Today, 3 June, we remember the day in 1992 that the legal case brought by Eddie (Koiki) Mabo was decided by the Australian High Court. The court effectively recognised the existence of Native Title rights and rejected the concept of terra nullius, which claimed Australia was a land belonging to no-one prior to British occupation. The judgement opened the way for the passing of the Native Title Act in 1993.
This decision of the High Court was one of the highlights in the area of indigenous affairs during the period that Paul Keating led the federal government. The Mabo case was decided just six months after Keating had become Prime Minister (in December 1991).
The other highlight was the powerful speech that Keating delivered a year later, in December 1992, which is known as the Redfern Speech. In this speech, Keating acknowledged the role played in destroying the culture of the First Peoples by those who invaded and colonised the continent in the early decades of British settlement.
“The problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians”, he declared. “It was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice.”
It was a searing recognition of the multitude of ways in which white Australian society had impacted the long-established cultures of the First Peoples; a recognition of the complicity of white Australia in the devastation of black Australians. It was a clear step beyond anything articulated in public in previous years.
In assessing the period when the Keating Government was in power, Dr John Gardiner-Garden began by referencing Keating’s Redfern speech of December 1992, as well as “his government’s decision to set up a national inquiry into the separation of Indigenous children”. Keating “sought to encourage recognition of past injustices. In his government’s native title and land fund legislation and proposed ‘Social Justice Package’ he sought to advance the process of making amends for the disregard of Indigenous common law rights which the 1992 Mabo judgement had found to have occurred.”
During the years that the Keating Government was in power, the following themes were chosen for each year of NAIDOC WEEK:
1991: Community is Unity—Our Future Depends On Us
1992: Maintain the Dreaming—Our Culture is Our Heritage
1993: Aboriginal Nations—Owners of the Land Since Time Began—Community is Unity
1994: Families Are the Basis of Our Existence—Maintain the Link
1995: Justice Not Tolerance
In 1991, the focus on community in the theme, Community is Unity—Our Future Depends On Us, echoed the earlier themes that referred to community: talking together in the 1983 theme, Let’s talk—we have something to say; seeking understanding in the 1985 theme, Understanding: it takes the two of us; and working towards peace in the 1986 theme, Peace, not for you, not for me, but for all of us. The theme also had a future orientation, expressing hope for what might lie ahead for Aboriginal people: Our Future Depends On Us. That “us” clearly included white and black together, working in common in community.
The 1992 theme, Maintain the Dreaming—Our Culture is Our Heritage, looked back just a couple of years, to the 1990 theme, Don’t Destroy, Learn and Enjoy our Cultural Heritage, and to the 1988 theme, Recognise and Share the Survival of the Oldest Culture in the World. It also referenced the 1978 theme, Cultural Revival is Survival. All four years focussed attention on the long-exisiting culture that was maintained and passed on by indigenous peoples around the continent.
In addition, the 1992 theme included a reference to Dreaming; this is a term, somewhat contentious amongst First Nations people, which has nevertheless seen widespread acceptance and adoption in the wider Australian society. It is generally understood to be a way to refer to the collection of stories that form the foundational mythology of Aboriginal peoples.
Reconciliation Australia, on its website shareourpride.org.au, states that “it is impossible to find words that adequately capture this core element of who we are but it’s something you feel when you sit with us on our country and hear our stories with an open mind and heart.”
The website affirms that “Dreaming is more than a mythical past; it prescribes our connection as Aboriginal people with the spiritual essence of everything around us and beyond us. Dreaming stories are not in the past, they are outside of time – always present and giving meaning to all aspects of life.”
The 1993 theme, Aboriginal Nations—Owners of the Land Since Time Began—Community is Unity, incorporated three distinct phrases. The final phrase looked back by incorporating one phrase of the 1991 theme, Community is Unity. However, the full theme included a clear reference to the struggle that had culminated in the 1992 Mabo decision. It identified Aboriginal people as Owners of the Land Since Time Began. This was the principle underlying the High Court’s Mabo decision, and which then enabled the development of the Native Title Act of that year (1993).
