Monday, 25 June 2012
Statements on Indulgence
Mabo Native Title Decision
Eddie Koiki Mabo and a group of Murray Islanders challenged almost two centuries of legal doctrine when they asked the courts to recognise them as the rightful owners of their land in the Torres Strait. On 3 June 1992, the High Court found the group did have native title and that it was a right that extended to all Indigenous Australians. Seven High Court judges declared:
… the Meriam people are entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of the lands of the Murray Islands …
Eddie Mabo died of cancer on 21 January 1992, just five months before this historic High Court ruling, which would change Australian land law. The judgment was so historic because it completely overturned the idea of terra nullius—land belonging to no-one—and said that native title survived in many places even though the land had been taken by the Crown. Today the ruling continues to play an important part in islander identity. On 3 June 2012, Aboriginal people across the nation marked 20 years since this historic decision, which changed the lives of Aboriginal people and the ties they had to their land.
The Wiradjuri tribe reside in my electorate, with large populations being in Griffith, Leeton, Narrandera, Wagga Wagga and West Wyalong, as well as a number of other places. Based on 2011 census data for the division of Riverina, there were 6,866 people identified as Indigenous persons in my electorate. On Saturday, 26 May, I attended the Sorry Day commemoration for Wagga Wagga and was moved by the words of local elder and chair of the Wagga Wagga Aboriginal Elders Group Isabel Reid. I would like to share with you her eloquent words, which were superbly delivered:
Sorry Day remembers the separation of Aboriginal children from their families and communities
Taking Aboriginal children away began in 1869 and possibly before then.
It was a Government policy of the past.
Today is the day to remember because it is important to remember the past.
But we do have to move on and make a future for ourselves and our children.
It is up to us as Aboriginal people to do this.
It is our time now to make things better.
Once we had no say but now we have.
We need to take all the opportunities available to us.
I'll do what I can but it is up to each person to make their own personal choice.
Life goes on.
The hurt does go away in time.
We need for you to be proud of everything that Aboriginal people have achieved.
If I can do it, so can you.
I was part of the Stolen Generations but I had to carry on.
I am very proud of what Aboriginal people have achieved and happy that so many are doing well.
You can do well too.
They began the struggle.
It's up to us all not to let them down.
They had the hard row and we need to make sure we keep on going and do the best we can.
The past is history.
Tomorrow is a mystery.
But today, is a gift. That is why they call it the present.
Brilliantly said, Aunty Isabel.
On 2 December 2011 the shadow minister for Indigenous affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion, and I had the pleasure of visiting an establishment which encompasses the words of Aunty Isabel. Tirkandi Inaburra Cultural and Development Centre is an Aboriginal community-run centre offering Aboriginal boys aged between 12 and 15 years a culturally based residential program aimed at reducing future contact with the criminal justice system by strengthening the boys' cultural identity, self-esteem and resilience. The centre houses 16 boys at a time, and the boys stay at the centre on a voluntary basis for three to six months. Whilst at the centre, the boys engage in educational, sport, recreational, life, living skills and cultural activities which have all been designed to incrementally develop each participant's skills and abilities. Schooling is providing on site by the New South Wales Department of Education and Training. The centre is located on a 780-hectare property between Coleambally and Darlington Point.
The name 'Tirkandi Inaburra' means 'to learn to dream' in the Wiradjuri language. Tirkandi Inaburra delivers a culturally based residential program aimed at strengthening cultural identity and resilience and empowering its young participants to reach their full potential in life. Boys who live in communities located between the Lachlan and the Murray and between Balranald and the western side of the Blue Mountains are eligible to apply to come to the centre. The boys choose to attend the program, they choose to stay and they choose to comply with the rules. The centre, well managed by Anthony Paulson—who is a wonderful role model—is having an encouraging impact on the lives of those who have been mentored there. Most of the boys who attend this centre thrive once they rejoin their communities, and it is places such as this which Senator Scullion believes should be replicated across this wide brown land and which would make the late Eddie Mabo very proud. It is a positive place where people are given responsibility for the path their lives can take.
All fair-minded Australians want to see respectful and adequate recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. As I said in my inaugural speech:
Nationally, we need to do more for Aboriginal health to increase the life expectancy and standard of living of our first nation people.
