Eddie Mabo changed Australia. Thirty years on, what’s his legacy?

Article by Jedda Coast and Bridget Brennan for ABC News

As Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo sketched out his plans to shake the foundations of Australian law, he told his teenage daughter his prophecy: “One day, all of Australia will know my name.”

Reflecting on her father’s gigantic legacy, Gail Mabo remembers that moment with a smile.

Today marks three decades since Mabo’s fight came to fruition, when the High Court of Australia handed down its decision to overturn the myth of terra nullius, or “land belonging to no-one”.

The historic case set the benchmark for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across the nation to start to regain control and ownership over their lands.

“I hold him in the utmost respect because of the fact that he took on the government and won,” Ms Mabo said.

A Meriam man, Mabo had been a school principal, a bus driver, a cultural teacher and activist before he came to work as a gardener at James Cook University in the 1980s.

While he was having lunch one day with the university’s historians, Henry Reynolds and Noel Loos, they told him that, under law, his island was considered Crown Land.

Gail Mabo said that realisation sparked anger in her father and led to a decade of activism and a defining legal battle.

“The conversation that came out of that was, ‘You don’t actually own your land’. And he said ‘No, it’s my land’.”

In 1992, six of seven High Court judges found the Meriam people had traditional rights to their land — and in doing so, the court found that native title existed for all Indigenous people.

Hearing the High Court verdict was a bittersweet moment for the Mabo family, because Koiki had died just months before it was handed down.

Gail Mabo heard news of the decision in the car on ABC radio, and as the bulletin went to air, she recalls the heavens opened above her.

“Everything he did, it wasn’t in vain,” she said.

“He achieved what he set out to do, which was get his land back. That was the proudest moment.”

Mabo’s grandson on a mission to restore Koiki’s paradise

About 800 kilometres north of Cairns sits the small remote community of Mer (Murray) Island in the crystal blue waters of the Torres Strait.

These are the traditional lands and waters of the Meriam people, and the final resting place of Eddie Mabo in Las Village.

The island is now home to a modern-day fight to preserve his legacy, led by Mabo’s grandson, Kaleb Mabo.

When Mr Mabo visited the island last year he found it “swallowed up by the bush and the ocean”.

Seeing the condition of his homelands prompted him to start a project to raise funds to restore the island his grandfather loved so dearly.

“The man I’m doing this for is a national hero,” Mr Mabo said.

“The island hasn’t been maintained, a lot of things need to be replaced like the watering system for the gardens.

“I think it’s the least people can do to help honour and let this man have a resting place that he deserves.”

Mr Mabo has also been working alongside the National Native Title Council to push for ‘Mabo Day’ on June 3, to become a National Public Holiday.

He said the day was widely celebrated throughout the islands and in some Queensland communities, but he would like to see his grandfather’s footprint officially honoured on a larger scale.

“In the wider community and the big cities, there’s no known day to recognise what he has done,” he said.

“There’s no day that we have in Australia that celebrates First Nations people… so it’s a good first step.”

Native title became both transformative and tortuous

The Mabo case ended up being a complex and taxing fight for the plaintiffs and ultimately stretched a decade.

In 1982, Mabo and other Mer islanders, Celuia Mapo Salee, Reverend David Passi, Sam Passi and James Rice began their legal claim in the High Court of Australia.

A young Perth-based lawyer called Greg McIntyre worked on the case from the beginning, and said there was “elation” when the verdict was finally delivered.

Lawyers called the one phone box on Mer Island to relay the news of the decision and they could hear Mer islanders shouting “We won, we won!”.

Mr McIntyre SC said if he could see Mabo now, he would let him know he “changed Australia and its legal foundations”.

“It’s a great pity that Koiki didn’t survive [to see the case through]. All of the plaintiffs now have gone and a lot of the senior lawyers, but they’ve created a legacy,” he said.

But Mr McIntyre SC laments that although Mabo led to Indigenous communities gaining native title rights, it has been a “torturous” process for many mobs to go through.

The Yorta Yorta peoples in Victoria were one of the first Aboriginal groups to lodge a Native Title claim after the Mabo decision in 1994, but their case was ultimately rejected by the High Court.

Yorta Yorta elder Monica Morgan said she was left heartbroken by the process.

“I think [the Native Title process] is useless. It’s a wonderful thing for people to be able to get to the table, but in regards to real rights for us and land rights it’s not fair,” she said.

In 2002, the court determined that the ‘tide of history’ had washed away and thereby extinguished Yorta Yorta native title rights.

However in April 2004, the Bracks government announced a cooperative agreement with the Yorta Yorta people that included recognition of public land, rivers and lakes throughout north-central Victoria.

Ms Morgan is pushing for traditional owners across the country to “maintain sovereignty” by seeking alternative ways of gaining autonomy over their lands and waters.

She said the legal framework of Native Title was not set up in favour of traditional owners.

“Native Title is not a black-based rights system to land. It’s to protect the interests of the white people,” she said.

She said Mabo inspired Indigenous people across the country to never “settle”.

“Fight the fight all the way, that’s how we’ve been taught. I think with every generation there’s a different mark-up and I think we’ve just got to keep the line,” she said.

Posted Under: