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National Museum marks High Court's Mabo decision

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Friday 19 June, 2015

Defining Moment in Australia’s History

The High Court’s pivotal 1992 Mabo ruling is honoured today as part of the National Museum of Australia’s Defining Moments project, which explores key dates that have defined the country's history over more than 50,000 years.

Eddie Koiki Mabo
Eddie Koiki Mabo at Las, Murray Island, 1989. Photo: John Whitterron, © Yarra Bank Films.

On 3 June 1992 the High Court recognised that a group of Torres Strait Islanders, led by the late Eddie Mabo, had traditional ownership of Mer (Murray Island). The landmark decision was the precursor to historic native title legislation the following year.

The decision changed the foundation of land law in Australia by recognising native title under Australian common law. The High Court held that native title survived the acquisition of sovereignty, by the British Crown at the time of settlement.

The ruling rejected the concept of terra nullius – that Australia was owned by no one when the British arrived.

National Museum director Mathew Trinca travelled to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait where he unveiled a plaque dedicated to the High Court’s Mabo decision.

The plaque will ultimately be laid in the floor of the National Museum’s Main Hall in Canberra.

'The High Court’s historic Mabo decision recognised that Indigenous people had rights to the land before British settlement,' said Dr Trinca.

'It defined the modern Australian law on native title and is undeniably a Defining Moment in Australia’s history,' he said.

Torres Strait Regional Authority Deputy Chairperson and Member for Mer Island, Aven S. Noah, praised Mr Mabo's work in the recognition of native title, as a significant event in Australia's history.

'It will be a wonderful gesture to have Dr Trinca unveil the commemorative plaque here before it is taken back to Canberra to be added to the National Museum of Australia's  Defining Moments project,' said Mr Noah.

In May 1982, a group of Meriam from the Eastern Torres led by Eddie Koiki Mabo, lodged a case with the High Court of Australia for legal ownership of the island. Over a period of 10 years, they fought to prove that the eight clans of Mer had occupied the island for hundreds of years and had continuity of custom on the island.

On 3 June 1992, six of the seven judges agreed that the Meriam held traditional ownership of the lands of Mer. The decision led to the Commonwealth enacting the Native Title Act 1993, providing the framework for all Australian Indigenous people to make claims of native title. By that time, three of the five plaintiffs – Eddie Mabo, Sam Passi and Celuia Mapo Salee – had died.

Dr Trinca is in the Torres Strait for the Gab Titui lndigenous Art Award and to present the Museum’s History Through Art prize.


For more information please contact Tracy Sutherland, (02) 6208 5338 / 0438 620 710 or media@nma.gov.au