Vale Dr Bonita Mabo AO

28 November 2018

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (10:53): I rise to add my condolences to the family, friends and supporters of Dr Bonita Mabo AO—Norni to her family—someone who cast a very long shadow as an outstanding activist for land rights, for native title and for recognition for South Sea Islanders. Deputy Speaker McVeigh, as you know, Dr Mabo was born near Ingham in North Queensland, a Malanbarra woman and also a descendant of Vanuatuan workers, those workers who were previously known as Kanaks or Kanakas, who were forcibly required to come to North Queensland to work on the sugar plantations. One of the great shames of Australian history is what has happened to those workers who were brought to North Queensland to work on the sugar plantations. Of course, it is something that the nation even today hasn't fully come to terms with.

It is hard to really do justice to the influence that Bonita Mabo has had on our nation and on our identity—our thoughts about who we are as Australians. The Mabo decision in which she had supported her husband was so important to our nation. When we listened to what the High Court had to say about what sort of country we had been before what was then usually described as 'settlement', the fiction of terra nullius, the fiction that it had just been a vast, empty continent awaiting English settlers was overturned—and it was overturned in a public way and in a legal way—there was an admission, an Australian admission, that the land had been taken. And so, I think it was a challenge to everyone at the time to say, 'Let's think about who we really are as Australians and who we want to be in the future.'

That's another thing that we haven't really come to grips with as a nation. We will head into Australia Day in a couple of months and there'll be the usual arguments and counterarguments about the significance of the particular date. At its heart, that's an argument about who we are as a people and what we believe ourselves to be. And I think, I hope, most Australians want to see unity. They want to see a modern Australia, an Australia that acknowledges the past, that in the spirit of the rejection of the idea of terra nullius respects First Nations people and that also welcomes not just those of us whose family might have come six or seven generations ago but those whose family might have come one or two generations ago and those who are turning to Australia now.

Australia has grown up a lot since the work that Eddie and Bonita Mabo did, and there is a lot more growing up that we have to do together. But today is a day for condolence to her family. I think that condolence, necessarily, must include gratitude. It is the gratitude that the former speaker expressed to the Mabo family for the work that they did to stand up for land rights and to stand up for native title. It is gratitude to them for being activists at a time when it was not easy to be an activist, and it was particularly not easy to be an activist from an Aboriginal background or from a South Sea Islander background, and I suspect it was particularly not easy to be a female activist from that background.

Bonita Mabo did some incredible things in her life, growing up in Far North Queensland, having 10 children and then deciding that, because of the state of education for Aboriginal kids, the only thing she could really do was to establish an Aboriginal school herself. It is such a brave thing to do to actually establish Australia's first Aboriginal community school, because she could see a better future for her kids and for their kids. Of course, her husband was involved in that, just as she was involved in her husband's land rights work. What a partnership! Then later in life, after being widowed, after the loss of Eddie Koiki Mabo, she took on as her cause the recognition of South Sea Islanders as a distinct ethnic group, as a group of people deserving recognition, deserving respect and deserving support. It is quite breathtaking the work that she did.

I think we are lucky—all of us—to have had such a hero growing up in our midst and taking on the issues that made a practical difference to the lives of people that she knew and people that she would never know. She has left an amazing legacy in relation to the advocacy that she undertook. She was recognised for that legacy in 2013, when she was named as an Officer in the General Division of the Order of Australia for distinguished service to the Indigenous community and to human rights as an advocate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander peoples.

As you also know, days before she died, James Cook University conferred an Honorary Doctorate of Letters upon her for her contribution to social justice and human rights. I went to James Cook University. I was a student there in the nineties. As a young student, there was respect for the Mabo family. The entire university was very respectful—reverent—towards the Mabo family for the work that they had been doing and for the work that had changed the country. I was very pleased that they named the library after Eddie Koiki Mabo and am equally pleased that they conferred a doctorate of letters on Dr Mabo during her lifetime. I congratulate the university on the work that they've done to recognise the contribution that the Mabo family has made to this nation.

I also wanted to express, as I said, my condolences to the entire family but I particularly wanted to give my condolences to Neta-Rie Mabo, who I know. She works in my electorate at Sisters Inside, a really wonderful organisation. I know that she'll be particularly feeling the loss of Bonita at the moment. I wanted to say to Neta-Rie, to all her friends at Sisters Inside and to her own beautiful little bubba, who I got to see at NAIDOC Week: the parliament of Australia is grieving with you, and all of us offer our sincere condolences to you for your loss. In conclusion, I wanted to say thank you to Dr Mabo. May she rest in peace.