Native Title & Mabo

22 December 2015

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are advised that this article contains the name and image of a deceased person.


Native Title & the Mabo Decision

On 3 June 1992, the High Court by a majority of six to one upheld the claim and ruled that the lands of this continent were not terra nullius or land belonging to no-one when European settlement occurred, and that the Meriam people were 'entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of (most of) the lands of the Murray Islands.


Eddie Koiki Mabo


The decision struck down the doctrine that Australia was terra nullius - a land belonging to no-one. The High Court judgment found that native title rights survived settlement, though subject to the sovereignty of the Crown.

The Native Title Act 1993 is part of the Commonwealth Government's response to that historic High Court decision.

The Native Title Act 1993

The Prime Minister said in December 1993 during the passage of the Native Title Bill through Parliament:

'... as a nation, we take a major step towards a new and better relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. We give the indigenous people of Australia, at last, the standing they are owed as the original occupants of this continent, the standing they are owed as seminal contributors to our national life and culture: as workers, soldiers, explorers, artists, sportsmen and women - as a defining element in the character of this nation - and the standing they are owed as victims of grave injustices, as people who have survived the loss of their land and the shattering of their culture.'

The Prime Minister said also during the passage of the legislation through Parliament that the Government made its twin objectives clear in its response to Mabo: to do justice to the High Court decision in protecting native title, and to ensure workable, certain land management.

The Act does five things:

·       It recognises and protects native title.

·       It provides for the validation of any past grants of land that may otherwise have been invalid because of the existence of native title.

·       It provides a regime to enable future dealings in native title lands and imposes conditions on those dealings.

·       It establishes a regime to ascertain where native title exists, who holds it and what it is, and to determine compensation for acts affecting it.

·       It creates a land acquisition fund to meet the needs of dispossessed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who would not be able to claim native title.


In the Act, the Commonwealth has adopted the common law definition of native title. Native title is defined as the rights and interests that are possessed under the traditional laws and customs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and that are recognised by common law. 


Source: Year Book Australia, 1995 (ABS Catalogue No. 1301.0)


Eddie Mabo image under Creative Commons