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RIP David Passi, last surviving Mabo plaintiff

Frank Brennan |  25 June 2017


Anglican priest, traditional landowner and land rights campaigner David Passi has died. He was the last surviving plaintiff in the historic Mabo decision.

Fr Frank Brennan SJ with David Passi on Thursday IslandA year after the Mabo decision I travelled to the Torres Strait and met James Rice and Passi, the two successful litigants in the case. Returning by boat to the mainland from the island of Mer in the Murray Islands, the waters of the Torres Strait were exceedingly calm. As the sun glistened on the water, Passi, the Anglican pastor of the Island of Mer, stood at the back of the speed boat pointing at a small island close to the shore, declaring, 'That's Possession Island.'

He smiled broadly as he explained this was the place where James Cook came ashore after his epic voyage up the Australian eastern coastline in 1770, raising his king's flag and claiming possession in his majesty's name of all he had sailed past. Passi chuckled, 'Cook had his back to the Torres Strait when he claimed possession.'

Next day at Bamaga on the tip of Cape York, David explained the significance of the Mabo decision to a meeting of his fellow Anglican clergy. His people believe that in ancient times a figure named Malo set down the law for relations between islanders regarding their lands and waters. All islanders speak of the myth of Malo-Bomai.

Malo and his maternal uncle made a long sea journey from West New Guinea across to Mer in the east. These mythical heroes, Malo resembling an octopus, brought the eight peoples or clans into one, 'strengthening them with the qualities of a diversity of sea creatures, so giving the power to match the sea and make long journeys across Malo, the deep seas, for canoes and for battle'.

In this part of Australia, the Indigenous people define themselves in relation to land, sea, each other and seasonal time or prevailing wind. Passi, known also as Kebi Bala, explained Malo's law:

'For thousands of years we have owned the land and Malo who was the Meriam centre of it made sure that members of the society were given land. They are our laws. We have Malo ra Gelar.

'It says that Malo keeps to his own place; Malo does not trespass in another man's property. Malo keeps his hands to himself. He does not touch what is not his. He does not permit his feet to carry him towards other men's property. His hands are not grasping. He holds them back. He does not wander from his path. He walks on tip-toe, silent and careful, leaving no signs to tell that this is the way he took.'


"He will be remembered for bringing great moral authority to the understanding of how the Meriam people reconciled their traditional observance of Malo's law with Christianity." — Greg McIntyre, Mabo court case solicitor


Passi explained that since colonisation there have been two laws, 'the white man's law and Malo's law'. Holding up one of his arms, Passi told us that Malo's law is respectful of people's history and connection with the land. But it is a weak law. Holding up his other arm, he told us that the white man's law is strong. It believes might is right. Bringing both arms together, he told us that those who believe in Malo's law have to convince those who practise the white man's law that Malo's law is right. Might alone is not right. Together the two laws can make the right moral law strong and enduring for everyone.

On hearing the news of Passi's passing, Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator the Hon. Nigel Scullion, said: 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's rights and interests in land have today been formally recognised over more than 40 per cent of Australia's land mass. This is in no small part a testament to the courage and determination of Fr Passi and the four other plaintiffs who fought so hard to have their land and sea rights acknowledged.'

The Member for Leichhardt, the Hon. Warren Entsch MP, said: 'Father Passi has certainly been an inspiration to our people and to our nation. His positive legacy to the Torres Strait community will live on and he will always be remembered with a great deal of admiration and fondness by those who had the privilege of knowing him.'

Mabo court case solicitor, Greg McIntyre, said: 'He will be remembered for bringing great moral authority to the claim and an understanding of how the Meriam people reconciled their traditional observance of Malo's law with Christianity.'

May Fr David Passi rest in peace. I was privileged to know him.


Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.

Main image: Fr Frank Brennan SJ with David Passi on Thursday Island



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Submitted comments

I worked in the Torres Strait some years ago delivering the babies, trying to save lives and burying the dead. I was struck by the enormous cultural differences between the three indigenous peoples spanning the region, the Papua - New Guineans, the Torres Strait Islanders and the Australian aborigines. From above down (NG to Aust), from head hunters via cannibals to the more docile Australian aborigine, the fear of each other due to their differing physical threat and warlike tendencies was balanced in the opposite direction by the fear of the power of magic and sorcery from Aborigine across the less powerful Island witch doctors to the relatively impotent Papuan medicine men. The balance meant that the different peoples lived in remarkable harmony. They were all very different, however, and it did not surprise that the Torres Strait Islanders were the ones to lead the charge in the campaign for land rights. They were far more culturally advanced that the other indigenous people of the region - similar perhaps to the Maori who stood up to the English invaders both militarily and as a united people. The Torres Strait Islanders were a united people unlike the others and survived far better in maintaining their culture as Father Passi outlined. They lived a far more ordered and settled life and were not as easily destroyed by the Anglo Saxon's alcohol, an accident of inheritance. The Anglican diocese of Carpentaria was also very strong and the Islanders made very good Christians compared with the other indigines despite a long standing missionary presence of other Christian denominations particularly in Australia. It would be a wonderful thing if the Australian aborigine could somehow take a leaf out of the Islanders book - perhaps they were too widely dispersed over the vast land compared with the very small inhabited land mass of the Strait and were not as united as the Islanders and the Maoris. The tyranny of size of distance, I suppose, which did not serve them well.

john frawley 27 June 2017

May Fr David Passi rest in peace. He and Fr Frank Brennan once stayed with me one night. This photograph is taken outside the Sacred Heart Mission Church on Thursday Island.

Tyrone Deere 29 June 2017

Vale Fr Passi. I love the photo accompanying this article. Such affection and shared joy.

Jorie Ryan 29 June 2017

Tyrone, you took the photo! Thanks so much. Who'd have thought all these years later?

Frank Brennan SJ 29 June 2017

This is real social history; firsthand and priceless; and could be in every Australian school history book.

Dr Marty Rice 01 July 2017

Thanks Frank. Your article reminds me of that scene in the Mission where the Jesuit Priest played by Jeremy Irons says, "if might is right then Love has no place in the world, and I cannot live in such a world".

Nick Dunstan 14 July 2017

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