20th Anniversary of the Mabo Judgment

I spoke in parliament today on the 20th anniversary of the Mabo judgment.



20th Anniversary of the Mabo Judgment
25 June 2012


Imagine the moment in 1974 when, talking with his friends, Eddie Koiki Mabo realised his land was owned by the Crown, not by him and his people. Noel Loos and Henry Reynolds recall: 'Koiki was surprised and shocked'. He had kept saying, 'No way, it's not theirs. It's ours.' It would turn out to be one of the most significant moments in Australian history. From then to the historic High Court decision of 3 June 1992 Eddie Mabo showed us that a deeper appreciation of Indigenous Australia is the responsibility of all Australians and that the recognition of Indigenous history and culture and the challenges it faces is not an optional part of being Australian but is essential to who we are.

Eddie Mabo Day, 3 June, helps us identify, acknowledge and celebrate all Indigenous Australians and their contribution to our nation. It is a critical part in the process of reconciliation. But it is also a great moment to celebrate the life of a great Australian and to remember a man of extraordinary vision, warmth and intelligence. Eddie Mabo's story is one in which I think Australians can take great pride. I think it is also a reminder that Australia is at its strongest when we remember the stories of Indigenous Australians.

One of the books that have made an impression on me is Stories of the Ngunnawal, a collection of stories of the local Ngunawal people. To me those stories reflect that so much of what Eddie Mabo was facing was also being faced here in the Canberra region. There had been suggestions in the middle of the 20th century that the last remnants of the Ngunawal people had gone. An article in the Canberra Times in 1985 said, according to the writers, it was felt the last remnants of the Aboriginal tribes of this area were gone by 1911 with the deaths of Ned and Lucy Carroll at the Edgerton mission station.  The article went on to say that reports of the extinction of the Ngunawal people had been greatly exaggerated 'according to a very much alive survivor, Mr Tom Phillips of Kambah'. Tom Phillips was indeed a character. One story has him being arrested while walking naked in the Namadji area. Apparently he was called into a courtroom with a blanket wrapped around him. The judge said, 'What are you doing, walking around like that? You can't walk around like that in front of people.' Mr Phillips said to the judge: 'Mate, I'm an Aboriginal. I was born naked, and I'll walk around how I want. I'm not going to sit here and listen to a man sitting there with a dead carcass on his head telling me I can't do this and that. I'll walk around how I want.'

Another great survivor of the Ngunawal people is Auntie Agnes Shea. She is a familiar sight to those of us who attend conferences in Canberra because she is one of the most frequent of those to welcome attendees to country. Auntie Agnes tells the story about how as a young girl she did not learn the Ngunawal language. She says: 'The elders decided that, if we kept using it at home, we wouldn't do it intentionally but automatically we'd use it if we were off down the town or somewhere, and it would get us into trouble.' By that, she means the risk of being taken away from her parents. Auntie Agnes says: 'So they forbade us to use our language, for our protection, and that's how we came to lose so much of the Ngunawal language. I was around seven or eight around then.'

It is a great source of pride to me to be a federal member representing the land of Ngunawal people, to be able to remember some of their stories and recognise the great strength of Indigenous Australia and that we are greater as a country thanks to that Indigenous heritage. This is, I think, broadly recognised by both sides of parliament, on this the 20th anniversary of the Mabo judgment, but it was not always thus. The Attorney-General, in a speech on 6 June, reminded her audience of some of the history of the Mabo case. She said:

'Disenfranchised by the Bjelke-Petersen government, Eddie Mabo, David and Sam Passi, Celuia Salee and James Rice, all from the Meriam people, set themselves the seemingly improbable task of literally creating a space for indigenous rights to land and waters—where previously this had been said to be an impossibility.'

She pointed out that the Bjelke-Petersen government dogmatically attempted to legislate away any prospect of native title, that Tim Fischer had said that native title was unnecessary as 'dispossession of Aboriginal civilisation was always going to happen' and that Hugh Morgan said that the High Court had thrown property law into chaos and 'given substance to the ambitions of Australian communists and the Bolshevik left for a separate Australian state'. She pointed out that Tim Fischer said: 'Mabo has the capacity to put a brake on Australian investment, break the economy and break up Australia—a brake, a break and a break-up we can do without,' and that John Hewson, after native title legislation passed the parliament, in December 1993, described it as a 'day of shame'. John Hewson said:

'The Coalition is totally opposed to this piece of legislation. It is bad legislation. It will prove to be a disaster for Australia. It goes way beyond the High Court. It introduces inequities into the Australian system. It consciously sets out to divide the Australian nation and there is only one thing you can do with bad legislation and that is to throw it out.'

The reason I quote all these statements made two decades ago by a business leader and prominent members of the opposition is that they remind us of what the Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency has called the divide in Australian politics between the reformers and the wreckers. It reminds us that almost every reform that is now held dear in Australia was not gotten through bipartisan agreement but was hard-fought-for at the time. Great reform never comes easy. It is often opposed at the moment at which it is fought for. But in so many cases Australia can now look back to great Labor reforms like native title with a sense of pride. I believe it will be so for the great Labor reforms like a price on carbon, a mining tax, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the National Broadband Network.

Reconciliation works best in Australia when it is not just self-flagellatory reconciliation—although there were great wrongs done—but when it also operates with a sense of pride. The moment in the 2000 Olympics when Cathy Freeman won gold and the moment when she lit the Olympic flame were moments that did as much for the cause of reconciliation as perhaps all the honourable speeches of this kind. There was the moment when Gough Whitlam poured sand into the hand of Vincent Lingiari and Lingiari said to him, 'We're all mates now'. These sparks of positive reconciliation are a great source of pride for all Australians, and it is with a great sense of pride that I remember the 20th anniversary of the Mabo judgment.
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