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Aboriginal Law Bulletin

Aboriginal Law Bulletin (ALB)
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Nettheim, Garth --- "Editorial" [1992] AboriginalLawB 24; (1992) 1(56) Aboriginal Law Bulletin 2


by Garth Nettheim

On 3 June the High Court delivered its decision in the case Eddie Mabo and others v State of Queensland.

The action was conceived in 1981 and initiated in May 1982. It survived the Bjelke-Petersen Government's attempt to kill it off by a special Act of Parliament in 198 which the High Court majority, in 1988, held to be invalid for inconsistencies with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth). After lengthy hearings in Queensland to determine the facts, the legal issues were argued before the full High Court at the end of May 1991. The AboriginalLB has followed the course of the litigation from its inception - see especially AboriginalLB 4/1, 11/2, 1813, 24/8, 36117, and 48/10.

Now the AboriginalLB is able to report that the High Court has decided in favour of the Plaintiffs. Bryan Keon-Cohen's account of the judgments is on p.22 ([1992] AboriginalLB 32; 2(56)pg22).

The case has to be one of the most fundamental ever to have been considered by the Court - fundamental at least in the sense of going to the very foundations of the Australian nation. The majority of the Court has overturned the long-held assumption that, when Britain acquired sovereignty, it also acquired ownership of all the land, to the exclusion of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait owners.

The ten-year saga has required enormous patience and persistence by the plaintiffs and the Murray Island people. Sadly, Eddie Koiki Mabo died last January. It has also benefited from the very considerable commitment by the plaintiff's legal team especially in the light of the vagaries of legal aid administration.

The legal - and political - position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in relation to the non-Aboriginal society must now be significantly different in a variety of ways that remain to be worked out. But clearly, June 3, 1992, represents a watershed in that relationship. Perhaps the date should be commemorated hereafter as Mabo Day.

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