June the 3rd is Mabo Day and commemorates the courageous efforts of Eddie Koiki Mabo to overturn the fiction of terra nullius (land belonging to no-one), the legal concept that Australia and the Torres Strait Islands were not owned by Indigenous peoples because they did not ‘use’ the land in ways Europeans believed constituted some kind of legal possession. This idea was used to give ‘legitimacy’ for the British and later colonial and Australia governments to allow the dispossession of all Indigenous peoples of their land and access to it. Whether an Aboriginal group lost its land to colonial settlement/invasion in 1788, 1880 or 1970, the argument was that they never owned it, never had internationally recognisable legal entitlement to it and therefore could be considered trespassers on Crown land and would not be able to claim any compensation for its loss.
Koiki Mabo and his legal team fought hard to demonstrate that he and his people had traditional land ownership systems on Mer. The case went to the High Court. Unfortunately Eddie Mabo died 5 months before the historic decision came on 3 June 1992 that ‘native title’ did exist and it was up to the people of Mer to determine who owned the land.
In 2002 Bonita Mabo, Eddie’s wife, called for a national public holiday. Eddie and Bonita’s son, Eddie Mabo Jr, said:
“We believe that a public holiday would be fitting to honour and recognise the contribution to the High Court decision of not only my father and his co-plaintiffs, James Rice, Father Dave Passi, Sam Passi and Celuia Salee, but also to acknowledge all Indigenous Australians who have empowered and inspired each other.
To date we have not had a public holiday that acknowledges Indigenous people and which recognises our contribution, achievements and survival in Australia.
A public holiday would be a celebration all Australians can share in with pride – a celebration of truth that unites Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and a celebration of justice that overturned the legal myth of terra nullius – Mabo symbolises truth and justice and is a cornerstone of Reconciliation”