Mabo Day – 3 June 2017

25th anniversary celebrations of the Mabo v Queensland [No 2] were held on Mer Island in the Torres Straits on 3 June 2017.

Some personal reflections are made below by some of the distinguished guests at this event, including NNTT President Ms Raelene Webb QC, Greg McIntyre SC and Dr Bryan Keon-Cohen AM QC.

Sadly the remaining Plaintiff in the Mabo case, Father Dave Passi, passed away on 17 June 2017.

Torres Strait Islands anthem and flag raising ceremony - Mabo Day

Women's dance before wreath laying celebrating Sam Passi

Male dance after wreath laying in celebration of Sam Passi

Torres Strait Islanders singing at Mabo Day celebrations

Ms Raelene Webb QC, NNTT President

On 2-3 June 2017 I had the great privilege of attending the celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the Mabo decision on Mer Island in the Torres Strait – the home of native title.

The Mabo decision marked a paradigm legal shift in Australian law. It was a fundamental change in approach and underlying assumptions which had underpinned Australian property law for over 200 years. The decision very belatedly acknowledged the history of Indigenous dispossession in Australia. It proceeded on a principle that Indigenous people should be treated equally before the law with respect to their property rights, and that the common law would recognise and protect those rights. It overturned assumptions of Crown ownership of land from the assertion of British sovereignty.

The two days I spent on Mer (Murray Island) were truly celebratory. Friday 2 June commenced with a symposium, followed by a full day (and night) of celebration on Saturday 3 June, commencing with visits to the gravesites of four of the five plaintiffs: Eddie (Koiki) Mabo, James Rice, Celuia Mapoo Salee and Sam Passi, as well as a leading witness, Elder Henry Kabere. Sadly, the remaining plaintiff, Dave Passi has since passed away on 17 June 2017.

We heard about the courage of all the plaintiffs and how important other plaintiffs were in winning the case now celebrated as ‘Mabo’. Andrew Passi gave a particularly moving speech honouring the contribution of his father Sam Passi and his brother Dave Passi.

Of particular interest to me was the story of Celuia Mapoo Salee – the mother of the Mabo case. Yes, that is correct. Despite the repetitive reporting of the case being commenced by ‘five Meriam men’, the most influential in getting the case off the ground was a woman, who sadly passed away before the decision was handed down, as did Eddie Mabo and Sam Passi.

The story told on Mer was that when Eddie Mabo was thinking of starting the legal action, Celuia Mapoo Salee essentially took charge of the way it should be conducted from the Meriam perspective.

It was a reminder to me to always look beyond what is said by others, not to make unwarranted assumptions, and to always give credit where credit is due.

I salute you Celuia Mapoo Salee – the mother of native title.

Mr Greg McIntyre SC, solicitor to Mabo plaintiffs

It was an honour to attend the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Mabo v Queensland decision on Mer Island with the Meriam people and a number of other invited guests. The day was a time to celebrate the contribution of the five Plaintiffs, but was tinged with sadness as we paid our respects at the graves of those who had passed.

William Koiki Mabo spoke on behalf of his family at the newly landscaped  gravesite of his Grandfather Eddie Koiki Mabo, inspiring us as a potential compassionate new leader.

Wreaths were laid in turn at the graves of Koiki, James Rice, Celuia Mapo Salee, a leading witness Henry Kabere and Sam Passi. Ron Day, Chairman of the Mer Council at the time of the Supreme Court hearing on Mer in 1989, spoke of the courage and vision which the Plaintiffs and witnesses had in fighting the case in the Courts. Andrew Passi spoke at the gravesite of his father, Deacon Sam Passi, of the integral part which Sam and his brother Father Dave Passi played in the success of the case.

The day was laced with many speeches stirring Islanders to seize the opportunities which lay before them, much dancing and a flag raising by the eight tribes of Mer, decked out in a jersey decorated with clan symbols, and feasting on traditional Islander fare. It was topped off by the official launch and presentations of a special commemorative coin by the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion.

I was particularly pleased to don traditional Islander garb to participate in the wreath laying ceremony at the grave of Sam Passi and to learn that the coconut palm frond hat, which I was given at Mer in 1989 (and which I brought back to Mer in 2017, browner but stronger), was made by Sam’s daughter Del Passi; and to be introduced to her sons, who demonstrated their dancing prowess, along with Sam’s other grandsons, on behalf of the Komet tribe.

Photo gallery

Hover over the image to see the caption.