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'It's a day for all Australians': Grandson calls for Mabo Day to be declared a national public holiday

 On the 30th anniversary of the landmark High Court decision paving the way for native title cases, the grandson of legendary First Nations land rights activist Eddie Koiki Mabo (1936-1992), has called for Mabo Day, June 3, to be declared a national public holiday.

Kaleb Mabo, grandson of Koiki Mabo, on
Mer Island in the Torres Strait. Source: Kaleb Mabo

Kaleb Mabo has also embarked on a personal project to restore his grandfather’s gravesite on Mer Island in the Torres Strait, where the seeds of Koiki’s monumental achievement to have the false doctrine of “terra nullius” (land belonging to no one) overturned, were sown.

Kaleb said Mabo Day, which occurs each year at the end of National Reconciliation Week, was a day of reflection on what his grandfather and the other plaintiffs in the famous court case, which ultimately ended up before the High Court, achieved.


  • The grandson of the late Koiki Mabo has called for Mabo Day, June 3, to be an Australia-wide public holiday
  • Kaleb Mabo is restoring his grandfather's gravesite on Mer Island in the Torres Strait
  • This year's Mabo Day marks 30 years since the landmark High Court decision overturning "terra nullius"
He said Mabo Day was a day for everybody to celebrate not just Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“That is why I’ve started to push for this day to become a national public holiday so Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people can recognise it for what it is," Kaleb said.

It’s the day that white Australia recognised Indigenous Australians, First Nations people, the ones that were here first.

Kaleb said his grandfather was born and raised on one of the larger islands in the eastern Torres Strait, Mer Island (also known as Murray Island), but had then lived in Townsville for most of his short life.

"He was an activist, a school principal, a man that saw deeper into the future than what was right at hand and what he’s most known for is fighting in the High Court of Australia for the recognition of the Meriam people as the traditional owners of Mer," he said.

That set the course for the overturning of ‘terra nullius’ and that’s where a lot of native title has come from.

He was also coordinating a project to repair and restore his grandfather’s final resting place on Mer Island, he said.
Mer Island, Torres Strait, June 3, 2002. A woman in traditional dress stands next to Koiki Mabo's grave on Mer Island in the Torres Strait.
 Souce: AAP Image/Jordan Baker

“In 2019, I went back with my mum and was a bit saddened by the state of where things have gotten to in terms of the jungle taking over and the sea is just washing away the land and I thought ‘yeah, it’s time for the Mabo family to come back and rebuild those connections with our ancestors’ and that’s part of the project that I’m conducting at the moment,” he said.

The Mabo case was heard over 10 years, starting in the Queensland Supreme Court.

Kaleb said he was proud of his grandfather’s achievements as well as the other plaintiffs - fellow Mer Islanders, Reverend David Passi, Celuia Mapo Salee, Sam Passi and James Rice - in the landmark High Court case as well as the lawyers and barristers who had helped put the legal argument together.

However, he said he questioned the progress made in the 30 years since the decision.

“For me, it’s kind of special but it also brings up the question of what have we got from it and where do we go next as Indigenous people of Australia?” Kaleb said.

“What did the abolition of ‘terra nullius’ actually mean and what did it do and mean for Indigenous Australia?

“I guess that’s what this year has really reflected for me. What’s our next step? Where do we go from here?”

June 3 is already a public holiday in the Torres Strait. Source:
AAP Image/Jordan Baker

As part of his testimony during the case, Koiki explained how his grandfather had taken him to the village of Las and shown him his land boundaries and his fish traps.

His grandfather explained how “meriba ged” or “our land” came to be handed down through five generations to his father.

He told the court his grandfather had also told him: “If your father will get old, you will take his land like he did when I got old”.

Following the Mabo decision, Australia’s Federal Parliament passed the Native Title Act 1993 which established a legal framework for native title claims throughout Australia by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Koiki died five months before the High Court’s decision on June 3, 1992, which was that “native title” did exist and it was up to the people of Mer Island (Koiki’s birthplace) in the Torres Strait to determine who owned the land.

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