Mabo made understandable
Mabo — its meaning for Australia
A Community Aid Abroad Background Report
30 pp. $8 (plus $2 for postage and packaging)
Reviewed by Lachlan Anderson
Community Aid Abroad recently released a compilation of essays written from a legal and historical point of view. The 28-page pamphlet goes through the full implications of the Mabo judgment in an easily understood way.
Henry Reynolds, a historian at James Cook University, takes us back to when he was discussing Murray Island with Eddie Mabo before the celebrated Mabo case began. Eddie was a gardener at the university. He mentioned to Eddie that, even though his people had lived on the island both before and after white settlement, the land officially belonged to the government.
"I still remember the look that came over his face — it was a look of incredulity; how could anyone be so mistaken about the land not belonging to his family?"
Reynolds makes some interesting comparisons between the Mabo decision and similar proceedings that have taken place in Canada, New Zealand and the US. However, "native title" was recognised as far back as 1756 in Canada.
The pamphlet also looks at what legal power state governments have in overriding Mabo (constitutionally none) and how compensation is to be assessed for land taken away after 1975, when the Racial Discrimination Act was passed. It is this point that greatly concerns mining companies and pastoralists who may have to pay compensation.
It will also mean going through a minefield of legal uncertainty and complexity. In the 1930s, when the US legal system reached this point of indigenous rights recognition, it set up the Indian Claims Commission, which sat for 30 years and looked at more than 500 cases.
Among questions raised in the text are: how secure is the Mabo judgment? could it be overturned? Reynolds says that power lies solely with the High Court, and at present the staff of the court are relatively young and open minded to rights of indigenous people — clearly shown by the six to one decision in favour of Mabo.
The Mabo decision is one that concerns many sectors of the community. This pamphlet is enlightening reading for everyone.