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Why Mabo deserves a holiday


'Mabo Day' by Chris JohnstonOn 3 June 1992 the High Court of Australia handed down the Mabo decision on native title. Each year on 3 June Mabo Day celebrates the anniversary of this decision and Eddie Mabo's unshakeable belief that he owned his ancestral land.

The day is of such significance to the nation that I believe it should be proclaimed a public holiday. It could, perhaps, replace the Queen's Birthday public holiday. This would signify the development of our identity from the days of colonisation, where we relied on our close links with Britain, to today, where we seek to mature as a nation by owning the past and reconciling with Indigenous Australians.

The Mabo decision played a significant role in this process of maturation.

The transformation of our relations with the Indigenous peoples of Australia began in the late 1960s when historians began to investigate the record of relations between Aborigines and Europeans since 1788, and to integrate the Indigenous story into the telling of Australian history.

This revision of Australian history has had an important influence on Australian society. It represents colonisation as invasion, dispossession as theft, frontier conflict as war, the Indigenous response as resistance, the stealing of Indigenous children as genocide, and the lack of moral restraint as racism.

In the Mabo decision, the High Court determined that at the time of the British invasion in 1788, the Indigenous peoples owned the entire continent, including the Islands of Torres Strait. It acknowledged that Indigenous ownership of their traditional land survived the assumption of sovereignty by the British in 1788 and they were entitled to have their title protected under British law.

As the first plaintiff, the ruling bears Mabo's name. He was a traditional owner of land on the Island of Mer in eastern Torres Strait. In the 1960s, he left his homeland to work in Townsville. He was astonished to learn the Torres Strait Islands belonged to the Crown under Australian law.

In 1982, he and other Torres Strait Islanders took the Queensland Government to the High Court to verify their ownership.

In 1992, I was one of many non-Indigenous Australians who viewed the Mabo decision as a tidal wave of justice. The author of the lead judgement, Justice Gerard Brennan, stated that the High Court had entered a process of bringing Australian law into line with universal notions of human rights.

The decision addressed in some measure the violence, shame and racism of our founding story. The Native Title Act is our principal means of making amends for the dispossession of Indigenous Australians, and celebrating Mabo Day as a public holiday would be a recognition of our debt to them.

The most significant development in native title since Mabo occurred in the Wik decision of 1996. The High Court declared that native title rights can co-exist with leasehold title on pastoral leases. The ruling substantiated Indigenous peoples' right to access their lands to engage in customary activities.

As at 28 March 2011, there have been 143 native title determinations declared by the Federal Court of Australia, of which 104 were successful in whole or in part. Determinations of native title including Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUAs) cover 14 per cent of our landmass.

An ILUA is a voluntary agreement between a native title group and others about the use and management of traditional land and waters. They allow claimants to negotiate flexible agreements to suit particular circumstances.

In April 2011, the Australian Human Rights Commission announced the 500th ILUA since 1993 had been registered. ILUAs are legally binding and can develop into native title determinations.

The Mabo decision has transformed dealings between Indigenous peoples and government and has influenced government actions outside native title. In most states, there is a legislative framework for involving Indigenous people in ownership and joint management of national parks and other land of cultural significance to them.

Indigenous leaders describe positive native title determinations as a fillip to their peoples' self-esteem. They cite restitution of Indigenous peoples' right to camp on their land and to hunt, fish, gather plants and protect places of cultural significance as enhancing identity.

There has been considerable disparity in our relationship with Indigenous peoples since Federation in 1901, where Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders were not acknowledged as part of the new nation. Celebrating Mabo Day as a public holiday is one way to signify our respect for our Indigenous peoples as traditional owners of the continent.

Paul W. NewburyPaul W Newbury writes on indigenous, environmental and sustainability issues. In 1999, he was editor and principal author of Aboriginal Heroes of the Resistance from Pemulwuy to Mabo published by the social justice organisation Action for World Development. 

