House debates

Wednesday, 5 December 2018


Mabo, Dr Bonita, AO

11:01 am

Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Preventing Family Violence) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to firstly acknowledge traditional country—the Ngambri and Ngunawal people of this part of Australia. I rise to acknowledge today, as many other people have done, including the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, the passing of Dr Mabo. Dr Mabo was an activist for social justice, for human rights and for her people. She was an educator. She was one of 10 children and a mother of 10 herself. I knew her and her family. She was a daughter of the South Sea Islands and a mother who raised Torres Strait Islander children, and that combination, of course, is something that we see very much in northern Australia. Dr Mabo's story is the story of First Nations women in this country. Her history is the history of First Nations women.

She was married to one of the most famous Torres Strait Islanders we have seen in our nation's story, and of course that was Eddie Koiki Mabo. Bonita herself was a descendant of Ni-Vanuatuans, and that shameful story of blackbirding in our country, part of the Australian truth-telling, is something that is not well known. She described the first time that she met Eddie as love at first sight, and I've heard Eddie's voice on the radio saying the same thing. They married at Ingham in 1959. Between them, they had seven children of their own and adopted three into their family, such is the way of First Nations people.

The Mabo name is, as I said, synonymous with a component of reconciliation—truth-telling, the great truth of this nation, one that our maps and, up until recently, our public discourse has denied. As we travel across our continent, we travel through hundreds of individual sovereign nation states, each with their own laws, customs and histories that were never lost or forgotten by our people.

It was in 1972 that Eddie began the battle, with the support of Bonita, his family and his community, for justice and land rights, when he, Bonita and their family were refused permission by the Queensland government to return to Murray Island, where Eddie's father was dying. It was a seminal moment and a part of that terrible, terrible injustice that many people have faced in this country. The 1992 High Court decision 20 years later and the subsequent passage of the 1993 Native Title Act in this place marked a fundamental shift in the place of First Nations people in this country.

Dr Mabo said at the time:

I was his wife, but that's as far as it went. I've got nothing to do with the land, that was his fight. He had to fight for his land. It was hard at times. When things were a bit tough on him, I had to wear it. But other than that I knew it was hard for him, and I couldn't do anything to help. We just hung in there.

Of course, Eddie never lived to see that famous decision, that wonderful decision in 1992, and he certainly didn't see the passage of the Native Title Act in 1993. But, whilst he didn't see it himself, his family did; his community did. And that is what is important.

Bonita Mabo put her family first, and we can see that in her actions. We also know that, for many tens of thousands of years, First Nations women have been responsible for carrying our dreaming stories, songlines, languages and knowledge on raising children that have kept our culture strong and enriched us as the oldest continuing culture on the planet. And Dr Mabo embraced this. She exemplified it.

In 1973, she co-founded and operated, with her husband, the Townsville Black Community School. It was revolutionary at the time, and I actually have memories of that revolution. Disenchanted with the Queensland curriculum's approach to Indigenous education, Eddie and two other teachers worked for half-pay to help establish the school, and Bonita worked as an organiser and teacher's assistant. The school and the concept of the school were received with hostility in the political environment of the era, from politicians to the media to the local community. It is difficult to envisage undertaking such an innovative and groundbreaking initiative at the height of the Bjelke-Petersen era, knowing full well that they would be met with such misplaced rage and misunderstanding. Such is the mark of the woman. The then state minister for education denounced the motives of the students' parents, declaring their attitudes as 'racist' and the school as 'apartheid in reverse'—so ironic in the Bjelke-Petersen era! The school, which, at its peak, had 45 students enrolled in the late seventies, reshaped our attitudes towards the importance of Indigenous education and the significance of Indigenous culture and history—not just for First Nations children but for all Australian children.

Eddie died some six months before the handing down of the High Court decision, as I said, and Bonita supported Eddie throughout this time, whilst raising her family and dealing with the many things that she had to deal with. And of course Bonita was a quiet, solid person, and she quietly went about her business. There is a saying that still waters run deep. She was stoic, determined, and quietly impatient. So it is that Bonita's story and the story of First Nations women—these strong First Nations women—you will seldom see on television. But I tell you: she was a hero for so many. She helped so many. And she meant an enormous amount to every single Australian.