Help needs to go where it is most needed. Words are one thing, but genuine, desperately needed action is essential to enable better health outcomes, more affordable housing and greater job prospects for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in rural and remote areas, including the Riverina. The money is there to achieve such goals; it just needs to be allocated appropriately so it does not end up in the pockets of bureaucrats and lawyers.
A recent account of where we are failing was shown by the ABC's 7.30 a few days shy of Mabo's 20th anniversary. On Wednesday, 30 May ABC reporter Caro Meldrum-Hanna was on the streets in a small Aboriginal community which has been plagued by abuse and violence. Less than 10 hours drive from Sydney, the world's seventh richest city, lies a community racked with despair, beset by strife of the worst imaginable kind. For decades the mission and its people went unnoticed and ignored until Marcus Einfeld, the then President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, crossed the divide in 1987 and launched an investigation into the living conditions and the state of housing inside Toomelah in northern New South Wales. What he found shamed the nation and forced people in high places to take action.
Dirt roads were paved, housing was built and a sewerage system was put in place. Yet despite tens of millions of dollars worth of government funding which was poured in over two decades, and despite the involvement of dozens of government agencies, the problems which plagued Toomelah of yesteryear are still sadly all too present today. According to elder Glynis McGrady, children as young as five are being raped and girls as young as nine were prostituting themselves at truck stops for cigarettes and money. Sexual abuse is rife in the community, yet little is done. How could we let this get so bad?
The federal member for Parkes, a colleague of mine, Mark Coulton, said the ABC's 7.30 shows exactly what is happening in Toomelah. He has been working with both Toomelah's local government and the Nationals state member Kevin Humphries to come up with a solution which will benefit the community. In 2009 the government closed down the Community Development Employment Projects, exacerbating social problems and intensifying the high level of unemployment. The Community Development Employment Projects, an initiative to assist unemployed Aboriginal people, was hugely popular in Toomelah and created local employment opportunities for residents. The community has unfortunately experienced a number of ill effects since the closure of the program.
The area holds a special place in my federal colleague's heart and he wants to see the right thing done for these people. He said: 'The people of Toomelah are good people. The community has a special place with me. Something needs to be done. I know most of the residents personally. I am very fond of them. They are wonderful people, but they are living in a very troubled society. While it may be fair for adults to choose how they live, the children that live within that community have no say as to the poverty they are brought up into and they need their safety secured.'
In his inaugural speech to the New South Wales parliament on 30 May 2007, Kevin Humphries said:
I would say, and am saying, sorry—sorry for what we have not achieved for Aboriginal people in this country. It is 40 years since the recognition of Aboriginal citizenship and I can honestly say we have a very long way to go in closing the gaps that exist between the lives of indigenous and nonindigenous people. I am committed to growing and supporting leadership within our Aboriginal communities, growing community capacity and encouraging all people to take advantage of what mainstream Australia has to offer.
However, with bad examples come good ones. On 27 March this year, as part of the fly-in fly-out inquiry of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia, I had the pleasure of visiting Milikapiti, a community on Melville Island off the coast of the Northern Territory. The health centre staff on the island include Raelene Mungatopi, who won the 2010 award for excellence from the Northern Territory health service for having the highest blood testing rates in Australia for diabetes diagnosis and ongoing management. Another Aboriginal health worker, Miriam Daniels, has achieved one of the highest child immunisation rates in any Aboriginal community in the Territory. Both women noted that they had taken up training on the urging—might I say insistence—of Raelene's aunty but were finding it hard to find successors because of the need to go to Darwin for training.
The Aboriginal people in my electorate of Riverina are another example of people moving on and making a future for themselves and for their children. In the past few months I have attended openings of Aboriginal medical centres in the larger centres of Griffith and Wagga Wagga and was lucky enough to tour these great new facilities. The Aboriginal people are taking what they have and moving forward to establish a better future for the younger generations. On Friday, 8 June the Griffith Aboriginal Medical Service was officially opened. The service is dedicated to the entire community and currently has 6,500 clients on its books, with 2,000 being Aboriginal people. The Griffith Aboriginal Medical Service was established in July 2000 and now has a centre of which it should be rightly proud.
The original organisation was a community controlled health service in name only, having no resources to provide healthcare services to Aboriginal people within the region at the western end of the Riverina electorate. In May 2004 the Aboriginal medical service received funding from the Department of Health and Ageing. In 2009 the Aboriginal medical service received capital works funding to purchase and refurbish an existing building and to relocate existing services into a more spacious facility. The relocation occurred in November 2011. On the first day of the following month, Senator Scullion and I toured the new centre in Jondaryan Avenue. I was most impressed with the outlook of this new centre, which not only featured services for medical treatment but represented a safe place for teenagers, new mothers, struggling community members and anyone in need of help of any kind to go. The centre offers a comprehensive range of services to assist the community.
