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Issue #1550      6 June 2012

Mabo – Two decades later, his legacy lives on

Last Sunday, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people celebrated the 20th anniversary of arguably Australia’s most momentous legal judgement around land, one that carries Eddie “Koiki” Mabo’s name.

Eddie “Koiki” Mabo

The High Court of Australia handed down its decision in Mabo v Queensland on June 3, 1992, effectively overturning the legal fiction that Australia was terra nullius at the time of invasion – in then Prime Minister Paul Keating’s words “doing away with the bizarre conceit that this continent had no owners prior to the settlement of Europeans”.

Eddie Mabo from Murray Island, or Mer, shared his fight with four co-plaintiffs originally and, eventually, just two – his cousins Dave Passi and James Rice.

In what is now commonly referred to simply as “Mabo”, the judges determined that based on traditional laws and customs the Meriam people were “entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of (most of) the lands of the Murray Islands”.

They found that, subject to the sovereignty of the Crown, what were termed “native title rights” had survived there and, potentially, in other parts of the Torres Strait and on mainland Australia.

Ten-year case

The ten-year case is seen as a David and Goliath scenario, where some humble islanders took on the powerful Queensland government, led at the time by Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who was hell-bent on thwarting their efforts.

The islanders won, but tragically, Eddie Mabo never lived to see victory. He died from cancer in January 1992, just four and a half months before the judgement.

But his legacy lives on in the form of Australia’s native title regime, underpinned by the hard-fought Native Title Act 1993. From rocky beginnings that pitted Indigenous people against government, mining and pastoral interests and others, that regime has produced winners and losers.

The saga set the nation on a new, more just course as it moved into an era of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

It is the stuff of legends as well as songs and films, lectures and orations, festivals, conferences and even a bank holiday in the Torres Strait.

“Mabo Day”

These days, June 3 is regarded as “Mabo Day” and, along with May 27 (the anniversary of the 1967 Referendum that agreed to count Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as Australians) it  book-ends the annual National Reconciliation Week (NRW).

On the weekend thousands of people were expected to turn out in Townsville, where Eddie Mabo spent much of his adult years, for a reconciliation festival marking Mabo Day and the 20th anniversary.

This will be echoed, like the beat of a traditional Torres Strait Islander warup (drum), by smaller but no less enthusiastic celebrations on Mer, Thursday Island and elsewhere in the Torres Strait.

And on Monday through to Wednesday (4-6 June), hundreds of delegates and speakers from across Australia will gather at Townsville’s Convention Centre for the annual National Native Title Conference.

Koori Mail  

Next article – Protest against restrictions on visiting Villawood refugees

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