Topic tags: Eddie Mabo, Native Title, Federation, Colonisation, Wik, Gerard Brennan, high court, Indigenous



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Existing comments

I think Paul has a good idea here. The present June holiday commemorates the birthday of George V who died over 70 years ago. A change in name from Queen's Birthday to Mabo Day without a change in date would be painless for those who just see it as a chance for a long weekend, avoids the inevitable conflict that would arise if we tried to change the name of Oz Day, and could be the focus for a developing celebration of our 'First Peoples', their cultures, and their contribution to the nation. NZ has its Waitangi Day, Canada also has a day to recognise its First Nations people. We did away with Empire Day (Victoria's birthday) long ago, it's time now to put George V to bed. Why not Mabo Day for us?

Ginger Meggs | 30 May 2011  

A holiday is good but the real issue is land. Unfortunately the Mabo decision gave little justice to out of country aboriginal people or those without a "provable" continuing connection to land. Three For The Third or Three For Three is my suggestion: a genuine national effort at empowering aboriginal people, who are approximately three percent of the population for restoration of as much aboriginality as possible on three percent of the land in all areas of the commonwealth where less than three percent of the land is now aboriginal. This could be down on crown land and therefore threaten noone's private property.

geoff fox | 03 June 2011  

A very good idea!

Peter Johnstone | 03 June 2011  

We should have both holidays- such a day would give all Australia a great chance to celebrate and share our indigenous heritage. But of course the hard "R"s politicians of this country will never give us another holiday to celebrate - we must instead work ourselves to death in the name of productivity.

Joacham Hyman | 03 June 2011  

Paul Mabo Day? I have no strong feelings one way or the other. However, hands off the Queens Birthday. Not all of us wish to cut the links with our heritage. Remember that we the voters kicked referendum on the republic ‘enthusiastically’ to the kerb, largely because the so-called republicans didn’t know what sort of republic they wanted. The process also demonstrated that inside every politician there is another politician trying to get out. If you must establish another day off work make a new one, in fact make two: the first day for Eddie Mabo to celebrate his place in history and the second day to honour and celebrate our most engaging national characteristic. Call the former ‘Eddy Mabo Day and call the latter ‘National Xenophobia Day’. Let our national day symbol be a three metre tall Bogan wearing a Tony Abbot tee shirt and sitting on the front wing of a V8 gas guzzler clutching a can of beer in one hand, and in the other a flag emblazoned with the humanitarian message ‘Go Bax To Were Yerz Come From’. The colour scheme of both car and flag must be black and red.

Dermott Ryder | 03 June 2011  

We should have both holidays- such a day would give all Australia a great chance to celebrate and share our indigenous heritage. But of course the hard "R"s politicians of this country will never give us another holiday to celebrate - we must instead work ourselves to death in the name of productivity.

Joacham Hyman | 03 June 2011  

Hooray for new vision and the courage to speak the reality of australian life...!

patricia bouma | 03 June 2011  

I agree that Paul has a good idea. Celebrating Queens birthday is an anachronism. Perhaps a change to Mabo Day might need to await the our change to a republic as a consequential change.

Tony Santospirito | 03 June 2011  

I think the idea of replacing the Queens Birthday with a Mabo Day is well worth pursuing and Paul Newbury is right when he suggests that this would reflect the growing maturity of Australia. Australia is still actively making the long, slow journey out of its dark colonial past. The 1967 Referendum, the Mabo and Wik determinations of the High Court , the National Apology to the Stolen Generations, have all been indicators of this continuing maturity. There is so much more to be done to address Aboriginal disadvantage. But such momentum propels us positively, as a nation, to the inevitable reality of becoming a Republic, redrafting our Constitution to represent our new awareness and boldly re-imagining our destiny as a sovereign nation.

SHANE HOWARD | 03 June 2011  

I couldn't agree more. May the name change come soon and may we all live in peace.

Mary Mackillop | 03 June 2011  

I agree wholeheartedly and thank you for your clarity and argument. I hope you have sent this on to our Prime Minister and Minister who is respnsible for Indigenous relationships, etc.

Linda Shaw | 04 June 2011  

Maybe it could become a new "Australia Day" to replace January 26 - which is clearly an affront to indigenous people.

Russell Kilgour | 05 June 2011  

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