Legislative Council: Thursday, June 16, 2022


Mabo Day

The Hon. T.T. NGO (14:27): My question is to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. Will the minister inform the council about the importance of Mabo Day?

The Hon. K.J. MAHER (Attorney-General, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Minister for Industrial Relations and Public Sector) (14:27): I thank the honourable member for his question in relation to important celebrations in Aboriginal affairs. I think I have spoken a number of times in this place about the importance of Reconciliation Week and the various events that are held by community groups, businesses and other organisations to mark the occasion.

As I have said in the chamber before, Reconciliation Week is bookended by two important dates. The first one, 27 May, is the anniversary of the 1967 referendum that enjoyed the highest support ever of the eight referendums that were successful of the 44 that have been put since Federation, which recognised Aboriginal people as citizens of this country. The ending of Reconciliation Week each year is 3 June, which is the date that the High Court handed down the decision in the Mabo case in 1992. This year is the 30th anniversary of that decision.

The end of Reconciliation Week is known as Mabo Day. Mabo Day commemorates the successful efforts to overturn the legal fiction of terra nullius—the idea that this land was inhabited by no-one until colonisation only a couple of centuries ago and ignored the tens of thousands of years of society that had thrived on this continent prior to that.

Eddie Mabo led a group of Torres Strait Islanders in bringing legal action all the way to the High Court in support of their traditional ownership of Mer Island (Murray Island) in the Torres Strait. The legal action through many courts took some 10 years, with enormous volumes of evidence prepared and presented to the court in support of the traditional owners' clearly defined occupation of the territory and their continued practices and customs on their land. Ultimately, the decision in the Mabo case led to the commonwealth parliament passing the Native Title Act in 1993.

I can remember the Mabo decision in 1992. It was the first year of law school when I was at Adelaide Uni. It was, I remember well, a celebrated and historic decision, not just in legal circles but for society and Australia more broadly. Unfortunately, Eddie Mabo himself died five months before the High Court handed down the decision in the Mabo case, which ultimately led to the recognition of what we now call native title. If I remember correctly, I think 'radical title' was one of the terms used in the decision. Sir Gerard Brennan, Australia's 10th Chief Justice, was instrumental in the decision in the Mabo case. Sir Gerard died on 1 June, two days before the 30th anniversary of the Mabo case.

Of course, in acknowledging that landmark decision we reflect on the need to continue the important work that the recognition in the Mabo case started. Native title had a profound effect on the recognition of Aboriginal people, their connection to land, their customs on that land and their use of that land, but native title is not a perfect system. Applications can take many years, and in some cases decades, to be decided. The ability to prove continuity of traditional laws and customs since European colonisation is not always an easy task, which is why it sometimes takes so long to determine native title.

Of course, native title gives rights pursuant to the Native Title Act and in some cases those rights are limited. It's one of many reasons why in opposition, and now coming into government, we are committed to pursuing the next steps in reconciliation in Aboriginal affairs and implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. I remember that when the Mabo decision was handed down there was great optimism that that might in fact in some way be the missing part of being the only country of those we can compare ourselves to that did not have treaties with First Nations people.

Of course, native title has been confined to land use and land rights, so it's important that those next steps are taken in that process, but I am pleased that once a year we reflect on the importance of that historic decision. It certainly changed attitudes, and in Adelaide regularly there are events—they are often on the Reconciliation SA website—and I would encourage members on 3 June to commemorate Mabo day.