Mabo v. Queensland [No. 2] (1992), 175 C.L.R. 1: basis and nature of aboriginal rights: claim for native title

The High Court of Australia has also considered the question of the basis and nature of aboriginal rights. Like that of the United States, Australia's aboriginal law differs in significant respects from that of Canada. In particular, in Australia the courts have not as yet determined whether aboriginal fishing rights exist, although such rights are recognized by statute: Halsbury's Laws of Australia (1991), vol. 1, paras. 5-2250, 5-2255, 5-2260 and 5-2265.

The Mabo judgment resolved the dispute between the Meriam people and the Crown regarding who had title to the Murray Islands. The islands had been annexed to Queensland in 1879 but were reserved for the native inhabitants (the Meriam) in 1882. The Crown argued that this annexation was sufficient to vest absolute ownership of the lands in the Crown. The High Court disagreed, holding that while the annexation did vest radical title in the Crown, it was insufficient to eliminate a claim for native title; the court held at pp. 50-51 that native title can exist as a burden on the radical title of the Crown: "there is no reason why land within the Crown's territory should not continue to be subject to native title. It is only the fallacy of equating sovereignty and beneficial ownership of land that gives rise to the notion that native title is extinguished by the acquisition of sovereignty".

From this premise, Brennan J., writing for a majority of the Court, went on at p. 58 to consider the nature and basis of aboriginal title:

Native title has its origin in and is given its content by the traditional laws acknowledged by and the traditional customs observed by the indigenous inhabitants of a territory. The nature and incidents of native title must be ascertained as a matter of fact by reference to those laws and customs. The ascertainment may present a problem of considerable difficulty, as Moynihan J. perceived in the present case. It is a problem that did not arise in the case of a settled colony so long as the fictions were maintained that customary rights could not be reconciled "with the institutions or the legal ideas of civilized society", In re Southern Rhodesia, [1919] A.C., at p. 233, that there was no law before the arrival of the British colonists in a settled colony and that there was no sovereign law-maker in the territory of a settled colony before sovereignty was acquired by the Crown. These fictions denied the possibility of a native title recognized by our laws. But once it is acknowledged that an inhabited territory which became a settled colony was no more a legal desert than it was "desert uninhabited" in fact, it is necessary to ascertain by evidence the nature and incidents of native title.

"Traditional laws" and "traditional customs" are those things passed down, and arising, from the pre-existing culture and customs of aboriginal peoples. The very meaning of the word "tradition" -- that which is "handed down [from ancestors] to posterity", The Concise Oxford Dictionary (9th ed. 1995), -- implies these origins for the customs and laws that the Australian High Court in Mabo is asserting to be relevant for the determination of the existence of aboriginal title. To base aboriginal title in traditional laws and customs, as was done in Mabo, is, therefore, to base that title in the pre-existing societies of aboriginal peoples. This is the same basis as that asserted here for aboriginal rights.

….in Mabo, the Australian High Court, after a masterful review of Commonwealth and American jurisprudence on the subject, concluded that the Crown must be deemed to have taken the territories of Australia subject to existing aboriginal rights in the land, even in the absence of acknowledgment of those rights. As Brennan J. put it at p. 58: "an inhabited territory which became a settled colony was no more a legal desert than it was `desert uninhabited'. . . ." Once the "fictions" of terra nullius are stripped away, "[t]he nature and incidents of native title must be ascertained as a matter of fact by reference to [the] laws and customs" of the indigenous people.

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