“[T]he Meriam people are entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of the lands of the Murray Islands.” – Mabo v Queensland (No 2) (1992) 175 CLR 1.
Today marks twenty years since the High Court of Australia handed down its decision in Mabo v Queensland (No 2), the judgment that rejected the doctrine of terra nullius and recognised the existence of native title.
In handing down its decision, the Court said that the dispossession of Australia’s indigenous people had left “a national legacy of unutterable shame”, and the judgment in Mabo marked a major step forward in reconciliation.
In a recent interview, former High Court Chief Justice Sir Anthony Mason said of the reaction to the decision, "I foresaw that the judgement would be controversial but as often happens you don't actually foresee the extent of the controversy."
The political controversy that followed the decision in Mabo was the subject of Judgement Day, a recent Four Corners documentary that tracked the creation of the Native Title Act. The documentary is great viewing for anyone with a passion in this area
As then Prime Minister Paul Keating acknowledged, Mabo was an opportunity to address past wrongs, but legislation to create a system for handling and validating native claims was needed. In consultation with indigenous leaders, native title legislation was formulated and the Native Title Act was passed in 1993, after a 51-hour debate in the Senate.
Since Mabo and the passing of the Native Title Act there have been 141 native title determinations, which cover a total land area of more than one million square kilometres – approximately 16 precent of Australia.
During this time, the native title system has continued to evolve, with the Government announcing more reforms earlier this year to provide for more efficient handling of claims and a better focus on economic development for indigenous communities. These reforms include moving mediation of native title claims to the Federal Court.