Eddie Mabo of Mer island in the Torres Strait spent a decade seeking official recognition of his people’s ownership of Mer and on 3 June 1992, the High Court of Australia agreed, rejecting the doctrine that Australia was terra nullius (land belonging to no-one) at the time of European settlement.
Eddie’s daughter, Gail Mabo remembers that day well.
“I was sitting in a car breastfeeding my six month old son, who was born the day before i buried my dad, when I heard on the radio we had won the case,” says Gail.
“I started crying and thinking that if my father was alive he would be dancing. I then heard the sound of thunder and said to my son ‘hear that, he is dancing.’”
Gail says her family shared the same response to the High Court win.
“It was a shock when he won because most people didn’t think we would win. It was unheard of for a single person to change the whole history of a nation and for Dad to do that it was an awakening call to Australia to say ‘it’s time to right a wrong’ and embrace indigenous people.”
Asked about what she thought we should be celebrating this Mabo Day, Gail says that it is about honouring those with the drive to succeed.
“For me, Dad’s legacy is that through strength of culture and commitment you can achieve anything. People who are fighting for their own native title have to believe in themselves and their culture because that is what will help them succeed.
“His strength was that he knew who he was as a man, where he was from and that the fight he was doing was right. He always knew the land was his,” Gail said.
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In addition to rejecting the doctrine of terra nullius, the High Court also ruled that the common law of Australia recognised a form of native title that reflected the entitlement of the Indigenous inhabitants of Australia to their traditional lands, in accordance with their laws and custom.
In response to Mabo, the Australian Government enacted the Native Title Act 1993 (the Act). The Act recognises and protects native title and sets up processes by which claims for native title can be determined and future activity impacting on native title may be undertaken. As at 21 May 2012, there have been 139 determinations recognising the existence of native title, and determined native title covers approximately 16% of Australia’s land mass.
Native title is about more than just delivering symbolic recognition. As well as clear recognition of traditional rights in relation to land and waters, it provides opportunities to create sustainable economic outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including through agreements. An example is in the Gawler Ranges in South Australia where in addition to the determination, which recognised native title over approximately 3.5 million hectares of land, the Australian Government funds a Working on Country project that engages traditional owners from the Gawler Ranges in the management of resources. The project provides sustainable employment and brings together traditional and contemporary approaches to land management.
The twentieth anniversary of Mabo affords us with an opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the native title system, and the challenges ahead. All participants in the native title system including governments need to continue to think creatively and innovatively about resolving native title claims, and in using negotiations as a vehicle to achieve practical outcomes in a timely, flexible and collaborative way.