $4,000 in return for waiving their legal rights.
PETER BEATTIE, FORMER QUEENSLAND PREMIER: This offer was made in the spirit of reconciliation, as a demonstration of our genuine desire to heal the past so we can move on.
MICHAEL ATKIN: Hans Pearson signed up because he was desperate. His payment has recently been topped up and in total he's received $9,000.
HANS PEARSON: That's $9,000 for 10, 12 years of work. That's not right. That's not for justice.
MICHAEL ATKIN: His lawyer and family believe Hans was conned.
JOHN BOTTOMS: Well, we don't think that the discharge and release which he was forced to sign is valid or binding.
We think that the way that it was imposed was unconscionable.
MICHAEL ATKIN: Dr Ros Kidd claims the amount paid by the Queensland Government is minuscule compared to the actual amount owed.
ROS KIDD: I did a estimate which Peter Beattie mentioned in parliament of $500 million.
MICHAEL ATKIN: Queensland's Indigenous Affairs Minister Curtis Pitt declined to comment, saying the matter is before the courts.
HANS PEARSON: Even this little place I could own it.
NOEL PEARSON: Hopes and dreams.
HANS PEARSON: Hopes and dreams. Yeah.
MICHAEL ATKIN: Hans Pearson is hoping the class action fulfils his lifelong dream of owning his Townsville home and results in justice for Aboriginal people.
HANS PEARSON: I hope justice will be done. It will be compassionate with us and just give us what they owe us.
NOEL PEARSON: This is as important as Mabo. There's a precedent here that is of fundamental cornerstone justice as Mabo because the opportunity cost that he has foregone and that an entire generation has foregone.
LEIGH SALES: We'll keep you posted on how that unfolds. Michael Atkin reporting.