Furthermore, the 1993 theme included a clear declaration that Aboriginal people had not simply been “one nation” before British invasion and settlement commenced in 1788; the reference to the plural, Aboriginal Nations, was highly strategic. It had been the custom in the 19th and 20th centuries for Aboriginal people to be described and treated as a single cultural and historical unit.
By contrast, today, two decades into the 21st century, the claim made by the 1993 theme is widely accepted and commonly spoken. British settlers have dispossessed people from well over 250 different nations right across the continent and its associated islands. The clearest example of this recognition is the map published by the government agency AIATSIS (the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies).
On a website explaining this map, AIATSIS explains that it “attempts to represent the language, social or nation groups of Aboriginal Australia. It shows only the general locations of larger groupings of people which may include clans, dialects or individual languages in a group.”
The map presents a clear lesson in a graphic manner: there were many, many nations across the continent prior to 1788.
The NAIDOC WEEK themes of the next two years continued to articulate core beliefs within Aboriginal culture. The 1994 theme, Families Are the Basis of Our Existence—Maintain the Link, alluded to the 1979 theme, What about our kids?, and would provide a prophetic looking-forward to the key findings of the Bringing Them Home report issued just a few years later, in 1997.
The 1995 theme, Justice Not Tolerance, was a plea to move beyond ideas of merely tolerating indigenous people, and adopt the principles of justice that would see them treated equitably, with wrongs righted and reparations made for past errors.
In March 1996, John Howard’s Liberal Party, in coalition with the National Party, was elected, and formed a government that lasted for the next 11 years. The 1996 and 1997 themes for NAIDOC WEEK continued to provide sharp insights into what was needed in Australian society, even with a more conservative government at the helm. In 1996, the theme was Survive—Revive—Come Alive.
In 1997, the theme was equally pointed, as it,celebrated the 30th anniversary of the 1967 referendum,
Dr John Gardiner-Garden notes the many retrograde steps taken by the new Howard Government: they “dropped the terms ‘social justice’ and ‘self-determination’, withdrew support from many of the initiatives and institutions for which these terms were the raison-d’etre and declared its new priorities to be ‘accountability’, ‘improving outcomes in key areas’ and ‘promoting economic independence’.”
He furthered noted that “Government actions such as creating a Special Auditor, reducing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) funding, amending the Native Title Act and perceived inactions on reconciliation and in responding to the rhetoric of the new One Nation Party placed a strain on relations with the Indigenous community.”
The three events referenced in the 1997 theme, Gurindji, Mabo, and Wik, were pivotal moments in the advancement of Aboriginal claims in the 20th century.
The Gurindji Strike of 1966 was led by Vincent Lingiari. A protest against the Wave Hill station managers resulted in the return of some traditional lands to the Gurindji people under a lease arrangement in 1975, and later led to the granting of inalienable freehold title to this area in 1984.
In the Mabo decision of the High Court, handed down on 3 June 1992, the court recognised the land rights of the Meriam people. They were the traditional owners of some islands in the Torres Strait. Marked on the map as the Murray Islands, the Torres Strait Islanders called these islands Mer, Dauer and Waier). The case is significant because it rejected the view that at the time of colonisation, Australia was terra nullius, or land belonging to no one.
The case had initially been brought in 1982 by five indigenous people. Because Eddie Koiki Mabo was the first plaintiff in the case, it became known as the Mabo Case. In its judgement, the High Court acknowledged that “Indigenous peoples had lived in Australia for thousands of years and enjoyed rights to their land according to their own laws and customs.” See https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/mabo-case
On Eddie Mabo, see https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/eddie-koiki-mabo#toc-the-mabo-case
The Wik judgement of 1996 built on the basis of the Mabo decision. The case related to the right to hold native title in an area where there were pastoral,leases in place. By a majority of 4–3, the High Court agreed that the pastoral leases did not extinguish the native title of the Wik and Tahyorre people of Cape York.
Sadly, the remembering of these three key events during the early years of the retrogressive Howard government, strikes a note of pathos. These advances were not built on by the Howard government. In the ensuing decade, due to the intransigence of the government, things would actually go backwards.