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Newslines Radio: Mabo 20 years on


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Nathan Ramsay

Bonita Mabo, Townsville, Qld
Gail Mabo, Townsville, Qld
Josephine Bourne, Expert Panel on
Constitutional Recognition, Qld
Ben Gertz, Townsville, Qld
Adelina Romano, Townsville, Qld
Grant Paulson, Canberra, ACT

6 Aug 2012

PRESENTER: Hi, I’m Nathan Ramsay and you’re listening to Newslines Radio, a weekly program produced by the Australian Government on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.

On the third of June this year our people celebrated the 20th anniversary of the High Court of Australia's landmark Mabo decision.

The Mabo decision effectively reversed the notion of terra nullius - that the land was not occupied. The court ruled in favour of Eddie Mabo and fellow plaintiffs from Mer or Murray Island in the eastern most part of the Torres Strait Islands.

The Mabo decision is arguably one of the most important legal decisions in Australia's history. For many of us Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people it was as significant as the 1967 Referendum, as it acknowledged that our people were here and had our own systems of governance in place prior to European settlement.

This week we will speak to a number of people who attended a two-day Reconciliation Festival and Mabo Day celebration in Townsville to commemorate the 20th anniversary, with people travelling from all around Australia to take part.

Eddie Mabo’s widow Bonita and daughter Gail, as well as their large extended family, were also there to mark the occasion.

It all started with a march along The Strand on Townsville’s waterfront.

march atmos

PRESENTER: Eddie’s daughter Gail Mabo is a respected artist and dancer in her own right and she has some fond memories of her dad and the family when news of the Mabo decision came through. She spoke with Newslines Trevor Ellis.

MABO: I was sitting in a car breast feeding my son who was six months old at the time, because he was born a day before I buried my dad, and once again just holding my son and crying and thinking “Uapo, if he was alive he would be dancing”. And I was sitting there I could hear the thunder coming and I looked at my son and I said “he is listening, balla he is, he’s dancing” and on that sound of that thunder I smiled but then I kept crying because it was a double edged sword; I wanted my dad to be alive.

Because it was his achievement, it wasn’t anyone else, it was him, for him having the insight and passion to drive this thing.

ELLIS: What are his strengths that got him through this, his determination?

MABO: I think the strength in the knowledge of knowing who he was as a man and where he came from and his cultural strength that pushed him to believe in the fight was for right, not for wrong. Coming from the fact that he knew that the land was his from the word go and that made it all the worthwhile for him to fight. “It’s mine, and I’m going to prove it”.

He stood fast on the fact that he knew what he had to do and with him being a family man and a cultural man. Everyone came to our house to seek advice from my dad and the sheer strength of his knowledge was amazing. And the fact that people now talk about him in a very high regard, that he was a man of his word and he knew what he was talking about. You know your pocket wasn’t full at the end of the conversation because what he was speaking was the truth and that’s how people see him, as a man who spoke the truth and fought for something he knew was his.

PRESENTER: That was Gail Mabo giving some personal insights into her father Eddie Mabo.

Josephine Bourne is a mainland Torres Strait Islander born in Townsville. She has been a director of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and a member of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition. Here, Josephine recalls to Newslines’s Trevor Ellis how Eddie Mabo inspired her from an early age.

BOURNE: I was in high school when the Mabo decision was handed down, so my memories were of non-Indigenous teachers and classmates trying to understand the significance for themselves as Australians and also for us as Indigenous people. So my memory was about trying to understand it as a young person and then trying to get other non-Indigenous Australians to understand why it was such an important battle and such an important win for us.

I think things have changed. I think definitely awareness around the importance and significance of land rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; it’s definitely raised the profile on that issue across Australia and the world. And I heard Henry Reynolds talking at the James Cook University here. He delivered the Mabo oration the other day and he talked about how the Mabo decision has also helped other Indigenous groups around the world.

ELLIS: How important is it that we celebrate this?

BOURNE: I think it’s really important that we celebrate it and that we keep the memory of Uncle Eddie Koiki Mabo’s work and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who worked for Indigenous rights in this country from the very beginning.

We all know of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who tried to protect the rights of our peoples and I think days like this give us an opportunity … weeks like this, like Reconciliation Week and also NAIDOC Week, give us an opportunity to remember them, honour them and continue to fight on in that same spirit.

