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Opinion: Make Mabo Day a public holiday

Seven months from today will mark the 30th anniversary of Mabo Day

Share the hashtag #MakeMaboDayapublicholiday

THE 3 June 1992 was a glorious day for Australia.

In a nation that loves the underdog, what greater example is there than Eddie Koiki Mabo?

A tribal man who was born and raised on the most easterly isle of the Torres Strait, the channel of water that divides the north-east of Australia with Papua New Guinea.

A man who took the Australian government to court – and won.

A man who fought against and overturned terra nullius, the falsified founding pillar of the British Empire’s legal claim to the Australian continent.

Bushranger Ned Kelly’s rage against an unjust society in the 1850s is the stuff of legend.

In Banjo Patterson’s ‘Waltzing Matilda’, the most iconic of Australian songs, hunger drives a ‘jolly swagman’ to steal a sheep to feed himself.

When he is caught, he flees into the billabong and dies, rather than submitting to the authorities.

The swagman’s tale has become synonymous with Australia.

This nation champions the underdog.

A convict history has come to symbolise the strength of a nation of underdogs who have risen from an oppressive colonial past – and created an egalitarian society that is the envy of the world.

Seven months from today will mark the 30th anniversary of Mabo Day – and what better way to celebrate than by making the event a nationwide public holiday?

It is time to for Mabo to be universally celebrated as a great Australian underdog.

It is time to make Mabo Day a public holiday.

Although 3 June is Mabo Day, it is barely acknowledged by many. This week I met a 27-year-old who was born and raised here – but had never heard of Koiki Mabo.

That is an indictment of our education system. It is part of a larger picture. How many Australians have heard of the Frontier Wars? When Pemulwuy, the Aboriginal Braveheart, led a war of resistance against British invasion for 12 years, from 1790 to 1802.

Suggestions that such a figure should be celebrated as an Australian war hero on ANZAC Day have not been warmly received by some.

Such debates can be divisive.

But making Mabo Day a public holiday would be welcomed by many. Who doesn’t want an extra day’s holiday?

This year marked the 25th anniversary of Reconciliation Week, starting with Sorry Day on 26 May and ending on Thursday 3 June, when we celebrated 29 years since the historic Mabo decision.

Reconciliation Week is designed to create harmony between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. But there are too many schools and communities who do not embrace it.

How can reconciliation be achieved until the week becomes a central part of the country’s calendar?

We know we live in a prejudiced society. Racism and discrimination are prevalent. As a non-Indigenous ‘white’ person, I am privileged.

I have never felt the watchful eyes of a security guard tracking me at a shopping mall. I’ve never been racially abused. I don’t have the weight of a racist history entrenched in my psyche.

I was not born in Australia. There will be people who object to this article. ‘You’re not even from this country’, some will say. I wonder how many people’s grandparents heard that after arriving?

The point I want to make is this: making Mabo Day a public holiday would be a great reconciliatory move.

The nation would acknowledge the monumental significance of what Mabo achieved.

Edward Koiki Mabo grew up speaking his native language, Meriam, and was educated through Meriam lore, the traditional form of law that has been used to govern his island, Mer, for thousands of years.

Through Malo’s lore (Malo is a mythological god who took the form of a giant octopus after travelling through the strait and settling at Mer, which was renamed Murray Island by the British) Koiki learned not to take other people’s things. He learned not to trespass on other people’s land.

The punishment for breaking this lore was severe: death. This sounds harsh to our modern ear, but such lores maintained order and nourished a rich and continuing culture.

Koiki was told by his father Benny, who adopted him when he was a baby, that he would inherit his father’s land. A young Koiki was shown the land’s boundaries, marked out by corals and sea shells.

It was not until he reached his 40s, when he was working as a gardener at James Cook University, that he was informed that his land, his birthright, was not legally his under Australian law.

You can imagine his rage. He learned about terra nullius; how James Cook had declared the continent of Australia to be ‘land belonging to no-one’ in 1770, and claimed it for king and country.

Cook’s action was simple. He planted a British flag in the ground, declared the land to be terra nullius, a Latin legal term, and announced it was now part of King George III’s British Empire.

Incredibly, until the 3 June 1992 this action was enough for Australia to be recognised under international law as being British.

Mabo fought a ten-year legal battle, proving under Australian law that there had been a system of land ownership on his native Mer before Cook arrived. It seems ridiculous now to suggest there was not.

But without the actions of Mabo, when would this have been legally acknowledged?

After a long-suffering decade of fighting for what is now universally acknowledged to be right, he came under the lens of Australia’s special branch police force. He faced threats to his family. He carried the immense weight of overturning the legal foundations of modern Australia largely on his shoulders, with support from a dedicated team, and the unshakable strength of his wife, Bonita.

Mabo himself was discredited from being a rightful claimant in the legal case, with the best lawyers Australia could muster persuading the judge not to legally recognise his traditional adoption, and eliminating him from being the rightful heir of Benny Mabo.

But still he did not give up.

The case was pursued through other claimants, Reverend David Passi, Sam Passi, James Rice and Celuia Mapo Sale

On 3 June 1992 the High Court of Australia found in favour of Mabo’s native title claim.

Tragically, the great man passed away from cancer just months before the ruling. But in the aftermath of his death something great was born: the Native Title Act.

This would pave the way for hundreds of First Nations cultures to launch Native Title claims.

One of Hinchinbrook’s Aboriginal peoples, the Warrgamay, had their Native Title recognised recently after decades of struggle.

The shameful post-Mabo media reports in 1992 asked questions such as: ‘How safe is your home?’ People were made to fear that the ruling would destroy the nation, and see people being turned out of properties they owned.

To my knowledge not one Australian has lost their home due to Native Title, and we celebrate the 30th anniversary of its inception next year.

Fighting for Native Title has not been easy. Claimants have to prove a ‘clear and unbroken’ connection to their land. For the peoples whose ancestors were moved away from their countries, this is problematic.

Another clause states that land cannot be shared. Boundary areas between neighbouring nations have always been shared. The issue has been divisive, with some cultures turning on each other. The cynical may suggest this is a classic British tactic: divide and conquer.

Being politically selective in choosing a public holiday would not be a new thing. The Queen’s birthday is a normal working day in the United Kingdom. It does not take a genius to work out that by making it a labour-free day in Australia, they may placate a majority to side against the Republican movement.

Mabo Day is a public holiday in the Torres Strait and in parts of Cape York.

Making the 30th anniversary a nationwide work-free day would be a fitting gesture, and allow the nation to unify and celebrate arguably the greatest of all Australian underdogs – Eddie Koiki Mabo.

Share the hashtags #Mabo30 and #MakeMaboDayapublicholiday to show your support and help make the 3 June 2022 a public holiday.

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