A similar service is being established in Wagga Wagga. The Riverina Medical and Dental Aboriginal Corporation clinical services building opening took place on Friday, 18 May. I acknowledge the government's investment in these important Aboriginal facilities. We all need to help close the gap—today, tomorrow and into the future—not just for Aboriginal Australians but for all those whose home is girt by sea.
I pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet and also to the Jagera, Ugarapul and Yuggera people of my electorate in South-East Queensland. I want to express my sympathy to Bonita, the wife of Eddie Mabo, his immediate family, extended family and friends.
In his famous Redfern speech on 10 December 1992, then Prime Minister Paul Keating described the Mabo judgment as one of the practical building blocks of change. He said it did away with what he described as the 'bizarre conceit' that this continent had no owners prior to European settlement. He went on to say that the Mabo judgment had established a fundamental truth which laid the basis for justice—and that justice is deserving of recognition today, 20 years later. We have so much more to do in closing the gap.
But the lie of terra nullius—that no-one actually occupied the land—was done away with by those brave judges on the High Court of Australia. It showed the High Court at its best and I pay tribute to Sir Anthony Mason and those in the majority who supported Eddie Mabo and his co-litigants. Those litigants had the courage and determination to bring a claim which did away with the falsehood and reveal the fact that our Indigenous brothers and sisters were occupiers of the land well before white settlement took place. Eddie Mabo was not alone. There were a number of people who went with him on that journey—people like David Passi, James Rice and others. I pay tribute to all of them for what they did.
Eddie Mabo was born on 29 June 1936 on Murray Island. He always believed Murray Island belonged to him and his family. He had a variety of different occupations—assistant teacher, deck hand, gardener and groundsman, for example—but he never really believed that he did not own the land and he refused to accept it. When he mentioned that to members of academia in Townsville, who later became his friends, and discovered the concept of terra nullius, that white people did not believe he owned the land, he was incredulous and his great passion was aroused. It took 10 years of litigation to get it to the High Court. As with other great figures of history who died before they saw the final outcome of their efforts—such as FDR, the great US President, and John Curtin in Australia, both of whom died before World War II was concluded—tragically, Eddie Mabo died five months before the High Court handed down the historic Mabo decision which expelled the notion of terra nullius from Australian law and paved the way for a new era of justice and native title legislation.
I pay tribute to Paul Keating and the then Labor government, who had the courage and conviction to prosecute the case for the Native Title Act, which came into being in 1993. It was developed in partnership with Indigenous communities. It was not imposed; it was done with consultation, collaboration and cooperation. The Native Title Act was not uncontroversial. There was a lot of fear, loathing and misinformation spread by those who would foster and create division in our community. Fortunately, however, the House of Representatives and the Senate passed this legislation. The economy was not destroyed, society did not break down and the world did not come to an end, but justice rained down like a river. A whole series of cases emerged as a result of the Mabo decision and native title legislation. I am pleased the government has seen fit to streamline the process, to bring down the reforms we saw in 2009, which gave the Federal Court greater control of native title mediation, and increase the number of consent orders or determinations from 11 in 2008-09 to 24 in 2010-11. I am pleased the federal Attorney-General, on the 20th anniversary of the Mabo decision on 31 May, pointed that out in her speech. There are few people whose lives have touched Australians and will continue to touch them as Eddie Mabo's did, fighting injustice, racism and inequality. His life deserves to be recognised. It was recognised in a telemovie and has been recognised in the history books and on ABC's Four Corners. On a daily basis, his judgment is quoted throughout the country. We pay tribute to him for his courage, his conviction and his belief in the rightness of his case and the cause of justice. For that we pay tribute and we say farewell to a great figure of Australian history, a great Australian and a great man.
I rise to support the marking of the 20th anniversary of the passing of Eddie Mabo. There are moments in each of our lives which define who we are and what we stand for, moments which may even determine our destiny. The significance of those moments may sometimes not become clear until much later. The story of a nation is similarly marked by such moments where an event or even a speech may change the course of its people. When a moment in the life of an individual determines both the character and destiny of the individual and that of a nation, the moment is indeed profound. For Eddie Koiki Mabo that moment was his realisation in 1974 that his ancestral lands had been taken from him and were owned by the Crown. That moment changed his life and the spirit of a nation.