PRESENTER: Adelina Romano is from Innisfail but is now a Townsville local and she believes it’s important that we pass the message on to our young people about the struggles that have happened in the past.

ROMANO: It’s really important not just for Torres Strait Islander people but for Indigenous people across the country, but also for our young people to understand the struggle and the fight that led to where we are today. I think it’s very important that the next generation and our children understand the history, the black history of Australia. So today it’s very significant, very important.

It really identifies or shows the connection that Indigenous people have to country. And our children need to know that, that history. And because it’s relevant to them and that connection.


PRESENTER: You’re listening to Newslines Radio and today we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Mabo Decision on Native Title.

James Cook University economics student Ben Gertz grew up in Townsville and says that it’s important that we all celebrate these types of events. Here he is talking with Newslines Trevor Ellis.

GERTZ: Obviously it’s very significant to come out here and celebrate a day like Mabo Day, especially this year being the 20th Anniversary of the handing down of the Mabo decision. Obviously it’s coming out here and recognising someone who basically I guess held the mantle and started the current Native Title movement.

I’m very fortunate as an Indigenous person who’s based in Townsville to be here today, even this year as well having the National Native Title Conference. It was actually here in Townsville where Mabo was based and it’s a bit more significant to us because he was a trusted friend and also a well-regarded person in the community.

ELLIS: And how important is it that we celebrate these types of things not only as an Indigenous community but with the wider community as well?

GERTZ: I think generally in the wider community it’s very significant to celebrate these things because the fact is it’s days like Mabo Day, it’s weeks like Reconciliation Week, it’s weeks like NAIDOC Week which promote reconciliation to the wider community and I think it’s a very important part. We’re here today showing that we want to be a part of the community but we want the rest of the community to celebrate our past and our future with us and we want to be a part of their future and celebrate their past as well.

PRESENTER: Grant Paulson was one of the many people who travelled to Townsville to help celebrate this milestone, as he explained to Trevor Ellis.

PAULSON: Well look, I think it’s an opportunity to be in a special place at a special time 20 years down the track and to be here in Townsville with the Mabo family, it’s really just a big honour to be a part of that and the celebration of what that all means for us as a national people from many different tribes and countries and places. I count it a blessing and an honour to be here.

ELLIS: What are your thoughts on that event 20 years ago?

PAULSON: It’s something that you don’t realise how big it was until we’re 20years down the track. It set the ground rules and the pathways for a lot of other things to come down like the apology, accessibility for our mob to get their land back. There are definitely lots of places where it can be improved and built upon but it’s a beginning, one of those watershed moments in our history and to be here 20 years down the track is very important.

ELLIS: How significant was it?

PAULSON: I think it’s important and very significant we dispel that myth of terra nullius that is dead and done once and for all that was and always will be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land and its acknowledged in Australian law. But it always existed in blackfella law, so the fact that that’s recognised now and can’t be taken away is a good thing.

PRESENTER: At the end of the march, Newslines spoke to Eddie’s widow Bonita who proudly led the march from start to finish.

BONITA: Oh I’m over the moon. I’m excited and so proud to see this day and for all the people that are here today. They are from all over Australia which is so wonderful and it’s so lovely.

ELLIS: How proud of Eddie are you?

BONITA: I’m proud. Look at me, doesn’t it say it all? No, he is my hero.

PRESENTER: That was an emotional Bonita Mabo speaking to Trevor Ellis in Townsville after the Mabo Day Reconciliation march.

If you want to find out more about the Mabo decision and what is happening today in Native Title visit our website

You can read our Indigenous Newslines magazine there and also follow Closing the Gap on Twitter, or friend Indigenous Newslines on Facebook.

I’m Nathan Ramsay. Catch you next time.

Stay deadly.

Find out more

In addition to rejecting the doctrine of terra nullius, the High Court of Australia 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 20th anniversary of Mabo affords us with an opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the native title system, and the challenges ahead.

More information about the Mabo Decision is available at

Other Australian Government support for native title includes:

  • The Native Title Program, which supports Indigenous native title claimants or holders through the funding of a network of Native Title Representative Bodies or other Native Title Service Providers.
  • The Land Rights Program, supporting Indigenous people to exercise their legal rights in relation to land and sea.
  • The Aboriginals Benefit Account (ABA), which contributes to the recognition and protection of land rights by the efficient administration of royalties generated from mining on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory.

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