Tony Abbott’s recent visit to the grave of Eddie Koiki Mabo was both an awkward sight and a timely reminder how time and time again conservative political hyperbole and hysteria rears its ugly head in response to change and social progress. And how a few decades later we collectively wonder what the fuss was all about.
While we can offer forgiveness for the hate and vitriol that comes forth during such incidents of political bastardry, we should never forget the hurt will stay with those targeted during such shameful periods of our national history, and justice delayed is justice denied.
Mabo v Queensland (No 2) (“Mabo case”)  HCA 23 was a landmark moment in Australia’s history because it rejected the doctrine of terra nullius and recognised a common law doctrine of Aboriginal title, acknowledging the prior existence of Aboriginal ‘ownership’ of land. After 200 years of political denial and cultural myopia, the highest court of the land delivered a much-needed wakeup call to the nation and delivered justice.
But, that wakeup call was not well received at the time … and that’s putting it mildly.
The sky was falling, according to Bill Hassell, a conservative Western Australian Liberal Party politician, who threatened the judgment had the potential to destroy Australian society:
It is beyond my comprehension to work out why the High Court should, wittingly or unwittingly, have become a party to the fulfilment of that agenda. Being generous, one must respectfully assume that the High Court was simply misguided that the majority of judges confused their responsibilities as judicial officers with their personal ideologies, that they were not part of the wider long-term agenda which will inevitably lead, if followed, to a divided and damaged, and some would say destroyed, Australian society.
Put very simply, the wider agenda is to create an Aboriginal, separate, sovereign state geographically within Australia, but not part of, or tenuously only a part of, the Australian nation.
Fellow Western Australian Liberal Richard Court warned 80% of Western Australia could be claimed. Jeff Kennett, Victoria’s Liberal Premier claimed no Australian backyard was safe.
National Party leader Tim Fischer had an even bigger meltdown:
I’m not going to apologise for the 200 years of white progress in this country. I will take on and fight the guilt industry all the way.
The ramifications of Mabo may place in jeopardy so many mining projects across the Northern Territory and Western Australia … the Coalition will seek to negotiate a solution. At the end of the day, if no solution is forthcoming, we will legislate to provide the required certainty.
Later he further commented:
Rightly or wrongly, dispossession of Aboriginal civilisation was always going to happen. Those in the guilt industry have to consider that developing cultures and peoples will always overtake relatively stationary cultures. We have to be honest and acknowledge that Aboriginal sense of nationhood or even infrastructure was not highly developed. At no stage did Aboriginal civilisation develop substantial buildings, roadways, a wheeled cart as part of their different priorities or approach.
Mabo has the capacity to put a brake on Australian investment, break the economy and break up Australia – a break, a break and a break-up we can well do without.
A charming man, with a charming view of the world …
The day after the decision, on 4 June 1992 the grave of Eddie Mabo was vandalised and desecrated with red swastikas and the word ‘abo’ splashed across it. His smiling bronze bust had been broken off the headstone and stolen.
When the government of the day introduced the Native Title Act 1993 in response to the judgment, the then leader of the Liberal Party in opposition, John Hewson didn’t hold back either:
This is a day of shame for Australia, a day of shame for Australia, and it’s a day of shame that’s going to haunt you and your government every hour of every day between now and the next election.
I suspect most of these politicians would be embarrassed and horrified today reading what their responses were to the Mabo decision over 20 years ago. But that embarrassment should be a reminder to our politicians today that leadership requires foresight, and anything they say today should be considered in the prism of the cultural and social progress which is constant, unstoppable and, invariably liberal in direction.
What a difference two decades make, with our current conservative leader, Tony Abbott now describing Eddie Mabo ‘a warrior who fought for justice,’ and acknowledging the landmark court decision was contentious at the time but it is now universally accepted as just by Australians.
All Australians now embrace Eddie Keiko Mabo. Yes, at the time, there was much contention, he fought for justice for many years, justice was denied.
Eventually, too late perhaps, but nevertheless justice was granted and now we are a people on the path to reconciliation in large measure to what Eddie Koiki Mabo and his brothers and sisters fought for.
The struggle for justice, justice sought, justice granted and people moving forward together as Australians, that is what we must all seek and thanks to Eddie Koiki Mabo, that is something we are closer today than we have ever been in our history.
Tony Abbott addressing the Mabo clan on Mer Island, in the Murray Island group in the far north of the Torres Strait
One can’t help but wonder if, while standing at Eddie Mabo’s grave, Tony Abbott had a chance or inclination to reflect on his modus operandi of conservative hyperbole and hysteria today in respect of a range of issues, from the blind denial of the subtle underlying racism that continues to persist in Australian society, to the treatment of asylum seekers, the ideological rhetoric against environmental protections, and the denial of marriage equality to the LGBTI community.
Each a bigger threat to society in conservative minds than the next, sabotaging our economic future or national security, or damning our culture and society to hell. Did he reflect on whether the many, many issues he and his government currently sees as contentious are already universally accepted as just by Australians, or soon will be?
You would think they would have detected a pattern by now in their historically flawed approach to cultural and social progress, but no – which brings to mind the wise and eternal words of Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s Founding Fathers:
I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)