Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Speech to the Native Title Conference celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Mabo High Court decision

Location: Townsville

Acknowledging our History, Shaping our Future


I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of land on which we meet, the Wulgurakaba (Wool-garook-arbar) and Bindal (Bin-del) people, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

I acknowledge all traditional owners here today.

I congratulate those among you who have already been recognised by the Court. Those among you whose claims are pending, I wish you strength and courage for the journey.

I acknowledge:

  • Mrs Bonita Mabo and her family,
  • Mr Neil Sterritt from the Gitxan (Git-san) Nation; and
  • My Cabinet colleague and friend, Attorney General Nicola Roxon.

It’s a pleasure to be with you today, to commemorate the incredible achievements of Eddie Koiki Mabo and his people.

And it’s a privilege to join you for this important conversation about how we build on his legacy, how we continue our efforts to make legal recognition work for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The meaning of Mabo

Twenty years ago, the Mabo decision put right a chapter of our nation’s history.

In hearing the persuasive and incontrovertible arguments of a man and his people, the High Court’s decision saw past a falsehood to a future.

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating couldn’t join us today, but asked that I read to you his message:

The most important revelation arising from Eddie Mabo’s claim and the High Court’s decision was that an ancient title connected to the traditional occupation of the land by Aboriginal and Islander people had survived the act of sovereignty.

Gone was the pretence that Australia was a land of no-one; that its history and title to its lands began in January 1788. The decision established an essential truth …

On 3 June 1992, as Prime Minister, I saw this revelation as an opportunity. An opportunity to deal with the longest continuing problem Australia faced: the fundamental colonial grievance; the dispossession of the Indigenous peoples and the injustices associated with the dispossession …

It is a matter of great satisfaction to me that I held high public office when this opportunity came along. It is also a matter of great satisfaction to me that the Australian Labor Party stuck with the principles enunciated in Mabo No 2 and saw the legislative task to finality – against the vehement opposition of the conservative parties.

Twenty years passes quickly but at least in these past twenty years, some important justice was rendered – though there is more to accomplish.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have much cause to celebrate this milestone event.

The achievement of Eddie Mabo, and those who fought with him for recognition — and for justice — changed the course of history.

They exposed a falsehood and revealed a fact – that when British settlers arrived, Indigenous Australians were already here.

And by confronting a nation with this fact, they showed us a path to a different future.

Eddie Mabo’s strength and bravery reminded us, Australians, that we could be strong and brave.

A story of struggle

Eddie Mabo was not alone in making us listen.

He was joined in the long battle by his co-applicants David Passi and James Rice. His life partner Bonita and his family. And his legal team of the late Ron Castan, Bryan Keon-Cohen and Greg McIntyre.

And there have been others, before and since, whose courage and commitment has built a foundation for recognition, and who keep working today to turn that recognition into a reality.

Many who worked for land justice — including of course, the man whose name means so much to us, 20 years on — did not live to see the Mabo decision.

Many have not been able to enjoy the recognition of their own traditional land.

But for those for whom the fight continues — for recognition and for realisation — remember this:

You walk in the footsteps of early political activists like Jack Patten, William Ferguson and Pearl Gibbs; the leaders of the 1946 Pilbara strike, Dooley Bin Bin and Clancy McKenna, and the Indigenous members of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders who led us to the 1967 Referendum.

You follow the path of the early land rights heroes such as Vincent Lingiari and his people who led the 1966 Wave Hill walk off.

And echo the call of Munggurrawuy (Mung-gara-woy), the father of Galarrwuy Yunupingu, the call of Roy Marika and the Yolngu authors of the bark petition.

Of those who brought the Gove Land Rights case of 1971 — the first formal legal challenge to have native title recognised in Australia.

Of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders who brokered the passage of the Native Title Act — Lowitja O’Donoghue, Marcia Langton, David Ross, Mick Dodson, Noel Pearson, and their contemporaries, some of whom join us here today.

