• Charles Passi believes if Eddie Mabo had lived to see the verdict of his case, it would've paved the way for a treaty. (NITV)
A quarter of a century after the Mabo decision, Charles Passi, the son of the only surviving plaintiff, reflects on the legacy of the case and how it underpins the current political landscape.
By
Ella Archibald-Binge

1 Jun 2017 - 1:44 PM  UPDATED 1 Jun 2017 - 1:44 PM

The Mabo verdict was arguably the most significant court ruling in the history of Indigenous Australia, overturning the concept of terra nullius and paving the way for native title.  

But alongside Eddie "Koiki" Mabo, Dave Passi was also there. He was one of the case's key plaintiffs. 

But at the time, his son Charles knew very little about it. 

"So when the case was won, June 3 1992, I didn't actually know about the case," the Meriam man tells NITV News.

"I don't know what his reasons were, but [my father] didn't include me in what he was doing or what the other plaintiffs were doing, so I had no idea." 

Then in his late 20s, Charles was working at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Brisbane.

Once he even sat alongside his father and Eddie Mabo in court, never realising the magnitude of the case until it was explained to him by the late Torres Strait elder, Uncle Steve Mam. 

"It wasn't until the decision was handed down, and a delegation from Brisbane went up to Townsville for the first Murray Island meeting, when the lawyers called everyone together, that Uncle Steve sat me down and explained to me what actually happened. Then I realised then what my father was a part of," says Charles.  

'You could feel the energy in the room, it was just so thick, like you're diving into a pool.'

The proud Torres Strait Islander was in Townsville when the lawyers delivered the news to the Meriam people: a moment he'll never forget. 

"You could feel the energy in the room, it was just so thick, like you're diving into a pool. Just the excitement, and you can hear little voices - people were saying yes, yes, yes," he recalls.

Charles says it was a "privilege" to witness the lawyers explain how the plaintiffs had created history, smashing the myth of terra nullius. 

"The whole room erupted. Just to be a part of that, especially for a young fella, was an incredible time for me."  

But amidst the excitement, Charles fears there was a missed opportunity. 

"What stuck in my head was the lawyers turned around and said to the Meriam people, 'what this case has done is unlocked the door. The door now is only slightly ajar. What we need to do now to push the door wide open - there's many things we need to do. And we need to act now in a timely manner. With all the stepping stones across the river, by the time we reach the other side, we should have a treaty with this country'. 

Had that legal advice been followed, Charles believes today's political landscape could've been very different. 

'If we followed that advice back then, we'd be on a different platform now in terms of talking about a treaty.'

"I think the unfortunate thing was that the visionary, the original visionary, had passed away in Uncle Koiki," he says.

"And I think if he was in the room, he would've pulled the Meriam people to listen to the lawyers. And I think if we followed that advice back then, we'd be on a different platform now in terms of talking about a treaty." 

Instead, the Mabo case paved the way for the Native Title Act, which has been used to varying degrees of success by hundreds of tribal groups, in a bid to gain some control over their land. 

For Charles Passi, it's not enough. 

"For me we're left with something that birds and animals have with parks and wildlife," he says.

"It's the same thing - it's area set aside for the use of the natives for that area, and that is how I interpret native title." 

Charles says the 25th anniversary of the Mabo decision is a time to celebrate, reconnect with culture, and move forward together. 

"I think it's a natural part of creating a new history in this country, that a treaty will happen. It's just how we work our way towards it," he says. 

"We need to draw a line in the sand. We need to be the people that put an end to how our children soak up the poison of the past. We need to be the leaders in that... otherwise what kind of country are we looking at when we sign on the dotted line of a treaty?" 

For Charles, the actions of Eddie Mabo and his fellow plaintiffs illustrated how First Nations people can move forward. 

'We need to walk together in healing our families, our communities, and especially our children.'

"They knew they stood together as a family, they had their brothers with them. And if your brothers are standing next to you, doesn't matter who's against you," he says.

"I think that's what we need to do as a people in this country - we've got to springboard from that example of what the plaintiffs did 25 years ago, and start pulling our family back together again.

"We've got to stand on this platform and create an incredible pathway that's wider than the one that the plaintiffs of Mabo have set for us, and this wider one brings in the whole country, to say we need to walk together in healing our families, our communities, and especially our children. That's what Mabo for me today really means."