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Gail Mabo and Dr Bryan Keon-Cohen to give 2012 Dr Charles Perkins oration


24 October 2012

Charles Perkins (right) was the first Aboriginal person to graduate from the University of Sydney. [Image: Robert McFarlane]
Charles Perkins (right) was the first Aboriginal person to graduate from the University of Sydney. [Image: Robert McFarlane]

To mark 20 years since the Mabo decision transformed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights, the University of Sydney's 2012 Dr Charles Perkins AO Annual Memorial Oration will feature two speakers deeply involved with Eddie Mabo and the case that bears his name.

Gail Mabo, daughter of Eddie Mabo, and Dr Bryan Keon-Cohen AM QC, junior counsel for the plaintiffs throughout the Mabo litigation, will give their insights into the landmark case at the University on Thursday 25 October.

The Mabo decision, made in 1992 after 10 years of struggle led by Eddie Mabo, rejected the doctrine of terra nullius and recognised the common law concept of native title, giving the Meriam people of Murray Island legal possession of their traditional lands.

"Many aspects of Eddie Mabo's role in the litigation that bears his name are well known, others less so," says Dr Keon-Cohen.

"But through it all, in my experience, acting as his barrister in complex, protracted, hard-fought and often very uncertain litigation, he was motivated by a simple search for justice. Justice for himself, his family, the Meriam people of Murray Island, and Indigenous people across the nation."

Dr Keon-Cohen will discuss the complexity and conflict of the case, both legally and for Mabo personally.

"In my view - and there are many views on this topic - much progress has been achieved in the arenas of native title and national reconciliation, yet much remains to be done," he says.

Gail Mabo will discuss her father as she knew him, his personal struggle throughout the litigation, and her memories of his legal battle.

"My dad took on the challenge, he wasn't afraid to stand up for what he knew was right," she says.

"The Mabo decision was a change to Australian history. It's not just something that was written in a textbook a long time ago, it's now, we still live it, and it's something that all Australians need to be aware of."

The Dr Charles Perkins AO Memorial Oration was launched in 2001 in collaboration with the University's Koori Centre, and each year features an oration by a leading figure within the field of Indigenous and non-Indigenous race relations.

Established with the full support of the Perkins family, the oration acknowledges Dr Perkins' tireless dedication to human rights and social justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

The event is one of many that demonstrates the University's continuing commitment to fostering excellence in education and leadership among its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and graduates.

The Dr Charles Perkins AO Memorial Prize will also be awarded on the night to three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who have completed a bachelor or honours degree and achieved outstanding results during their studies.

"The achievements of 'agitators' such as Charles Perkins and Eddie Mabo will, I hope, help secure throughout our nation the sentiment that the presence among us and the survival into the future of Indigenous traditional culture and communities is a wonderful privilege - not just a problem," says Dr Keon-Cohen. "Certainly that has been my experience. This too is a major battle yet to be won amongst many sectors of our society over the next 20 years."


Event details

What: The Dr Charles Perkins AO Annual Memorial Oration and Memorial Prize 

When: 6 to 8.30pm, Thursday 25 October

Where: The Great Hall, the Quadrangle, Camperdown Campus

Cost: Free

Book now online 


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Media enquiries: Katie Szittner, 02 9351 2261, 0478 316 809, katie.szittner@sydney.edu.au