Eddie Mabo is a man who has entered the Australian lexicon. However, aside from the popular references we quote, the concessions he won truly matter, and should never be forgotten.
I don’t think there is an Australian court case more famous than the one that bears his name. It is referenced in the film The Castle when the Kerrigan’s lawyer tries to explain why little people shouldn’t be mowed down by the powers-that-be: ‘It’s the Constitution. It’s Mabo. It’s justice. It’s law. It’s the vibe’. And in the online urban dictionary, it is slang for taking something that isn’t yours and claiming it as your own: ‘Mabo-ing somebody’s essay’.Which, I hope, faults the Australian government, not Eddie Mabo himself. Nevertheless, most of us only know the bare essentials about both the court case and the man who brought it. And that is a shame because Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo is one of Australia’s great heroes. Not just because he fought tirelessly to end discrimination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but because in doing so he gave all of us the belief in a fairer and more just country. It cost him dearly, but we know by now that our mavericks usually pay a price for the lessons they teach us. And to Eddie Mabo, Maverick number 15, our debt will probably never be repaid.
Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo was born on Murray Island, the place its people call Mer, in 1936. A few weeks later his mother died and he was adopted by his uncle and aunt and raised as their own. When he was sixteen years old, he was hauled in front of the Murray Island Council, a group of local people overseen by the Department of Native Affairs and the Chief Protector of Aborigines. Koiki was accused of being drunk and in an illicit relationship with a girl and was given a choice: do hard labour for no pay for a year, or go into exile. Already with a good sense of what was and wasn’t fair, Mabo chose the latter and started working as a deckhand and diver on the Adiana, a boat that was part of the Torres Strait pearling fleet. A few years later, he jumped ship in Cairns and worked on the road cutting cane, laying railways. There he also met and married the love of his life, Bonita, and in 1962 they moved to Townsville with their young family. Working on the docks, Mabo soon became a union member and was introduced not only to communism but also to thinking for himself and speaking out about injustices.
These were heady times in civil rights politics. In America, Martin Luther King eloquently voiced the anger and demands of the African-American population and in Australia, more and more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people did the same. In 1966, a group of 170 Aboriginal employees of Vestey’s, a British pastoral company in the Northern Territory, walked off the job in protest. Vincent Lingiarri and his Gurindji people were on strike for years, camping out at Wattie Creek and pressing the Federal government for their land back. Others were active in the Referendum campaign, and Eddie Mabo, who had become a founding member of the Townsville Branch of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League, made sure his voice was heard as well. Discrimination was rife, especially in Queensland. Black people who questioned the rules were treated like they were ‘anti-Christian, anti-civilisation’, and in order to stand your ground ‘you had to be gutsy and Koiki was’, as Bonita once said.
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In 1973, Mabo set up Australia’s first Black Community School, in the belief that Aboriginal and TSI children would benefit from both a Western education and an appropriately cultural one. He saw it as ‘the best of both worlds’, and both he and Bonita were actively involved in the running of the school. At the same time, he also became the president of Yumba Meta, the housing association for Aboriginal and TSI tenants and a tireless advocate for people who needed help with other issues. Because none of this made any money, he worked as a gardener at James Cook University and that is where fate decided his course for him. Koiki was a ferocious learner and during his lunch breaks, he would go to the campus library to do research into the history of his beloved Mer. Soon people like Henry Reynolds and Noel Loos, who were academics at the university, befriended him and asked him to give guest lectures on Islander culture. Proud of his heritage, Mabo told them about his ancestry and his land, the place he owned and would go back to one day. Slightly embarrassed, the professors told him that Mer was not, legally speaking, his at all, but that it was Crown Land, belonging to the Commonwealth. Mabo was ‘totally shocked’ and vowed to do something about this.
