The Mabo Decision 30 years on… the legacy lives on

By Leitha Assan, Senior Curator, Indigenous Cultures

From its inception in Townsville in 1981 to the High Court victory on 3 June 1992, 2022 marks 30 years since the historical landmark Mabo decision was handed down by the High Court of Australia. The High Court ruled that the Meriam people were entitled to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of their Islands, effectively recognising their Native Title. Native Title is the recognition by Australian law of Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal people’s traditional laws and customs that are connected to lands and waters.

More than 100 years after European settlement, a group of Islanders – namely Reverend Dave Passi, Deacon Sam Passi Snr, James Rice, one Meriam woman, Celuia Mapo Salee and led by Eddie Koiki Mabo – won a landmark legal battle against the Queensland and Australian governments. They proved that Islanders are the customary owners of land on Mer, Waier, Dauar (Murray Islands) including sections of the Great Barrier Reef by demonstrating that their ancestors had inhabited the islands since time immemorial. The High Court decision was the first step to unravel the lie that the land was ‘terra nullius’ or ‘land belonging to no one’ at the time of European settlement.

The foundations for their arguments were primarily based on ‘The laws of Malo’.

Malo tag mauki mauki: Malo keeps his hands to himself
Malo teter mauki mauki:  Malo keeps his feet off other people’s land
You cannot walk on another man’s property and a man doesn’t place his hands on another man’s property.

Eddie Koiki Mabo and the continuing plaintiffs, Reverend Dave Passi and James Rice, with lawyer Bryan Keon-Cohen in 1989
Source:  John Whitterron, Yarra Bank Films

Malo’s Law is a set of customary lore’s that is handed down through the generations by the Meriam god, Malo.  It is a complex law that underpins the laws of trespass and determines family or clan boundaries on the Islands and its waterways. But more importantly it is a law that gives the Meriam people a system of cultural standards for their social, moral, and religious beliefs. Mabo and his fellow plaintiffs fought for land on Mer and their ancestral gardens and home. Meriam history and culture were crucial to the success of the Mabo case.

Eddie Koiki Mabo at Las, on Mer (Murray Island), 1989
Source:  John Whitterron, Yarra Bank Films

Today four hundred people live on Mer or Murray Island, one of the most eastern Torres Strait Islands, annexed by Britain as part of the colony of Queensland in 1879. The Meriam people continue to practice their traditional customary rights that protect and manage the land and the sea boundaries of their Islands. 

The Mabo case legacy has set a precedent for native title determinations in the Torres Strait and wider Australia.  Twenty-one years later in 2010, The High Court of Australia delivered another historic ruling relating to the largest native title claim to sea country in Australia’s history. Torres Strait Islanders secured ownership over 40,000 square kilometres of sea country between Cape York Peninsula and Papua New Guinea. The native title claimants provided evidence of their ongoing spiritual and cultural connections to the sea that was then formally recognised by The High Court of Australia. Today native title exists on all the islands and sea country within the Torres Strait region.

The sea, the fish, the prawns belongs to me and my people.

Eddie Koiki Mabo, Land Bilong Islanders: Mabo Video 1990

Waier, one of the three Islands that make up the Murray Island group.
Source:  Brett Charles, Leftfield Productions

Eddie Koiki Mabo, the leading plaintiff in the Mabo case together with his four fellow plaintiffs, showed strength and determination to make native title in Australia a reality. In 2022, over 500 native title determinations acknowledge that the First Nation peoples of Australia are the rightful owners of their particular land or waters.

Furthermore, another landmark court case following soon after from the 1992 Mabo decision – The Wik People v The State of Queensland & Ors; The Thayorre People v The State of Queensland & Ors, which became known as the Wik decision. Powerful bushfire woman Gladys Tybingoompa, a Wik elder, activist and claimant who fought Australian Law for equal land ownership for the Wik people in Cape York Queensland and won. The Wik decision became a catalyst for The High Court examination of whether native title could coexist with pastoral lease title rights in Queensland. The court found in 1996 that native rights could coexist.

Gladys Tybingoompa dances outside the High Court during the Wik Peoples v. Queensland case.
Source: NMA – Andrew Campbell/Fairfax Syndication

If you don’t have your land you have nothing to live for.

Gladys Tybingoompa

The Mabo decision was a step toward full decolonisation and true reconciliation; First Nation peoples and their supporters continue to celebrate a moment of justice and great significance in Australian history.

One thought on “The Mabo Decision 30 years on… the legacy lives on

  1. Reblogged this on Queensland Stories and commented:
    A fine Queensland story. We lived in Townsville around the time the Mabo Native Title case began to be formulated, and one evening we had the experience of meeting Eddie Koiki Mabo, when he worked as groundsman at JCU.

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