Eddie Mabo's name has since been ingrained in Australian history. Joined by Sam Passi, David Passi, Celuia Mapo Salee and James Rice, Eddie Mabo began his crusade to have his lands returned to their rightful owners—the Meriam people. His determination gave inspiration to his people. Born in 1936, Eddie Mabo was a Meriam man from Mer island, better known as Murray Island, in the Torres Strait. His mother died very early in his life and he was raised by his maternal Uncle Benny. At 19 years of age he was exiled from his homeland, not even allowed to return to see his dying father.
He settled in Townsville and soon established a reputation as an activist or, as others would describe him, an agitator. He attended protest marches and would sit in white-man-only bars waiting to be served. As the member for Barton reminded us in his Lionel Murphy Memorial Lecture delivered at the Australian National University on 7 September 2011, Lionel Murphy in a 1982 judgment had this to say about agitators:
If he is an agitator, he is in good company. Many of the great religious and political figures of history have been agitators and human progress owes much to the efforts of these and many who are unknown.
Indeed Australia owes much to Eddie Mabo. He too was an agitator. His decade-long battle ended on 3 June 1992 when justice was restored. Sadly, Eddie Mabo did not live to hear the High Court verdict. He died five months earlier, in January 1992. His life, however, was recognised when he was granted an Australian Human Rights Medal and perhaps more so by the Australian newspaper in 1992 naming him Australian of the Year. His legacy, however, is not what he achieved for himself but what he achieved for his people and for Australia.
Both as individuals and as a nation our identity is determined by what we do. We are judged harshly for our wrongdoings and praised for what we do right. Since white settlement in Australia, the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians has been the cause of some of our greatest failures and national shame. Conversely, the relationship has delivered some of Australia's greatest moments—for example, the 1967 referendum, Gough Whitlam on 16 August 1975 pouring a handful of dirt into the hands of Vincent Lingiari symbolising the return of their lands, Cathy Freeman carrying the Australian flag around Sydney Olympic Stadium at the 2000 Olympics, Paul Keating's Redfern speech in December 1992, Kevin Rudd's apology to the stolen generation, and of course the High Court Mabo case. All left proud images imprinted in the hearts and minds of those who were there at the time or who in their own way shared in the moment. On each of these occasions the international community looked on with praise and admiration. Indeed they were all moments of national pride.
In rejecting the notion of terra nullius in a six-one judgment, the High Court handed down a verdict which signalled three very important messages: firstly, that no person and no government is above natural justice; secondly, that our justice system is there for all; and, thirdly, that all people are equal in Australian law. The 1992 High Court decision was a personal victory for Eddie Mabo, a cultural victory for his people and a national victory for Australian identity. Not everyone, however, was pleased with Eddie Mabo's crusade. His grave site in Townsville was desecrated and he was reburied on Murray Island.
The High Court decision was not, however, a panacea for the complex problems facing Australia's Indigenous people. There is no better recognition of that than the government's Closing the Gap statement. The merits of the Northern Territory intervention policy continue to be disputed. What is not disputed, however, is that the underlying problems which led to the intervention must be addressed. As Eddie Mabo's wife, Bonita Neehow, recently said in an interview published in the Australian newspaper on 2 June 2012: 'The alcohol, drugs and sexual abuse problems poisoning indigenous communities are still there.'
In the Lionel Murphy Memorial Lecture that I referred to earlier, the member for Barton addressed the disadvantage that exists throughout Indigenous communities. As with the mainland Indigenous people, the permeation of white culture into the Torres Strait Islands over the past 200 years has forever changed the once peaceful existence they enjoyed. A new culture has set in and neither white nor Indigenous culture offers the solutions we are looking for. We need new approaches, we need to look outside of our normal thinking and we need people like Eddie Mabo.
I have spoken about Aboriginal and Indigenous disadvantage in this country on many other occasions and I will not go into it in detail other than to say this: it is a problem that has confronted governments of this nation now for at least 50 years. It is a problem where governments have been well intentioned in their efforts to address that disadvantage over the 50 years and I am aware of governments and ministers from both sides of politics who have worked in earnest to try and reduce that disadvantage. The statistics we see today, and again I understand there was some more commentary in the daily papers today, are still of concern to us all. The disadvantage that exists is still widespread and still a cause of embarrassment and national shame for the people of Australia. We do need to look for alternative solutions and we do need to recognise that until we find those solutions that disadvantage will continue.