Of the native title claimants who have worked their way through the system in the years since Mabo.

You join those in industry and on the land who fought the opposition of their own to bring business and pastoralists to the cause of land rights, like the late Rick Farley, Leon Davis in his time as CEO of RioTinto, and Mark Liebler at Reconciliation Australia.

Today, we still travel the road, and a new generation of leaders are forging change. More change is still to come.

Just last week, I met with the young people of the Indigenous Youth Parliament. It is both reassuring and inspiring to know that already there is a generation waiting in the wings to carry the mantle from those of you here today who continue to lead us to change.

Without the leadership of each of successive generation, the Australian nation would not have found the will and determination to enact the statutory land rights schemes in the Northern Territory, South Australia, New South Wales, and to lesser extents, in Queensland and Victoria.

The path still to travel

We know there is work still to be done.

The realisation of the economic potential of property rights remains out of reach for many Indigenous people.

And while we have ended the tyranny of terra nullius and the silence of sorry, our nation’s founding document remains silent on the First Australians.

It doesn’t identify the special place Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples hold in our nation, and it doesn’t recognise the relationship — and rights — of the First Australians to country.

We need more acts — of recognition, of reconciliation and of realisation.

And like we needed Eddie Mabo to make his case to the High Court, we need this generation of leaders to continue your work to drive us forward.

We need to inspire a nation to come together in support of constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.

To work with communities and with governments to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage.

To drive economic opportunity and prosperity, including from land, for Indigenous people.

In Government, we have serious responsibilities.

We are building on the goodwill of the National Apology to Indigenous Australians, in particular the Stolen Generations, to start a new conversation to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Srait Islander people in our constitution.

And while we in government can participate in this conversation, we can’t be all the voices in it. We need Indigenous leaders, and non-Indigenous leaders too, to build a chorus of voices for change.

We are working with Indigenous Australians to close the gap — for the first time, with clear and measurable targets to achieve that goal in health, education, safety, housing, employment and life expectancy.

And while we are combatting decades of underinvestment, and ending the merry-go-round of failed policies that have blighted generations of Australians, Indigenous people stress to me the importance of their children getting a good education and having the opportunity of a real job.

We continue our work with Indigenous people to make sure that native title and the legislative and administrative framework which has been built around it serves Indigenous people as it is intended.

Twenty years on from the historic achievement of Eddie Mabo and the people who fought for recognition of their land, we know we need to continue our shared work to deliver on the promise of that decision.

Today, the native title system is made up not only of people claiming title under the Act, but a growing number of already determined native title holders.

We want to make sure the system is delivering for these people.

As Minister Roxon as indicated, we are committed to continuing to reform the native title system to keep improving the way it works for Indigenous people.

And I am announcing today the terms of reference for a review of native title organisations.

As the native title system has matured, the landscape in which these organisations work has changed. Now is an appropriate time to review how they can best work for people in the future.

We are also investing in the capacity of native title representative bodies, through training, professional development, placements and scholarship programs managed by the Aurora Project and the work of the Native Title Research Unit at AIATSIS.

Over the next three years, the Australian Government will invest $7.8 million in this important work.

Because we want to continue our work with traditional owners and our work with state and territory governments to address the land tenure challenges to ensure that traditional owners can realise the economic potential of their land, if they choose to do so.

We must continue to respect the communal and inalienable basis of traditional lands and, at the same time, ensure pathways through which Indigenous owners can make that same land attractive for commercial investment where they choose to do so. We must equip owners and investors to raise finance from the private sector, and minimise the costs of doing business on Aboriginal land.

This requires innovation and collaborative, creative thinking from us all.

In the context of statutory land rights, we have approached these issues by pursuing voluntarily negotiated long term leases. Leases are one important mechanism which can support effective service delivery and support individuals and families to own a home or start a business. They can provide the platform for well-maintained social housing on Indigenous land, with fair and consistent property and tenancy management. And leases acknowledge and protect the underlying ownership of the land by Aboriginal people.

