The Mabo Court Case in the High Court of Australia in 1992 brought down a landmark decision that would affect all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The resultant Native Title Act of 1993 would cement the findings of this case and provide a vital push for the advancement of Indigenous Australians and act as a springboard for the Reconciliation process in Australia over the subsequent 10 years. This culminated in Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologizing to Indigenous Australians for past decisions that resulted in hurt and hardship for Indigenous people.
In 1981, Eddie Mabo made a speech at a University in Queensland where he outlined the Murray Island people’s view on land ownership, and the relationship between the people of Murray Island and the land. From this speech, a legal case was mounted to challenge the concept of land ownership in Australia.
When Australia was first settled by the British in 1788, the country was classed as “Terra Nullius”—with no owners or people who had possession of the land. The British therefore felt free to implement processes for land ownership and title. The existing Indigenous population was suddenly faced with a situation where the land they had occupied for at least 4,000 years was no longer theirs to use.
The land, which was at the centre of the social, religious and economic life of Indigenous Australians, was no longer present. This loss of land and subsequent removal and control of Indigenous Australians caused poverty, substance abuse and alienation for over 200 years.
In 1992 the High Court made a decision that would change the system of land tenure in Australia. The High Court ruled that the British were wrong to have classed Australia as “Terra Nullius,” as an existing system of land tenure was already in existence. Indigenous Australians were the original owners and occupiers of Australia.
In 1993, the Keating Government passed legislation known as The Native Title Act (1993). Its purpose was threefold:
"firstly, to provide for the recognition and protection of native title; secondly, to put in place a process for dealing with Native Title in the future and finally establish ways in which future dealings affecting native title may proceed; and to lessen the impacts of any past decisions on land tenure that had invalidated Native title."
The result has been that Indigenous Australians who can show “an unbroken relationship” with unoccupied Crown Land (land owned by government) could claim title to that land and deal with it as an owner of land would—usually with the control of a council of people from that area. Where land was privately owned, the link with the land was regarded as extinguished and no claims to private land could be made.
What the decision did do was provide title rights to land that was “theirs” and deal with this land in a way that would bring the most benefit to the owners.