I close by making reference briefly to the judges that were sitting in the High Court case at the time: Justice Mason, Brennan, Deane, Dawson, Toohey, Gaudron and McHugh. Justice Dawson was the dissenting judge. All of the others were in general agreement with the verdict. It should be noted that it is of credit to them that, after so many years, they too recognised the injustice that had been perpetrated on the Indigenous people of Australia by denying them their rightful entitlement to the land on which they lived. Vincent Lingiari, whom I referred to earlier, was perhaps one of the first Indigenous people to try and lay claim to the lands from which he came and that is why, as I said earlier, Gough Whitlam poured a handful of dirt into his hands. It was symbolic of the land that was returned to his people at the time.
But that was returned under different circumstances. It was not as profound as the Mabo decision, which in fact recognised the title that existed for the Indigenous people because they had previously lived off the land. For the judges who handed down the decision it would not have been an easy decision to have made at the time given that there was 200 years of history, and not only in this country. Perhaps it is even more extensive if you go to other Commonwealth nations. Yet they made this decision knowing full well what the consequences of it would be, and I commend them for the justice they handed down on the day. I commend Eddie Mabo and his colleagues for taking up the fight on behalf of their people.
Imagine the moment in 1974 when, talking with his friends, Eddie Koiki Mabo realised his land was owned by the Crown, not by him and his people. Noel Loos and Henry Reynolds recall: 'Koiki was surprised and shocked.' He had kept saying, 'No way, it's not theirs. It's ours.' It would turn out to be one of the most significant moments in Australian history. From then to the historic High Court decision of 3 June 1992 Eddie Mabo showed us that a deeper appreciation of Indigenous Australia is the responsibility of all Australians and that the recognition of Indigenous history and culture and the challenges it faces is not an optional part of being Australian but is essential to who we are.
Eddie Mabo Day, 3 June, helps us identify, acknowledge and celebrate all Indigenous Australians and their contribution to our nation. It is a critical part in the process of reconciliation. But it is also a great moment to celebrate the life of a great Australian and to remember a man of extraordinary vision, warmth and intelligence. Eddie Mabo's story is one in which I think Australians can take great pride. I think it is also a reminder that Australia is at its strongest when we remember the stories of Indigenous Australians.
One of the books that have made an impression on me is Stories of the Ngunnawal, a collection of stories of the local Ngunawal people. To me those stories reflect that so much of what Eddie Mabo was facing was also being faced here in the Canberra region. There had been suggestions in the middle of the 20th century that the last remnants of the Ngunawal people had gone. An article in the Canberra Times in 1985 said, according to the writers, it was felt the last remnants of the Aboriginal tribes of this area were gone by 1911 with the deaths of Ned and Lucy Carroll at the Edgerton mission station. The article went on to say that reports of the extinction of the Ngunawal people had been greatly exaggerated 'according to a very much alive survivor, Mr Tom Phillips of Kambah'. Tom Phillips was indeed a character. One story has him being arrested while walking naked in the Namadji area. Apparently he was called into a courtroom with a blanket wrapped around him. The judge said, 'What are you doing, walking around like that? You can't walk around like that in front of people.' Mr Phillips said to the judge: 'Mate, I'm an Aboriginal. I was born naked, and I'll walk around how I want. I'm not going to sit here and listen to a man sitting there with a dead carcass on his head telling me I can't do this and that. I'll walk around how I want.'
Another great survivor of the Ngunawal people is Auntie Agnes Shea. She is a familiar sight to those of us who attend conferences in Canberra because she is one of the most frequent of those to welcome attendees to country. Auntie Agnes tells the story about how as a young girl she did not learn the Ngunawal language. She says: 'The elders decided that, if we kept using it at home, we wouldn't do it intentionally but automatically we'd use it if we were off down the town or somewhere, and it would get us into trouble.' By that, she means the risk of being taken away from her parents. Auntie Agnes says: 'So they forbade us to use our language, for our protection, and that's how we came to lose so much of the Ngunawal language. I was around seven or eight then.'