I am delighted to see that the Northern Land Council approved over 270 leases last week including a large number of leases over social housing and government assets and leases to support local enterprises. I thank them for their work with us on this.

The beneficiaries of these agreements are the land owners who decided to grant the lease so that they could benefit from investment, and so that their communities would have more choices and better services as a result.

I also look forward to good results on leases in the CLC region where much great work is also being done.

We need to collaborate with Indigenous people on similarly innovative approaches in relation to native title so that the tensions arising from a system of communal land tenure in a modern economy are addressed.

We must continue to be creative in recognising the tensions of land and of dispossession.

I welcome the Indigenous leadership that led to the recent resolution of overlapping claims in the south western Kimberley region and determinations in favour of both the Nyangumarta (Nun-gu-mar-ta) and Karajarri (Kara-jarry) peoples.

Governments can also create the framework for economic and social opportunity through their approach to native title settlements. Mick Dodson chaired the Steering Committee for the Development of the Victorian Native Title Settlement Framework with Graham Atkinson, Len Clarke, Robert Nicholls, Sandra Onus, Albert Mullett and Mick Harding. This negotiation set the policy for the 2010 Traditional Owner Settlement Act (Vic).

This act provided the basis for the comprehensive settlement for the Gunai Kurnai (Gun-eye Curr-nye) people of Gippsland — a settlement that built on earlier outcomes in Victoria including for the Gunditjmara (Goun-ditch-mara) people of Western Victoria.

Other examples include recent determinations in South Australia for the Gawler Ranges Aboriginal group, and for the Arabana people.

As the Native Title Act was built on the achievement of Eddie Mabo, so our future achievements will rely on the courage and the conviction of the leaders of today, and tomorrow.

Indigenous leaders shoulder a heavy responsibility to develop Indigenous aspirations and Indigenous-led solutions.

As do organisations like the Indigenous Land Corporation and Indigenous Business Australia.

I am very pleased to see the ILC’s draft Native Title policy about flexible and sustainable settlements and look forward to working further with them.

And very pleased to hear Indigenous Business Australia renewing efforts to realise the economic potential of native title land.

I am encouraged by the focus of NAILSMA and the land councils on exploring new opportunities in the mining, agriculture, tourism and carbon economies.

With these opportunities come great responsibility — it is even more important that the governance checks and balances which are needed to safeguard these income streams are in place.

And the announcement made by the Attorney General just now that we will confirm that native title payments are tax free will help with this task. Clarity on the tax issue will let us focus on getting governance and structures right for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

There is also a critical leadership role for industry. There are currently thousands of native title agreements in operation. Industry partners can lead by properly considering Indigenous aspirations and opportunities as they get on with business.

The work of Marcia Langton, Brian Wyatt and the National Native Title Council, and the Minerals Council of Australia, to make native title agreements that deliver a sustainable and prosperous future for Indigenous owners, shows what can be achieved when industry and Indigenous people seek creative solutions.

There is a strong foundation for future action.

The history of land rights is now a part of the story of our land.

And we are now at a point in our history where Indigenous ownership is no longer overlooked and denied, but is a part of our political and economic landscape.

It is the work of Eddie Mabo, those leaders who preceded him, and those that shine a light for us today, that have embedded Indigenous ownership in our national mindset.


Today we commemorate a man of vision, and his victory that was a milestone in Australia’s history.

Today, we accept the challenge of leadership.

Of delivering on the promise of 20 years ago, and ensuring the recognition of land rights also provides economic and social benefits for those to come.

The native title leaders of today and tomorrow confront significant and substantial challenges. They also have great opportunities.

My sincere belief is that the leaders of tomorrow will continue to display the courage, persistence, integrity and vision of leaders like Dooley Bin Bin, Munggurrawuy, Vincent Lingiari and, of course, Eddie Mabo.