By this time, Koiki had gotten himself the reputation of a trouble maker and when his father was dying in 1973, the Queensland Government refused him access to Mer. Soon it became clear that he was under surveillance by Joh Bjelke Petersen’s notorious Police Special Branch. Death treats came in and for months Eddie and Bonita slept in the lounge room of their house, in shifts, with a shotgun next to the couch. The worst thing was the fact that he never got to see his father again, something that almost broke his spirit. Instead, Koiki doubled his efforts and in 1981 he was one of the people to speak at a conference on ‘Land rights and the future of Aboriginal race relations’ at James Cook University. Also present were lawyers and barristers, and at the end of proceedings, it was decided that it was time for a High Court challenge to native title. Early in 1982, Eddie and four other Islanders filed a writ, claiming customary ownership of their ancestral lands. It was a case that nobody really thought stood any chance, because it challenged the concept of terra nullius, the idea that Australia had been empty, and therefore for the taking, when the British arrived here in 1788.
Koiki had a choice: appealing this verdict and running the risk of upsetting the larger case, or pulling out and letting his four co-claimants go ahead without him. With his eye on the prize, Mabo chose the latter and in 1992, the High Court ruled.
In 1986, the High Court ordered the Supreme Court of Queensland to conduct the hearings on its behalf. Justice Moynihan was appointed to collect evidence and report back. Over the next couple of years, a lot of people were cross-examined, Eddie Mabo amongst them, but in 1990 Moynihan’s findings appeared to blow up the case. He stated that Koiki was not, in his mind, a valid claimant, because it could not be proven that he had been legally adopted by his uncle and aunt all those years ago. In fact, the judge doubted that Eddie Mabo was Eddie Mabo, because he had been a customary adoption, not one that was officially filed. Koiki had a choice: appealing this verdict and running the risk of upsetting the larger case, or pulling out and letting his four co-claimants go ahead without him. With his eye on the prize, Mabo chose the latter and in 1992, the High Court ruled. It recognised native title, deciding that the community of Mer had a system of land ownership that predated white occupation. A system that was still valid and in place. It was a historic win. The Australian named Eddie Mabo their Australian of the Year and The Age wrote that it was ‘a victory over white arrogance’ and that the judgment was Eddie Mabo’s ‘monument’.
The paper had to use the word ‘monument’, because shortly before the verdict Koiki had died from advanced throat cancer that had spread to his spine. His funeral was the largest Townsville had ever seen, but after the verdict, Australia exploded. Joh’s government tried to legislate against it, but lost when the High Court ruled the Queensland law invalid and discriminatory. Some other state governments, as well as mining and pastoral companies, were furious and spent millions on a racist fear-mongering campaign. Australians were told that this verdict meant they could lose their backyard to Aboriginal and TSI people and it took everything PM Paul Keating had to balance all the interests and still keep the ruling alive. In 1994, the Native Title Act came into force, immediately challenged by WA. Fortunately, this case went the way of the Queensland one: the state lost, the Feds won. Regrettably and to all our shame, the story would have a nasty epitaph. In June 1995, Eddie Mabo’s tombstone was ceremoniously opened, according to Mer custom. The day after the celebrations, the grave was desecrated: red swastika’s and the word ‘abo’ were sprayed on the site and the bust was stolen. Both Keating and Howard, then leader of the Opposition, condemned the attack and offered to relocate the grave to Mer, all expenses paid. In September that year, an Australian air force plane flew the body of Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo to his beloved island. Finally home.
The High Court decision that bears his name is still tested in courts every day. It is not all sunshine and light. Over the years, there have been three amendments to the Native Title Act, and hundreds of cases are languishing in front of the National Native Title Tribunal. Despite that, a very important gain was made: Australian law now recognizes that Aboriginal and TSI people were the first owners of this country and that they have rights to the land that was taken from them. Without Eddie Mabo, this might never have happened, which is why he belongs in our pantheon of Great Australian Mavericks. As he said to one of his friends just before he died: ‘Freedom will come. For us, but for white people too. They have been living a lie, which has become a chain around their necks. They have been bound by it as we have been. Now they will be free. And we are shadows no longer’.