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Wednesday, 28 November 2018
Page: 11942


Ms CLAYDON (Newcastle) (10:33): It's a great honour to stand in this chamber today to speak about Dr Bonita Mabo. Just days ago Dr Mabo was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from James Cook University in Townsville for her lifelong contribution to social justice and human rights. If the photographs of that graduation are anything to go by, Dr Mabo totally owned that graduation day. Her grace and presence commanded respect. That is indicative of the extraordinary contribution that she has made to our nation. Only days after that terrific celebration honouring Dr Mabo, we are here in this House paying tribute to her and giving thanks for her life, as she, sadly, died aged 75, surrounded by her family, in Townsville the day before yesterday.

Dr Mabo was a proud Malanbarra woman and a descendant of the Vanuatuan workers who were brought to Queensland to work on the sugar plantations. Her history was steeped in some of that shocking history that is part of our national story, which we will need to face squarely, and that was the horrific chapter of blackbirding, where people were taken—and usually against their will—from the South Sea Island nations to come and work in the sugar industry in Queensland.

Dr Mabo also co-founded Australia's first Indigenous community school. Her passion for education knew no boundaries, so she helped found the Black Community School in Townsville, which had a terrific history over many decades. Sadly, it no longer exists, and that is due to lack of funds and a whole range of reasons. She worked tirelessly as a teacher's aid in that school and oversaw all of the day-to-day operations, including insistence that there would be cultural training for all the students in that school. She is very aptly described as the mother of native title, and she is one of the greatest matriarchs of all time. Dr Mabo's passing is an enormous loss for our nation.

June Oscar, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, in learning of Dr Mabo's death, recently said:

Bonita Mabo was a woman of great strength. She was gentle, stoic and loving. I will always remember her as the mother of native title. Her legacy lives on in our continuing fight for land and sea rights.

It is indeed this lifelong commitment to social justice that sets Dr Mabo's work and that of her entire family in a very special place in our national story. It was her lifelong partnership with her husband, Eddie Mabo, that helped to quite radically reshape Australia's political, legal and cultural landscapes. Their fight to secure native title rights—and the High Court put paid to that legal fiction of 'terra nullius'—paved the way for the Native Title Act of 1993. That has had profound implications for our nation.

I was a very young anthropologist at the time of the Mabo decision. I knew very much through the work of Henry Reynolds of Mr Mabo, deceased, who never gave up. It is extraordinary that, against so many obstacles and odds, there was this incredible resilience and persistence that drew strength from knowing that you were right, that you had a very proud and honoured place as a First Nations people and that nothing was going to get in the way of getting some recognition of those rights. I was working at the time up in the Fitzroy Valley in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. WA was the only state in Australia to never have any form of land rights legislation, so the Mabo decision was a huge deal. It meant a lot to people in Western Australia—certainly to the Bunuba people who I was working with at the time, but also lots of people across the Kimberley region.

We know much of that history now, but Dr Mabo's role in enabling and helping that fight to happen is probably the lesser-known story in our nation. In recent years, Dr Mabo has certainly been fighting for South Sea Islanders to also be recognised in Australia as their own distinct ethnic group. In many ways, this remains some unfinished business for us in Australia.

I was very fortunate to be part of a parliamentary inquiry, through the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, back in 2015, where we were trying to pick up on an earlier report to this parliament around a call for recognition. That call for recognition came out of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's 1992 report. We learnt in that inquiry that, despite some of the formal recognition that had been given post-1992, the disadvantages that South Sea Islander groups were experiencing here in Australia in many ways mirrored that of First Nations communities. Perhaps there was no stronger advocate than Dr Mabo for the recognition of those South Sea Islander peoples, that lived experience and the need to access some specific services. It has always been a real struggle navigating across multiple jurisdictions and departments within the government as to how we deliver services to Australian South Sea Islanders.

I note that the government, back in 2015, did commit to progressing this. I wait, with great enthusiasm, I guess, to see what the government might bring before the parliament as a response to the fact that they are going to use the Senior Officials Settlement Outcomes Group, SOSOG, to try to progress some of the issues that we raised. They've committed to providing an update by the Minister for Families and Social Services to this parliament every three years, commencing in the middle of next year. I can think of no better way for this parliament to honour the lifelong work of Dr Mabo than to progress those issues that remain unfinished business for us in this nation, in relation to Australian South Sea Islanders.

I've just come from an Oxfam-hosted event here in Australia called Straight Talk, where a group of 70 remarkable First Nations women have gathered to come and learn how to play a much more active role in political processes here in Australia and the decision-making processes. There were also women from Vanuatu present. I was thinking of Dr Mabo as I sat listening to so many of these extraordinary women this morning. I'm looking forward to the meetings again tomorrow. I know just how proud Dr Mabo would be to see women from Meriam Mir nations there today, here in the centre of decision-making in this nation, and to see that there was such a strong presence of First Nations women and also Australian South Sea Islanders. I give my heartfelt condolences to her 10 children and a huge thanks to the Mabo family for sharing your mother and father with our nation.