Today I was given the tragic news of the passing of Mrs Mabo. I will not use her first name out of respect for her family. It was only last year that I gave a speech to honour the 25th anniversary of the Mabo High Court ruling. Mrs Mabo, a South Sea islands woman, was an activist, an educator and a lifelong advocate for reconciliation. Her father came to Australia from Tanna Island, in Vanuatu, to work in the sugar plantations in Queensland. From 1863, some 62½ thousand people were so-called recruited, put on ships, sailed to Queensland and forced to work under harsh conditions, mostly on sugar plantations but also in the pastoral and maritime industries.

Mrs Mabo lived in a unit in Townsville, a city named after Robert Towns, a participant in what became a lucrative slave trade that coerced thousands of South Sea islanders to work as indentured labourers. All of this was before the White Australia policy, which sought to get South Sea islanders off Australia and back to the Pacific, often to islands they did not come from in the first place.

Mrs Mabo's family history is part of her history, and we will honour that by our own process of truth-telling. In my home town of Broome we have a shared history of blackbirding. Like the sugarcane plantations and their owners, the pearling industry was illustrious for the masters and renowned for the cruelty and treatment meted out to the Aboriginal peoples caught in the tide of indentured labour.

In 1959 she married Eddie. Her love for Eddie is documented through a series of letters. Young and in love, Mrs Mabo and Eddie wrote to each other between her home in a shantytown on the edge of a Queensland sugar plantation and far-west Queensland, where Eddie was working as a fettler on the Queensland railway tracks. Together they had 10 children. She was an activist and a mum. The High Court took 10 years to reach a decision—a long, arduous fight that would not have been possible without the support and love of Mrs Mabo for Eddie.

In 1973, together with Eddie, she co-founded Australia's first Indigenous school, the Black Community School in Townsville. Eddie was determined to see the songs and language of Mer taught to First Nations kids. Mrs Mabo already had six children and was pregnant with her seventh when the school opened. When Eddie sought funding, she worked as a teacher's aide and made sure that the school stayed true to its manifesto.

The Mabo family paved the way for my own activism and fight for a reconciled Australia, one that recognises First Nations peoples. Mrs Mabo had a fierce passion for reconciliation. She fought with a smile, always hopeful that common decency and a fair go could outweigh racism. She knew the power of conversation. She said:

I think the first step is getting to know somebody, sit down and spend a bit of time talking to people and maybe you'll get to know them and then maybe they'll say, 'Come on we'll go and have a barbie somewhere.'

In 2002, Mrs Mabo called for 3 June to become a national holiday—the day the myth of terra nullius was realised and the day the High Court reached its final decision in the Mabo case, a decision we all know Eddie Mabo was not alive to witness. She said:

I'd go to my grave happy to know it's a day for all.

She could envision an Australia based on mutual respect and a shared history we could all be proud of. I remember visiting her in her home in Townsville, where we shared a pot of tea. She was reflecting on the desecration of her husband's tomb in Townsville, defaced and desecrated by vicious and hateful thugs. She was composed, considered and kind, feeling sorry for the vandals and pitying their ignorance.

Her own activism sought recognition for South Sea islanders across Australia. In the last 20 years she has fought for a process of truth-telling about the brutal treatment of her people. In 2013 she was recognised as an Officer of the Order of Australia—and I will quote the citation—for her:

… distinguished service to the indigenous community and to human rights as an advocate for the Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander peoples.

Mrs Mabo was the recipient of an Honorary Doctor of Letters from James Cook University only a few days ago. I'm grateful that she knew how proud of her we are and that she was continuously recognised, right up to her last days.

In closing, I was very moved by the fact that today marks the reconciliation of two proud Australian souls, a loving couple who have made our country down here on earth a better place, a more harmonious place and a more reconciled nation. Kulia, Mrs Mabo.

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