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The Mabo decision

Cultural warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following contains the names, voices, and images of deceased persons.

Each year Mabo Day is celebrated across Australia on 3 June, as part of National Reconciliation Week, honouring Mer Island man Edward Koiki 'Eddie' Mabo.


We acknowledge the Custodians of Country throughout Australia and their continued connection to land, waters and community. We pay our respects to their Cultures, Country and Elders past, present and emerging.

We also acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and live, the land on which this exhibition was created, and the land on which Australian Parliament House is situated – an area where people have met for thousands of years.

The Mabo decision

On 3 June 1992, the High Court of Australia handed down its landmark ruling on Mabo v Queensland No. 2 establishing the principle of native title rights in Australian common law.

The judgment overturned the concept of terra nullius – that Australia was a ‘land belonging to no-one’ at the time James Cook in 1770 declared possession in the name of the British Crown.

The case was led by Edward Koiki ‘Eddie’ Mabo, with Celuia Mapo Salee, James Rice, Sam Passi and Father Dave Passi, on behalf of the Meriam people of Dauer, Waier and Mer of the Murray Island Group in the Torres Strait, claiming ownership of their traditional lands. It was the culmination of legal proceedings which began 10 years earlier when the plaintiffs had brought their first action against the State of Queensland and the Commonwealth claiming native title to the Murray Islands.

The Court found that the Meriam people continued to occupy the islands, as they had for generations before the first European contact and were ‘entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of the lands of the Murray Islands'.

In recognising the rights of the Meriam people, the Court also found that Indigenous peoples around Australia continue to hold rights to their land and waters arising from their traditional laws and customs, unless these rights had been legally extinguished. For native title to be recognised, those laws and customs must have continued to be acknowledged and observed substantially uninterrupted by each generation since the time of settlement.

The fiction by which the rights and interests of
Indigenous inhabitants in land were treated as non-existent
was justified by a policy which has no place
in the contemporary law of this country.

Sir Gerard Brennan, Justice of the High Court of Australia, 1992

The Mabo case is an example of the continued advocacy by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of their connection to lands, skies and waters for over 65,000 years. The judgement recognised the coexistence of both European and customary law. For the eight clans of the Meriam people, law is communicated down the generations via spiritual and ancestral stories and customs. This knowledge includes the complex systems of ownership over lands and waters, seabeds and reefs, winds and stars.

Sadly, three of the plaintiffs Sam Passi, Celuia Mapo Salee and Edward Koiki Mabo had died before the High Court handed down its landmark judgement.

Following the Mabo decision, and prior to introducing legislation in November 1993, the government undertook extensive consultations which informed the drafting of the Native Title Bill. In the Bill, ‘native title’ is defined as the rights and interests that are possessed under the traditional laws and customs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, through which they have a connection with land or waters, and are recognised by common law.

The Bill proved to be socially divisive and was debated in the Parliament for almost 52 hours before being passed by the Senate at 11:58 pm on 22 December 1993. Addressing the House of Representatives during debate on the Bill, Prime Minister Paul Keating declared:

Today is a milestone. A response to another milestone:
the High Court's decision in the Mabo case. The High Court
has determined that Australian law should not,
as Justice Brennan said, be
'frozen in an era of racial discrimination'.
Its decision in the Mabo case ended the pernicious legal deceit
terra nullius for all of Australia—and for all time.

The Act established the National Native Title Tribunal offering a legal pathway for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to claim their traditional rights over lands and waters, and compensation. The Act came into effect on 1 January 1994 and continues to evolve, with the most recent amendment being passed in 2021. This landmark legislation was a significant step forward in the relationship between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

In 2015, a star in the Tagai constellation was named after Eddie Koiki Mabo, as part of the Dreamtime Astronomy program, in recognition of his dedication and the importance of astronomy to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

Explore Meriam culture through works in the Parliament House Art Collection by Boneta-Marie Mabo, Jimmy Kenny Thaiday and Bronwyn Jewell.

Still interested:

Learn more about Mabo v Queensland (no. 2), The Native Title Act and Edward Koiki Mabo

Parliament of Australia, House of Representatives Native Title Bill 1993 [PDF]
Australian Government. The Native Title Act 1993
Parliamentary Papers. John Gardiner-Garden, The Mabo debate – a chronology [PDF]

Other resources
Supreme Court Library Queensland. Mabo v Queensland (no. 2)
High Court of Australia. Mabo v Queensland (no. 2)
High Court of Australia, National Library of Australia. Mabo Collection
The National Native Title Tribunal. About us - NNTT
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Eddie Koiki Mabo
James Cook University, Library special collections. Eddie Koiki Mabo's lecture on the Torres Strait Islander culture and community, 1982
Prescribed Body Corporate (PBC). Native title, rights and interests

Learning Resources
Parliamentary Education Office. Parliament and the courts
National Museum of Australia. Defining moments: Mabo decision
National Film and Sound Archive. Mabo
Migration Heritage Centre. Governor Bourke’s 1835 Proclamation of 'terra nullius'


Dauar and Mer of the Murray Island Group, September 1989.

Edward Koiki Mabo at Las, Mer (Murray Island), September 1989. Still from 'Land Bilong Islanders' (1990).
All photographs copyright and courtesy of Trevor Graham and Yarra Bank Films.


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We acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of country throughout Australia and acknowledge their continuing connection to land, waters and community. We pay our respects to the people, the cultures and the elders past, present and emerging.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this website may contain images and voices of deceased people.