What was the Mabo Decision?

The Mabo decision was a court case that commenced on the 20th of May in the year 1982.  A group of men from Meriam fought against the Queensland government for acknowledgment of the rights of Aboriginals as the traditional owners of their land.  The leader of the case was Eddie Mabo hence the notorious name for the case the “Mabo decision”.

Eddie Mabo worked alongside four other Meriam men; Celuia Mapoo Salee, Reverend David Passi, James Rice and Sam Passi. The case was taken to the high court which is the highest court that exists in Australia’s Justice System.  The Mabo decision challenged the foundation of terrestrial law in Australia by invalidating the policy of terra nullius ( no man’s land).

What does the term Terra Nullius mean and how does it relate to the Mabo decision?

Terra Nullius is an expression that the British used to justify Brittan claiming and settling in a land that was previously occupied.  The British believed that they could claim the country by invasion and conquest, alternatively if they defeat that country in war. Through they did actually state that even after victory in war, the British would have to respect the rights of the native people.

The decision that Terra Nullius should not have been applicable to Australia was a major milestone for the acknowledgment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights, because it recognized the special connection that they had with their land.

Why was the Mabo decision important?

Before the British settlement in Australia on the 26th of January in 1788, The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had occupied the land for 40,000 to 60,000 years before governor Phillip carried instructions to establish the first British Colony in Australia.  On arrival, they declared Terra nullius on Australia (land that belongs to no one, translated from Latin to ‘Nobody’s land’). This meant that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ occupation of and personal relationship with the land was not being recognized.  

The Mabo Decision was a significant case in Australia that acknowledged the land rights that the people of Meriam had. The case challenged the existing legal system from two different perspectives. The first being that there was a belief that Torres Strait Islander peoples and Aboriginals could not comprehend the idea of land ownership previous to the arrival of British colonizers in 1788. And secondly “that sovereignty delivered complete ownership of all land in the new Colony to the Crown, abolishing any existing rights that may have existed previously.”

How has the Mabo Decision affected legislation in Australia?

The Mabo decision is short for Mabo vs Queensland (No 2) (1992). The legal decision was made by the High Court on 3 June 1992. The Mabo decision was named after Eddie Mabo, the man who challenged the Australian legal system and fought for recognition of the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the traditional owners of their land.

This historic case overthrew the notion of terra nullius in Australia. Although it was a ten-year struggle, which Eddie Koiki Mabo did not live to see completed, the Meriam people proved ownership of the Murray Islands on the principles of British common law. This in turn led to the Native Title Act 1993 that allows other Aboriginal groups to put in similar land claims.

Why was he fighting for the land rights of Murray Island? Why was Mabo an important case for Australian Indigenous people?

Eddie Mabo was agreed he was the finest advocate of his generation. His fight for the land rights of Murray Island was a case that was not purely for his benefit but was helping huge communities affected by the principle of Terra Nullius. His case is so significant even today as he served rights towards other indigenous people, in order to claim land rights.

Mabo was also fighting for all the aborigines, to give them more respect for what is rightfully their land. Taking the land of The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would not only be kicking them out of their own home but it would interrupt their connection they have with their land and the stories and memories that came with it.  This was a strong belief of Eddie Mabo and he was not going to hand over this case.

From 1982 to 1992 when the legal case regarding the acknowledgment of the rights of Aboriginals as the traditional owners of their land, was taking place many native people and even the British public protested for their land rights.  This Primary source from the 1980s depicts the support that Eddie Mabo had when fighting against the Queensland government.  This source originated from ‘The Canberra Times’ alongside an article highlighting the importance and effect of the Mabo decision.

Its purpose is to show that just because something is written down in a large book of legislation doesn’t mean it is set in stone. “It is imperative in today’s world that the common law should neither be nor be seen to be frozen in an age of racial discrimination.” ~From the High Court’s judgment on the Native Title or ‘Mabo’ Case, 1992.

The image illustrates a large protest supporting Eddie Mabo’s case for acknowledgment of the rights of Aboriginal and Torres strait people as the traditional owners of their land. One limitation with images not so much back in 1992 but defiantly today is that they are not always reliable they can be manipulated and changed.

This article was published on the 1st of February, 1994 in ‘The Canberra Times’.  This story addresses the issue that most of the population in Australia was illiterate and uneducated which led to the issue that “the legalistic language had made the judgment inaccessible to most Australians.

When there is, a national debate going on it is vital for all of the population to fully understand the facts and discussions going on concerning the case. The purpose of this article is to discuss the issue around global issues that cannot be fully understood by the people affected and the people involved. This article contains the debate around the Eddie Mabo case from an outside view. It explores some of the fundamental issues with the legislation and the limitation of people who can be fully involved in the fight for freedom.

This source informs us today about some of the outside views from people who were not fully involved in the legal part of the Mabo Decision. Not knowing the author can have a lot of limitations to people analyzing sources such as the perspective of the author based on position, influence, geography, relationships, etc.  

But one thing that helps historians is the time period this was published. It is a very relevant article to the time it was published only a few years after the end of the case so it has insight into the effect of the case and the consequences that followed when changing such a major piece of legislation.


Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. (2017). Mabo case. [online] Available at: https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/mabo-case [Accessed 11 Oct. 2017].

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. (2017). Eddie Koiki Mabo. [online] Available at: http://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/eddie-koiki-mabo [Accessed 8 Oct. 2017].

Mabonativetitle.com. (2017). Mabo/Mabo – The Native Title Revolution. [online] Available at: http://mabonativetitle.com/support.shtml [Accessed 9 Oct. 2017].

Legislation.qld.gov.au. (2017). Acts as passed – Queensland Legislation – Queensland Government. [online] Available at: https://www.legislation.qld.gov.au/browse/aspassed [Accessed 9 Oct. 2017].

Reconciliation Australia. (2017). Reconciliation Australia. [online] Available at: https://www.reconciliation.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/NRW2014_3-June-Mabo_FactS.pdf [Accessed 13 Oct. 2017].

The Conversation. (2017). Australian politics explainer: the Mabo decision and native title. [online] Available at: http://theconversation.com/australian-politics-explainer-the-mabo-decision-and-native-title-74147 [Accessed 13 Oct. 2017].

Nma.gov.au. (2017). Mabo decision | National Museum of Australia. [online] Available at: http://www.nma.gov.au/online_features/defining_moments/featured/1992_mabo_decision [Accessed 13 Oct. 2017].

Trove. (2017). Eddie Mabo – Lists. [online] Available at: http://trove.nla.gov.au/list?id=81652 [Accessed 13 Oct. 2017].

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0


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