The Mabo case

Native title

A high court judgment can prompt parliament to make laws

that the Meriam people are entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of the lands of the Murray Islands.

Having considered a case brought by members of the Meriam people, Eddie Mabo, James Rice and David Passi, on 3 June 1992 six justices of the High Court of Australia declared that the Meriam people were the owners of the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait. In doing so, the judges recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had legal rights to the land prior to the arrival of Europeans, and those rights (native title) could continue to the present provided that the people had maintained their connection to the land, and that title had not been extinguished.

The implications of the Mabo decision caused disparate and emotive reactions throughout the Australian community. The Prime Minister, Paul Keating, declared that his government would make Mabo an historic turning point: 'the basis of a new relationship between indigenous and non-Aboriginal Australians'. Aboriginal groups hoped for protection for native title, and compensation for its loss. Mining and pastoral interests sought reassurance that their titles and leases would not be threatened. All saw the need for Commonwealth legislation to remove uncertainties arising from Mabo.

The government developed a 115 page bill which was introduced into the House of Representatives on 16 November 1993 and passed there without amendment on 25 November 1993. It was introduced into the Senate on 25 November 1993. The Native Title Bill 1993 attempted to reconcile differing interests. While proposing a regime for the recognition and protection of native title, it also laid out a framework for the validation of European titles and leases and thus the extinguishment of much native title.

The bill was the subject of an intense political struggle and protracted debate in the Senate as the parties represented there were polarised by alignment with divergent public opinion. The government was reliant on the votes of members of minor parties and an independent in the Senate for the passage of the legislation, and ultimately supported a number of amendments by the Western Australian Greens reflecting the interests of Aboriginal groups.

The bill was extensively amended, with the Senate agreeing to 88 amendments proposed by the government, 6 Australian Democrat amendments, and 25 amendments proposed by the Greens. Debate on the bill occupied a total of 51 hours and 49 minutes in the Senate, the longest debate on one bill in the Australian Parliament to that time since federation.

The Native Title Bill 1993 passed in the Senate on 22 December 1993. It was returned to the House of Representatives with a message requesting agreement to 116 Senate amendments, listed on a separately printed schedule. The House of Representatives agreed to the amendments on the same day.

The Native Title Bill 1993 was assented to by the Governor-General on 24 December 1993, and became part of Australian statute law, as the Native Title Act 1993.

Within 3 years another bill, the Native Title Amendment Bill 1996, also responding to a decision of the High Court, in this instance the Wik case, was the subject of equally contentious and even longer debate in the Senate.