It was just last year of course—the 25th anniversary of the Mabo decision. I remember Bonita coming to this place with her daughter Gail, who I know very well, and, of course, Jenny Macklin, who had been a great friend to Bonita for so long, and that was a celebration. Bonita, in her wheelchair, with Gail came onto the floor of the parliament, and everyone celebrated her being there and celebrated why she was there.

What was so touching was: just four days before Dr Mabo's death, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters by James Cook University—such a fitting thing to happen. Of course, her husband, Eddie, had worked there, as a groundsman, many years before.

It would have been difficult to envisage, back in '73, 45 years ago this year, in the early days of the Townsville Black Community School, with what the press were saying at the time, and with what our political leaders were saying at the time, the unanimous praise in our parliament from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. I was so pleased when both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition marked the passing of Bonita Mabo.

Her deeds, her example and her story show us that what may seem scary and fearful, uncharted or unprecedented today, can be our history, our legacy, tomorrow. Of course there is a great desire in this nation now for the need for truth-telling, and, really, I will never forget the role that Bonita and her family and her late husband played, in terms of telling the truth in this country. That High Court decision was remarkable. It, for all of us, as Australians, threw out the legal doctrine of terra nullius and, for the first time, in 1992, recognised Aboriginal peoples' connection to country.

I know that the member for Jagajaga, Jenny Macklin, was a very close friend to Bonita, and I particularly wanted to mention Jenny and that relationship today. I say to Gail and her family: we won't be able to be there tomorrow in Townsville for the state funeral—and I'm very pleased that the Palaszczuk government has determined that it should be a state funeral; it's absolutely, absolutely, fitting—but every single member of this parliament, on both sides of parliament, will, I am sure, take a moment to reflect on the Bonita Mabo story, of the story of her family, and the incredible role that her family has played in shaping this story of this nation. It is a role that all of us are recipients of, and a role that has made Australia a very much better place.

Finally, I say once again to Gail and her family: we can't be there tomorrow—there will be representatives, I am sure—but our thoughts are with you for your mum's next journey in life.

Photo of Craig LaundyCraig Laundy (Reid, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Barton for her heartfelt words.

11:11 am

Photo of Kelly O'DwyerKelly O'Dwyer (Higgins, Liberal Party, Minister for Jobs) Share this | | Hansard source

In decades past, Australia has been lifted by many great Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, and I feel very privileged to be following on from the member for Barton, who, of course, is the first Aboriginal woman who has been elected to the House of Representatives and certainly fits in that pantheon. Pearl Gibbs, Dr Evelyn Scott and Mum Shirl are just some of the names of women who fought courageously for their people and against prejudice and the injustices of their times; women who made Australia a better country.

Last week another incredible woman passed—Bonita Mabo. Dr Mabo campaigned alongside her late husband, Eddie Mabo, in pursuit of land rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In the famous Mabo v Queensland court case, Eddie Mabo successfully challenged the notion of terra nullius—that Australia was a 'land belonging to no-one'—in the High Court of Australia. Their fight lasted more than a decade. Sadly, Eddie Mabo did not live to see that landmark decision which paved the way for the Native Title Act 1993. In 2017, Bonita recalled the moment she heard about the High Court decision.

We were just outside of Sydney and we stopped and pulled up on the side of the road and Malita rang us and said 'dad won the decision, won the case', she said.

And we just jumped out and we just hugged each other. And we were as proud as punch.

Following her husband's death in 1992, Dr Mabo continued her activism for a new cause—the rights of Australian South Sea Islander people. During an award ceremony for an honorary doctorate from James Cook University just a week before she died, her 45 years of campaigning for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and Australian South Sea Islanders was recognised. She has been described by her people as 'one of the greatest matriarchs of all time'.

Bonita was born in Ingham, Queensland, one of 10 children. Eddie and Bonita also had 10 children. She was an Australian South Sea Islander of Ni-Vanuatu descent whose ancestors were indentured and sent to Australia to work in the sugarcane industry in the 19th century—known as blackbirding. In 1973 Eddie and Bonita established the Black Community School in Townsville, where children could learn about their own culture. In later years she fought for South Sea Islanders to be recognised in Australia as their own distinct ethnic group. She was recognised in the Order of Australia in 2013 for 'distinguished service to the Indigenous community and to human rights'.

Tomorrow we say our final farewell to Dr Mabo AO. We think of her family, we think of her friends and we think of all of the lives that she has touched. I would like to thank her for her tireless work to make Australia a better country. On behalf of our nation, we are very grateful.