Most Australians recognize the word Mabo as the name of the landmark 1992 high-court ruling that recognized that indigenous owners had rights to their traditional lands. Fewer Australians know much about Eddie (Koiki) Mabo himself. That's a shame. The man behind the case was both dogged and brave and, in the end, played a crucial role in Australia's history.
Edward Mabo was born on Mer Island the largest of the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait, off the northern tip of Queensland on June 29, 1936. His mother died during childbirth and Mabo was adopted by an uncle, Benny Mabo. The islander society on Mer was a mix of two cultures: the traditional, indigenous one, and mainland, Western practices. The community farmed family-owned garden plots, fished and harvested seafood from family-controlled fish traps, and worked on pearling luggers. Traditional law still regulated the islanders' relations with one another, though most people were devoutly Christian.
As a young man, Mabo worked on pearling boats and became a skilled diver, able to reach depths of 50 ft. (15 m) wearing just goggles. Youthful indiscretions saw him exiled from the islands for a time and in the late 1950s he migrated to mainland Australia and settled in the northern Queensland city of Townsville with his wife Bonita. There, Mabo became involved in Aboriginal politics. Despite his lack of formal education, he had a keen interest in learning. While working at James Cook University as a gardener, he devoured books and research on islander history and culture and attended conferences and seminars, becoming a regular speaker in a course on race relations.
As Mabo became more of an activist, he campaigned for better access for indigenous peoples to legal and medical services, to housing, to social services and to education. Australian Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander people had always enjoyed fewer rights than the Maori in New Zealand or indigenous groups in Canada. Mabo focused on education as crucial to changing that state of affairs. He established the Townsville Black Community School, which was designed to give indigenous children an education that incorporated their own culture. In a speech in 1976 at a conference on the redrawing of the Torres Strait border, Mabo articulated a vision for islander self-determination and for an independent Torres Strait Islands.
Crucially, for what was to come, Mabo maintained his spiritual connection with his island homeland. When he learned that his lands were legally "Aboriginal reserves" owned by the state of Queensland, he was outraged. "I'd like to see someone take my land away from me," he told friends.
And so in 1981, Mabo decided that he and other activists should launch a case to challenge terra nullius, the legal doctrine which held that Australia was unoccupied at the time of colonization, and hence obtain legal recognition of his rights to his lands. It was the beginning of a decade-long saga that would change the nation. Mabo organized evidence, witnesses and discussed strategy with the legal team. But in 1991, soon after final arguments were delivered before the high court, he was diagnosed with cancer. He died in January 1992, just five months before the court handed down its decision.
The Mabo decision fundamentally altered land ownership in Australia. For the first time in 200 years, legal recognition was afforded to indigenous owners of their traditional lands. The court found that Australia had not been legally unoccupied in 1788 when Governor Arthur Phillip landed and claimed the country on behalf of the British Crown. It also recognized a form of native-title that, in cases where it has not been extinguished, reflects the entitlements of the indigenous inhabitants, in accordance with their laws and customs, to their traditional lands.
The response to the Mabo decision ranged from rapturous applause to fear-tinged hysteria. "Many decisions of the high court have resulted in controversy, but few, if any, have given rise to such a diversity of responses," noted one former Chief Justice. The federal government enacted a law that recognized and protected native title and set out a process for regulating future land claims. To be sure, the Mabo decision does not mean all traditional owners are able to reclaim their lands, nor does it require the government to hand back land taken from traditional owners in the past. But it was a huge legal step in terms of basic rights.
Since then, there have been setbacks. More recent legal cases and amendments to the native-title legislation by the Howard government have reinterpreted indigenous rights in such a way that traditional owners have been effectively denied much of what Mabo promised. Still, such owners have successfully negotiated over 390 indigenous land-use agreements with developers, governments and farmers. Mabo has also forced developers and governments to deal with indigenous people instead of ignoring them.
And the message of Mabo is broader than land rights alone. It is one of respect for another culture within Australia, a message of reconciliation that has been taken up over the past decade in mass rallies and, in 2008, a prime ministerial apology to Aboriginals for past wrongs. None of that has changed the fact that Aboriginal Australians are far more likely to be uneducated, have bad health, be unemployed or die younger than the general population. Governments over the past few years have refocused on interventionist policies to fix some of those problems: banning alcohol from communities (something that many Aboriginal communities were doing themselves), forcing parents to send their kids to school, and quarantining welfare payments of those neglecting their children. It can be argued that such paternalistic policies run counter to the message of Mabo. But they are also evidence of the fact that a legal ruling, while profoundly important, was only part of the answer to justice for Australia's original inhabitants.
Stephenson is a senior lecturer at the T.C. Beirne School of Law at the University of Queensland and the editor of two books on the Mabo decision