It is a great source of pride to me to be a federal member representing the land of the Ngunawal people, to be able to remember some of their stories and recognise the great strength of Indigenous Australia and that we are greater as a country thanks to that Indigenous heritage. This is, I think, broadly recognised by both sides of parliament, on this the 20th anniversary of the Mabo judgment, but it was not always thus. The Attorney-General, in a speech on 6 June, reminded her audience of some of the history of the Mabo case. She said:
Disenfranchised by the Bjelke-Petersen government, Eddie Mabo, David and Sam Passi, Celuia Salee and James Rice, all from the Meriam people, set themselves the seemingly improbable task of literally creating a space for indigenous rights to land and waters—where previously this had been said to be an impossibility.
She pointed out that the Bjelke-Petersen government dogmatically attempted to legislate away any prospect of native title, that Tim Fischer had said that native title was unnecessary as 'dispossession of Aboriginal civilisation was always going to happen' and that Hugh Morgan said that the High Court had thrown property law into chaos and 'given substance to the ambitions of Australian communists and the Bolshevik left for a separate Australian state'. She pointed out that Tim Fischer said, 'Mabo has the capacity to put a brake on Australian investment, break the economy and break up Australia—a brake, a break and a break-up we can do without,' and that John Hewson, after native title legislation passed the parliament in December 1993, described it as a 'day of shame'. John Hewson said:
The Coalition is totally opposed to this piece of legislation. It is bad legislation. It will prove to be a disaster for Australia. It goes way beyond the High Court. It introduces inequities into the Australian system. It consciously sets out to divide the Australian nation and there is only one thing you can do with bad legislation and that is to throw it out.
The reason I quote all these statements made two decades ago by a business leader and prominent members of the opposition is that they remind us of what the Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency has called the divide in Australian politics between the reformers and the wreckers. It reminds us that almost every reform that is now held dear in Australia was not gotten through bipartisan agreement but was hard fought for at the time. Great reform never comes easy. It is often opposed at the moment at which it is fought for. But in so many cases Australia can now look back to great Labor reforms like native title with a sense of pride. I believe it will be so for the great Labor reforms like a price on carbon, a mining tax, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the National Broadband Network.
Reconciliation works best in Australia when it is not just self-flagellatory reconciliation—although there were great wrongs done—but when it also operates with a sense of pride. The moment in the 2000 Olympics when Cathy Freeman won gold and the moment when she lit the Olympic flame were moments that did as much for the cause of reconciliation as perhaps all the honourable speeches of this kind. There was the moment when Gough Whitlam poured sand into the hand of Vincent Lingiari and Lingiari said to him, 'We're all mates now.' These sparks of positive reconciliation are a great source of pride for all Australians, and it is with a great sense of pride that I remember the 20th anniversary of the Mabo judgment.
Sunday, 3 June marked the 20th anniversary of the Mabo native title High Court decision. As the Prime Minister stated some weeks ago, this was a sublime moment in the life of our nation. The Mabo decision, as it has affectionately become known, had a profound impact on Indigenous land rights, extinguishing the terra nullius myth that had been in existence for so many years. It is a case that has gone down in Australia's legal and cultural history as a turning point in our nation's story. When the High Court of Australia handed down its historic judgment, it accepted the claim of Eddie Mabo and other claimants that their people had occupied the island of Mer for hundreds of years before the arrival of the British. This was a landmark decision, finding that the Meriam people were entitled, as against the whole world, to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of the lands in the Murray Islands. The decision overturned the idea that Australia was terra nullius—a land belonging to no-one—at the time of colonisation. It had profound implications for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights movement nationally.
It was wonderful earlier this month to see so many people celebrating the 20-year anniversary of the High Court's decision, and it gives me great joy that this landmark case will always have a special place in our nation's heart. This year the ACT Torres Strait Islanders Corporation, established in 1996, hosted the ACT celebration of Mabo, and they have been doing that for a number of years. The corporation organised a high-level event in partnership with the National Museum of Australia during National Reconciliation Week. The event, held at the National Film and Sound Archive, was attended by special guest speaker Gail Mabo, the eldest daughter of Eddie and Bonita Mabo.
I was disappointed not to be able to attend, as parliament was sitting at the time, but I believe the day was a wonderful success and the celebrations befitted this momentous day. Last year I did manage to attend the events, held here at Parliament House. Again it was a lovely day of celebration and, most importantly, of dance and culture. There were Thursday Islanders and Torres Strait Islanders from all over Australia, primarily from the Sydney community but also from the ACT community. They joined together in song and dance and also to reminisce about their stories. It was a wonderful event last year and it is a pity I had to miss it this year.
