This is an NFSA Digital Learning resource. See all Digital Learning websites.
Mabo home
...Trying to get him...
When the hearing resumed, Eddie Mabo completed his evidence and was then cross-examined. He had been the spearhead of the plaintiffs case and had spent three full weeks in the witness box, enduring nine and one half days of examination in chief and six and one half days of cross-examination. Greg McIntyre, who was both Eddie's solicitor and roommate for much of this time, observes that Eddie Mabo's recognition of the importance of the case and his capacity to articulate his position made him a focus of Queensland's opposition to the case:
'the whole attack of Queensland's case was against Eddie... all of the research was zeroed in on trying to get him. And I mean to some extent that was a good strategy because they understood, as we did, that he was the lynchpin to it and if they'd been able to destroy him I think they thought they could win the case. ... But they didn't count on his perseverance and ours.'

In the same interview McIntyre acknowledges that 'part of the reason why we managed to keep at it for 10 years was a combination of the vision of the lawyers, the legal team together with Koiki's vision, and I think it is fair to say that nobody else involved in it had quite that understanding or vision and determination to see it through.'

Barrister Bryan Keon Cohen also recalls the critical contribution made by the courage, commitment and intelligence which Eddie Mabo displayed both his cross-examination and throughout the conduct of the trial: 'Well in my view he was crucial. He was extremely well versed in the traditions and customs of his people. He was equally intelligent enough to listen to us, the lawyers, to understand the way in which we had to present the evidence to an Australian court sitting in Brisbane, a hundred thousand miles away from Murray Island. And it was his role to bring the two cultures together. On the one hand, the traditional Meriam Mir culture, and on the other hand, the Australian legal culture. And it's a very particular task to present one to the other. He was crucial in facilitating that transition.

So we would rely on him to explain to his families, to his friends, and to the witnesses, how they should present their evidence, why it was that we the lawyers were asking silly, inquisitive questions about whose land was who, and what were the traditions and customs about sweeping or fishing or disposing of land. How was it that a father would dispose of land to his sons. What happened? Did they write a will? Did they go out there and point and say 'Son, when I die, this land will be yours'? Silly questions, but someone had to explain in Meriam Mir language to some of the traditional people, especially the older people, why it was that we were asking these questions, and what we expected of the witnesses when they got to court...

That made our task of interviewing the witnesses and recording their evidence much easier. It made their evidence much more effective because they came to the court with some brief understanding of what to expect, with some knowledge of why we would be asking these questions in court. And it enabled the lawyers to extract from the witnesses the best available evidence. Right? Now without his facilitating role in that way it would have been much more difficult. And without his ability to contact the required people to fill gaps in the evidence, it would have been much more difficult.

Now, equally he had to explain to us the broad features of the traditions and customs operating on Murray Island, the way in which rights and interests in land were manifested and exercised on a day to day basis. So that we were given an initial understanding of the system of custom and tradition on that island, of traditional interests in land and in seas. So that we in turn were able to ask the right questions and to seek to gather the appropriate evidence.

He was very aware of the legal hurdles and the significant political and legal implications of what he and the community was doing. I say he and the community, but it has to be said that without him, there - it's very unlikely that this case would have had the motivation and support that it did have. He was central in not only motivating and bringing the case, but in bringing the community into the case and supporting the case.

Now, he had had a lot of experience dealing with academics and university types at Townsville. He was well known, as I understand it, to a number of the academic staff at that university, and highly regarded. And he had done a lot of reading. He had read into the history and the anthropology and the legal situation of his island. He was aware, for example, of the current Queensland statutory regime, which at that time was all about deeds of grant in trust in respect of islands in the Torres Straits. Murray Island alone, in 1982, largely through his views and his activism, had rejected the application of deeds of grant in trust to Murray Island as, as they saw it, unsympathetic to their traditional rights in land.

He also was strongly of the view that irrespective of what the law of Australia or England or anywhere else said, he enjoyed rights to that island and the seas surrounding the island. And that is a common belief held by many Aboriginal and Islander communities throughout Australia today.

Keywords: Keon-Cohen, Bryan, Mabo Case, Mabo, Edward Koiki, McIntyre, Greg, Queensland

Interviewed by Trevor Graham, 1996.
Author: Kenna, Jonathan
© Film Australia
Source: McIntyre, G and Keon-Cohen, B