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The Mabo case 30 years on: still an icon of rightness and fairness


“The landmark Mabo case has become an icon of rightness and fairness, particularly demonstrated in this oft-quoted line from the classic 1997 film The Castle: “In summing up, it’s the Constitution, it’s Mabo, it’s justice, it’s law, it’s the vibe’,” says Saibai Elder Aunty Dr Rose Elu, as National Reconciliation Week continues

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Please note: First Nations peoples should be aware that this content contains images and names of deceased persons.

On 3 June 1992, the High Court of Australia found that a group of five Mabo case plaintiffs from Mer, in the east of the Torres Strait, were the island’s Traditional Owners. This decision was momentous – and not just for these five. The case has had a profound impact on the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples since and has helped to foster reconciliation between First Nations and non-Indigenous Australians.

Through the Mabo Case, which was named after the first listed plaintiff Eddie Koiki Mabo (1936-1992), the myth that at the time of colonisation the lands now known as Australia were terra nullius (or land belonging to no one) was overturned.

Twelve months after the High Court judgement, the Commonwealth Native Title Act 1993 was passed through Australian Parliament. This Act has enabled other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to make claims based on their ongoing traditional rights to their lands and waters.

My people are from the beautiful island of Saibai in the Torres Strait, about three kilometres south of Papua New Guinea. Mer is approximately half way between Australia and Papua New Guinea, further east than Saibai. All Torres Strait Islander peoples maintain a special connection to the sea, sky and land – it’s part of who we are.

So it came as a shock to Eddie Koiki Mabo in the early 1970s while working as a groundsperson at James Cook University in Townsville to learn during a conversation with two university historians, Noel Loos and Henry Reynolds, that Mer was Crown land:

“…we were having lunch one day when Koiki was just speaking about his land back on Mer, or Murray Island. Henry and I realised that in his mind he thought he owned that land, so we sort of glanced at each other, and then had the difficult responsibility of telling him that he didn’t own that land, and that it was Crown land. Koiki was surprised, shocked…he said and I remember him saying, ‘No way, it’s not theirs, it’s ours!’”

Eddie Koiki Mabo in Townsville, 1991

Eddie Koiki Mabo in Townsville, 1991. Photograph by Bethyl Mabo, AIATSIS Collection, ATSIC.002.BW-E00256_31

While Mabo presented at a university conference in September 1981, land rights expert and lawyer Barbara Hocking heard him speak about Mer traditional land ownership and inheritance practices. Hocking subsequently suggested that Mabo bring a land rights test case to court.

So in May 1982, Mabo and the four other plaintiffs, James Rice, Celuia Mapo Salee, Sam Passi and David Passi, commenced their legal claim in the High Court of Australia.

Sadly, Mabo died of cancer at the age of 56 in January 1992 before the High Court announced their decision. In the following June, the High Court found in favour of the plaintiffs in a 6:1 majority decision, and in their landmark ruling:

“…the High Court recognised the fact that Indigenous peoples had lived in Australia for thousands of years and enjoyed rights to their land according to their own laws and customs.”

Mabo and the Mabo case garnered an incredible amount of national and international attention. Film and documentary features have been written about Mabo and the case; the Royal Australian Mint released a 50-cent coin commemorating Mabo, with a design by his granddaughter; Google Doodle marked Mabo’s 80th birthday; a James Cook University library was named after him; Mabo was posthumously awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal; and, a star of the Southern Cross was named after him by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

Google Doodle marked Mabo’s 80th birthday

Google Doodle marked Mabo’s 80th birthday (Image courtesy of Google Doodle)

The landmark Mabo case has become an icon of rightness and fairness, particularly demonstrated in this oft-quoted line from the classic 1997 film The Castle: “In summing up, it’s the Constitution, it’s Mabo, it’s justice, it’s law, it’s the vibe.”

The High Court Mabo decision is commemorated annually on Mabo Day on 3 June, and this year is the 30th anniversary of the decision. Mabo Day is an official holiday on my island of Saibai and throughout the whole Torres Shire. National Reconciliation Week concludes on 3 June every year.

National Reconciliation Week begins on 27 May, which commemorates the successful 1967 referendum when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were counted in the census as part of the Australian population and so the Commonwealth was then able to make laws for them under Section 51 of the Constitution.

Inspired by the Uluru Statement From the Heart, last year the Anglican Church Southern Queensland made a submission in support of the call for an Indigenous Voice included in the Constitution. The Voice is the first stage of the Uluru reforms.

By supporting the Voice, we are taking another meaningful step forward towards Reconciliation. The Uluru Statement From the Heart is a gift to all Australians – a roadmap to fairness and meaningful change.

‘From the Heart’, the campaign stemming from the National Constitutional Convention that issued the Uluru Statement From the Heart, is calling for a referendum to be held in 2023 on this Voice. A Voice to Parliament that is included in the Constitution will give us all the best chance of finally closing the health and life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

This is because a Voice to Parliament, enshrined in the Constitution, would enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to advise Federal Parliament about laws and policies that impact them in a more direct, streamlined and effective way. This means that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders would be included in the law-making process, rather than having politicians and policy makers merely deciding what is best for us.

When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a real say on issues that affect them, we get better results on the ground in key areas such as health and education. Ensuring this Constitutional guarantee of a Voice will help provide our Indigenous leaders and their communities with stability and longevity, particularly across election cycles and changes of Government.

Here are three things you can do to support the Voice:

  1. Download and display From The Heart toolkit items, such as posters, social media tiles, factsheets and web banners.
  2. Follow From the Heart on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
  3. Talk about the importance of the Voice to Parliament, enshrined in the Constitution, among your friends, family and peers. This frequently asked questions sheet may assist you.

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