We should always continue to mark this day because the decision acknowledged and affirmed what Indigenous people have always known—that this land was not empty or vacant but was occupied by a proud and peaceful people who had lived on this land and as part of this land for many thousands of years. To really get a grasp of their place as Australia's first people, you only have to consider recent archaeological finds in Arnhem Land, where rock art has been carbon dated to around 28,000 years ago. This is one of the earliest examples of rock art in the world, and its significance should not be underestimated. When we consider the Mabo decision in this context, why would we not want to celebrate having one of the oldest cultures on this earth?
The Prime Minister at the time of the Mabo decision was Paul Keating, and he recognised Mabo for what it was—not a burden, not a problem, but an opportunity. He noted that Mabo was a historic decision, one which Australia could make into a turning point and the basis of a new relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. He said:
The message should be that there is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth, or the extension of social justice, or the deepening of Australian social democracy to include Indigenous Australians.
These words continue to be relevant today, 20 years on. Prime Minister Keating reminded us that the big things, the great things in Australian politics, never come easily, yet we should embrace them and accept them as part of our nation's continuing history.
To me the Mabo decision reinforces Australia's cultural diversity and our differences, which we should celebrate and not conceal. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Thursday Island, in the Torres Strait, as part of a tour I was doing with Australian Defence Force Cadets. There is a naval cadet unit there and it is incredibly popular with the kids—and I am talking about the school-age cadets here—because it links into their culture. As we all know, this is a great fishing and great pearling culture. There is a huge and very strong connection with the sea. The beauty about this Navy Cadets facility was not only that they had linked into that culture and strong tradition but also that they were introducing the kids to the notion of discipline and the naval tradition. So they got the best of both worlds in many ways: the history and tradition of the Navy plus the history and tradition of their own people, the Thursday Islanders. The kids loved going to the Navy Cadets after school once a week. It was very strongly supported by the community, particularly the schoolteachers. We were up there to launch the new cadet facilities and it was a great event. From memory, it was a very hot event but it was a wonderful event.
What really underscored the diversity for me during that visit was that I had the opportunity to go to the graveyard. I love visiting graveyards and I was given a tour by one of the people who lived on Thursday Island. I am not sure whether many people are aware of this but I was told that, when they bury their dead, they bury them in the traditional way and then they wrap the headstone with plastic or ribbons or something to mark the fact that a person has only recently been buried. After 12 months, I understand that they open up the grave and open the coffin—all the families are there—and that is designed to set the soul free. They then close it up and the person is truly on the way to the next life.
It is a really strong tradition that I had never heard of or seen beforehand and it underscored the diversity of Australia's people. During that visit I went to Thursday Island and after that I went to Bamaga, where there is a completely different Indigenous community. I then went to Nhulunbuy, which also has a different Indigenous community. I was then up at the Coburg Peninsula for another event and, again, there was a completely different Indigenous community. So the diversity, tradition, cultural strength and richness of the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are extraordinary, and decisions like the Mabo case underscore and recognise that.
The 20th anniversary of Mabo celebrates one of our great and proud achievements as a nation. It righted a wrong and set our nation on a new course towards greater acceptance and reconciliation and, as I said, a greater understanding and appreciation of its diversity. I commend the anniversary.
It is timely that we today discuss this issue because tomorrow night at the State Library of New South Wales, the Mitchell Library, there will be a public lecture in the Metcalfe Auditorium about an Indigenous Australian who, way back in the 1920s, after a period in Italy and other parts of the European continent, went to Britain alone in support of Indigenous rights in this country, and there has been a recent publication about that.
Of the sustained opposition to this change, Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, commented:
It is a narrative that reveals a fundamental lack of understanding about the importance of land and country to our very soul. And it's a message that demonises those standing firm rather than acknowledging their need to do so.
His hope, he said:
… is that we all realise the role we can play in changing the narrative and that mutual respect must underline the story.
In 1993 the Native Title Act brought to Australia recognition of the nation's traditional owners in response to the High Court decision made on 3 June 1992 that Eddie Koiki Mabo's 10-year fight for recognition as custodian of the Meriam people's lands gave lie to the legal notion of terra nullius. Of course, we have seen dramatisations of his fight on our television sets over the last month or so, and there has been a plethora of recognition events.
