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Wednesday, 28 November 2018
Page: 11947


Ms O'TOOLE (Herbert) (11:01): I rise in this place today with a deep sadness in my heart as I take this opportunity to speak about an incredibly remarkable woman. I pay my respects to the Manbarra people of Palm Island, because Dr Mabo AO was a Manbarra woman, a traditional owner, from Palm Island. Dr Mabo was also a South Sea Islander and a reconciliation activist. She was the widow of Torres Strait Islander land claimant Eddie Koiki Mabo. Dr Mabo was born in Halifax, Queensland, which is roughly just over an hour's drive from my electorate of Herbert. She was the descendant of Vanuatuan workers, formerly known as Kanakas, who were taken—or, more accurately, blackbirded—from their home to Queensland, some 2,000 kilometres west of their homeland, to work in absolutely substandard conditions on sugar plantations between 1816 and 1904. This practice, as I said, is known as blackbirding. These workers were in fact treated like slaves, and the cane industry in the north flourished on their blood, sweat and tears.

Dr Mabo married Eddie Koiki in Ingham in 1959, and they were to become the parents of 10 children. In 1972, disenchanted with the education that her children were receiving, Dr Mabo set up Australia's first Aboriginal community school. Eddie Koiki Mabo was also involved, but he soon came to focus on his own campaign. Dr Mabo supported him through his historic land claim, which was fought out at their home in Garbutt in Townsville. Dr Mabo said: 'I was his wife, but that's as far as it went. I've got nothing to do with the land.' Following his death, she increasingly sought recognition for her own ancestors. She was an advocate for reconciliation for all Australians, especially between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and South Sea Islander people, speaking frequently of the need to work together as one to fight for our rights.

Dr Mabo and the rest of her family longed to see 3 June, the anniversary of the successful Mabo decision, declared a national holiday, with the focus of the day on reconciliation for all Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians. On 17 November 2018, James Cook University conferred upon Mrs Mabo an honorary doctorate of letters in recognition of her outstanding contribution to social justice and human rights at a private ceremony that was held in Brisbane. This was just days before her passing.

On 31 May 2018, a star was named in her honour at the Sydney Observatory during the visit of the New South Wales judicial commission's Ngara Yura Program to the observatory. Her daughter, Gail Mabo, was present because Dr Mabo was very unwell. Another star, Koiki, had been named in memory of Eddie Koiki Mabo in 2015 on the 23rd anniversary of the Mabo decision, a very fitting tribute to two amazingly strong and resilient First Nations activists. Dr Mabo was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia on Australia Day 2013. She was an incredibly strong, resilient and dignified woman, who quietly conquered much adversity. Dr Mabo never showed fear. She was a woman who will be forever known as one of the greatest First Nation leaders of our time. Today I stand in this place to honour the memory of Dr Mabo and pay my respects to her 10 children and extended family. The people of Townsville have a very close connection with the Mabo family and we hold them with the greatest respect and honour. In my community Dr Mabo is known for her contribution to social justice and human rights and her activism on First Nations matters, and she also had the title of 'mother of land rights'. Dr Mabo was about 16 when she first met Eddie Koiki Mabo. Eddie said it was love at first sight. In 1959 the two married and they had 10 children.

Their strong commitment and belief in the power of education for their children and all First Nations children is well known. As I have already mentioned, they founded Australia's first Indigenous community school in Townsville. The school started with 10 students in an old Catholic school building in the heart of the city. There were only two teachers who assisted the children to connect to their cultural background, and Dr Mabo was a teacher aide at the school. It commenced with financial support from parents and some local trade unions. Eddie Koiki Mabo relied on his contacts at the Townsville Trades and Labour Council. The school also received initial support from the Australian Union of Students, the Australian Council of Churches and the Aboriginal Arts Board. It eventually received limited support from the Australian Schools Commission, a program of the Whitlam and Fraser governments, and the Queensland state education system. In 1976 the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs took responsibility for the overall funding; however, underfunding was always going to have an impact on the school's viability. At its peak in the late 1970s, 45 students were enrolled at the school. The Indigenous community school was able to sustain itself for 12 years and for its duration was a vital centre for the Torres Strait Islander community in Townsville. The school sadly closed in 1985 due to lack of funding and the inability to secure a lease on a permanent site.

Dr Mabo campaigned alongside her husband, Eddie Koiki Mabo, in the pursuit of land rights for Aboriginal people, as I have said. This land rights campaign started at JCU in my electorate as a result of a conversation between Eddie Koiki Mabo and two of the professors at JCU when they casually mentioned to Koiki in a conversation in the garden where he worked that the land that he thought was his was in fact not his land. Dr Mabo at that time worked at a prawn factory to support her family and her husband to earn the income to provide a home, feed, clothe and educate their 10 children. From there the campaign began at their home in Garbutt. Dr Mabo was there all through the journey, looking after the family and supporting her husband. I grew up not far from the Mabo home in Garbutt, a very working class suburb. I remember the buzz in the community, but I also remember that life was very tough in those days for our First Nations people. It must be remembered at this time that Townsville was one of only two cities in Queensland, and the country, that voted no in the 1967 referendum.

Tragically the historic High Court decision was announced just five months after Koiki Mabo's passing. This was a both joyous and incredibly sad day for his family. The historic Mabo decision led to the creation of the Native Title Act in 1993. Even though Dr Mabo had lost her dearly-loved husband she continued her activism. She was a genuinely gentle woman of incredible conviction and amazing strength. She was gentle, stoic and loving. Her legacy will live on not only in my community of Townsville but also across this great nation. I say thank you to Dr Mabo for your inspiration, your passion, your resilience, your strength and your endless dedication to the rights of First Nations peoples. You will be forever missed but never forgotten. Vale Dr Mabo.