Selden Society 2016 Lecture Series
Lecture four—Leading Cases of the Common Law—Mabo v State of Queensland (No 2) (1992) 175 CLR 1 was presented by The Hon Margaret White AO on 22 September 2016.
Mabo v Queensland (No. 2) is one of the most important judgments ever delivered by the High Court. It concerned an issue arising from events some 200 years earlier, when the Australian continent was first colonised. The issue was whether the effect of colonisation, under the common law, was to vest full ownership of all Australian land in the Crown—or whether the common law recognised land titles rising under pre-existing Indigenous laws and customs.
For two centuries, Australian society had proceeded upon the assumption that no native title rights had survived colonisation. With each passing decade, as modern development expanded and religious societies fragmented, the practical difficulties of challenging this view seemed insuperable. In Mabo, however, a viable test case emerged. It concerned the Meriam people of the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait. These remote islands had been continuously occupied, since well before European settlement, by descendants of the same Indigenous peoples. As these islands had been spared the worst of colonisation, it seemed possible for the claimants to prove the existence of precolonial land rights—and their continuing operation on the island—so providing a factual basis upon which to challenge the conventional view that these rights had been extinguished.
This challenge was commenced by proceedings instituted in the High Court by Meriam people Eddie Koiki Mabo, Celuia Mapo Salee, Sam Passi, David Passi and James Rice. It took ten years to resolve—including a full trial of the factual issues heard by Moynihan J of the Supreme Court of Queensland. The claimant’s success in this case marked a major turning point in both the law and Indigenous relations in Australia.
About the Speaker
The Hon Margaret White AO acted as junior counsel for the Queensland Government for the ten years of litigation. She brings a unique and valuable perspective to this landmark constitutional case.
The Hon Margaret White AO graduated Bachelor of Laws at the University of Adelaide in 1966. She was admitted as a barrister of the Supreme Court of Queensland in July 1978 and commenced full time practice at the Bar in Brisbane in 1983. She was appointed a Master of the Supreme Court of Queensland in 1990. On 2 April 1992, her Honour was appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland—the first woman to be appointed to the Court. She was appointed to the Queensland Court of Appeal on 15 April 2010.
Her Honour’s long contribution to the law, academia, military and community includes membership of the advisory committee to the Australian Law Reform Commission on the Judiciary Act 1903 (Cth) from 1999 to 2002, foundation fellow of the Australian Academy of Law in 2006 and a member of the University of Queensland Senate from 1993 to 2009 (becoming Deputy Chancellor in 2006).
She received an honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Queensland in 2005 and an honorary Doctorate from the University of Adelaide in 2014. She served as a commander in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve (2002–10) and was Deputy President of the Defence Force Discipline Appeal Tribunal (Cth) from 2008.
From 1999 to 2003 she was Chair of the Supreme Court Library Committee and National Chairman of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust in 2011. She is currently a Councillor of the Australian National Maritime Museum.
Produced by Supreme Court Library Queensland.
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