To those familiar with the concept of recognition of traditional ownership of land, the actions of other countries belied notions that the nation would be taken over by heathens, that houses would be plundered and that the agriculture and resource industries would grind to a halt. That is certainly the rhetoric that accompanied the Mabo decision and the government action to put it into effect. It is worth noting that as early as the 1820s the United States of America had signed a formal agreements with Indian traditional owners, that in the 1840s the Waitangi Treaty was signed by over 500 Maori chiefs and the British crown and that in the 1870s the Canadian government and the First Nations of the Canadian prairies sought to establish agreements to ratify native rights and provide compensation to the First Nations. These actions, taken over 100 years previously, formed the genesis of legal recognition of the land rights and sea rights of Indigenous Australians.
In the 20 years since the Mabo judgment, we have seen the highs of 1992 and the lows of the Yorta Yorta's situation along the New South Wales-Victoria border. The decision on the latter ruled that 'traditional links had been washed away by the tides of history'. Since this time we have witnessed a changing landscape in the recognition of Indigenous people's rights and customs. The traditional connections between Indigenous people and the land, the sun, the sea and the sky are very difficult for many Australians to understand. However, we have progressed to coexistence from the rhetoric of the extinguishment of rights. Indeed, although financial and other compensation is small relative to their profits, the resource sector has in the main turned full circle and acknowledged rights in cooperation with stakeholders. The sector has been reaching agreements providing economic resources, employment and education benefits to those in need. Most importantly, the process now gives traditional owners a place at the table to decide the future of their lands. For too long historic claims that will help reconciliation in Australia have been litigated to death. This trench warfare has cost millions of dollars, which have been squandered on legal and consultancy fees. Actions designed by state governments and large corporations determined to drag out negotiations until the National Native Title Tribunal was forced to mediate were enhanced by the Howard government's 10-point Wik plan, which included forcing parties to negotiate, essentially with a gun at their head—take it or leave it.
Fortunately, these attitudes are changing. State governments recognise the need to ratify agreements to facilitate development and allow for much needed investment in infrastructure. Likewise, the decision to mediate via the High Court is welcome. The return to the Yorta Yorta case by the former Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls and the resolution of the outstanding issues surrounding the case symbolise the change of attitudes by the states and, slowly, the legal profession. The former managing director of CRA, which is now Rio Tinto, is quoted as saying:
'I think there was a point … when business started saying to government, 'Catch up! We're out here doing business … and your attitudes are actually inhibiting us from moving forward', …
In New South Wales alone, at the end of the last financial year, there were 26 registered claimant applications, and another three were registered this year. I will briefly touch on one of those claims as an indication of the long-term benefits of the claims in assisting the education on reconciliation of the broader Australian community. The recent registration of claim by the Gomeroi people, who are broadly situated between Singleton, Moree and Walgett, ensures their place at the table for negotiations with developers, governments and resource companies. The research compiled by the New South Wales native title service provider NTSCORP is deserving of a thesis in itself. This research included: the compilation of over 60,000 family trees, the largest known genealogy of Indigenous Australians ever undertaken; over 1,000 interviews; researching archived newspapers and school, farm and police records since 1830; the purchase of hundreds of birth, marriage and death certificates at $30 a pop from the state government; meetings conducted throughout the state; and negotiations with key stakeholders. This research, which was led by Dr Ken Lum and his team, was recently subject to analysis by Debra Jopson in the Sydney Morning Herald. It acknowledges that people who live over a radius of 100,000 square kilometres have a shared past, rituals, kinship and—importantly—identity. It also recognises that Aboriginal history and interactions in southern parts of Australia have the same gravity and meaning as those of their northern brothers and sisters. Early settlement, massacres and enforced separation from families killed neither their spirit nor their connection with the land from where they come. In passing, I commemorate the people who every year have remembrance events around the Appin Massacre in my electorate.
This claim by the Gomeroi people gives hope to those in other parts of New South Wales who are working towards recognition. It was recently announced by the Attorney-General that the federal government will provide increased funding and anthropological grants to research on native title claims. This is welcome news. We need to ensure that researchers are able to provide solid evidence of kinship, cultural activities and connections to the country. It is crucial not only for claiming land title but also for our country's own story.
Research measures include clarification that capital gains tax and income tax payments will not apply to native land title agreements and improvements to increase the flexibility of Indigenous land use. This will ensure that the work which Eddie Mabo started over a chat and a sandwich on a bench with Henry Reynolds will not have been in vain.