House debates

Thursday, 3 June 2021


Mabo Native Title Decision: 29th Anniversary, Uluru Statement from the Heart

11:53 am

Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Today marks the 29th anniversary of the High Court decision on Mabo. Ten years before, Eddie Koiki Mabo and his comrades started the legal battle for the recognition of the Meriam people and the ownership of Mer Island. Until that day, the legal fiction of terra nullius, the land belonging to no-one, had characterised Australian law and land titles since the voyage of Captain Cook. The High Court decision in Mabo today 29 years ago changed the legal face of landownership for First Nations people forever, and it changed in a seismic way Australian law, with the recognition of common law rights in native title.

The most important thing to remember about that day for First Nations people is that it threw out the legal doctrine of terra nullius. This had been, for nearly 200 years in this country, the way in which land title was seen—that the Australian continent, including the Torres Strait, as claimed by the British under that doctrine belonged to no-one. We know, with over 60,000 years of history of management of country and connection to country, that that was an absolutely ridiculous notion, yet it was the law in this country until Eddie Koiki Mabo and his comrades had it overturned in the High Court.

On Monday this week, along with the Leader of the Labor Party and many caucus members, I went to the ACT government's fourth annual Reconciliation Day up at the National Arboretum. It was an amazing experience to see so many people from Canberra, families, out and about. The Australian Capital Territory is the only jurisdiction in Australia that has a national holiday to remind the country it is Reconciliation Week. Reconciliation Week finished yesterday. It is bookended, of course, by 27 May, which reminds us of the referendum that saw Aboriginal people counted for the first time in the Australian census and gave to the Commonwealth government responsibility for laws pertaining to Aboriginal people, and by today, which is now known as Mabo Day.

One thing that's important to note is that we have just had the fourth anniversary of the Uluru statement. Labor is fully supportive, as the member for Berowra, who is in the Chamber, knows. I know of his involvement with and support for the Uluru statement, and I acknowledge that. The Uluru statement contains three things. The first is an enshrined voice in the Constitution. Labor have made a commitment that we will have a referendum towards that goal in our first term of government. The other thing is the establishment of a makarrata commission, which has two incredibly complex, lengthy and expensive things to do. They are a national process of truth-telling and a national process of agreement and treaty. Neither of those things are easy, but Labor is putting meat on the bones of what they might look like, what they might cost and how we might take them forward. I want to make it very, very clear that a voice to the parliament, in whatever form it takes, does not mean that we cannot proceed on the other parts of the Uluru statement.

On Monday night, of course, we also had a wonderful example of Aboriginal people talking to the Australian community.