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Mabo Day

Mabo Day, marked on 3 June each year, commemorates the anniversary of the Mabo decision and the fight by the Meriam people for recognition of traditional ownership of the island of Mer in the Torres Strait. 

The case, Mabo and Others v Queensland (No. 2) [1992] HCA 23, overturned the notion of terra nullius (land belonging to no one), which had previously been used to legitimise the British claim to Australia. The historic decision officially recognised the Meriam people’s ownership of Mer and also acknowledged that native title existed for all First Nations people, unless extinguished by actions like the granting of certain leases and the construction of public infrastructure such as roads. 

The decision sparked the introduction of the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) which set a framework around how First Nations communities could seek recognition over traditional lands. Since the inception of the Act, there have been successful native title claims by hundreds of communities. Those communities have been provided certain rights and interests which can include the right to live on the land, the right to access the land for traditional purposes such as ceremonies, to visit and protect significant places, engage in cultural activities, and to hunt, fish and gather on the land. 

Whilst ultimately, some communities are now afforded a number of rights to traditional lands, the system is not without its issues. Communities can be tied up in claims for years and it can often be difficult to establish an ongoing connection to the land having been dispossessed of it generations ago. 

Over the years, there have been calls for changes to the Act to simplify the process and to improve the outcomes and ensure greater benefits for First Nations communities. Whilst the system may not be perfect, the Mabo decision forever changed the rights for many First Nations people and marked a major milestone in Australia’s history. 

Article by: Kylie Thomas, Secretary, ACC Australia Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Special Interest Group

Kylie Thomas

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ACC Australia is committed to promoting a diverse and inclusive in-house profession and has created the Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) Special Interest Group. If you are interested in participating in the special interest group or contributing ideas, please contact