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How the Mabo decision changed Australia 30 years on

Thirty years ago today, the High Court handed down the Mabo decision, overturning a 200-year-old legal fiction that had been used to deprive Indigenous Australians of their land.

The ramifications of the court's ruling remain with Australia today – as seen by the recent announcement of the return of Me-Mel Island in Sydney Harbour to traditional owners.

But despite its status as one of the most seismic legal decisions in Australian history, from the outset it has sparked misinformation and confusion.

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Here's what you need to know.

Who was Eddie Mabo?

Eddie Kokoi Sambo was born in 1936 on the island of Mer in the Torres Strait.

He was raised by his maternal uncle, Benny Mabo, after his mother died in childbirth, and adopted his name.

He became an Indigenous activist and education advocate, even founding some of Australia's first schools based in Indigenous communities.

In 1982, Mabo and four other Meriam people – James Rice, Celuia Mapo Salee, Sam Passi and David Passi – launched a legal challenge over the ownership of Mer Island, which was then considered Crown land.

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What is the Mabo decision?

On June 3, 1992, after years of legal struggle, the High Court of Australia handed down its decision, overturning the centuries-old legal fiction of "terra nullius".

Australia had been declared "terra nullius" by British authorities in order to provide a pretext for colonisation – in effect, the designation held that Australia was then an uninhabited, unsettled land.

This meant that Indigenous Australians – who had lived on the continent for up to 60,000 years and of whom the British were well aware – could not be considered, under British law, to have any claim of ownership to the land they had lived on for millennia.

The court's ruling meant that Indigenous Australians could now make legal claims to lands in Australia.

While the state still had the power to extinguish native title – as in the case of private property – until that happens, the right to native title is acknowledged.

Mabo himself died less than a year before the decision was handed down, but as the lead plaintiff, his name continues to be associated with the case.

What was the ruling's legacy?

The federal government, under Prime Minister Paul Keating, passed the Native Title Act in 1993, which provided a framework under which native title claims could be contested.

It's been argued that both the Mabo decision and the Act – especially after the latter was modified by Keating's successor John Howard in 1998 – have not gone far enough in establishing Indigenous sovereignty.

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There are numerous obstacles to claiming native title, including onerous burdens of proof, and loopholes that keep Crown land on pastoral leases or other uses deemed important by the government, from being superseded by such claims.

And private property cannot be the subject of native title claims.

On the flip side, the decision provoked a wave of fearmongering and outlandish claims from opponents.

Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett claimed Indigenous Australians would be able to lay claim to peoples' backyards – comments he has since acknowledged were wrong.

Nonetheless, the court's decision is widely hailed as a landmark victory for Indigenous rights.

The judge who wrote the decision, Gerard Brennan, died yesterday aged 94, and was lionised as a giant of his profession – particularly in the Mabo case.

Governor General David Hurley said Brennan's legacy had "helped shape contemporary Australia".

And June 3 continues to be known as Mabo Day.

For some Australians, though, the Mabo decision may be most familiar from the iconic movie The Castle, where the working-class Kerrigan family battle an eminent domain seizure bid for their home.

Hapless lawyer Dennis Denuto (Tiriel Mora) compares the family's plight to the Mabo case with the immortal phrase, "It's the vibe, Your Honour".

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