Comrade Mabo Emerges from the Red Closet


How outrageous to suggest that Eddie Koiko Mabo was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Australia! For starters, that would suggest that Australian Communists precipitated the subsequent takeover of the 2.5 million square kilometres or the third of this continent now under native title.

In any event, Eddie Mabo repeatedly denied he was a CPA ticket-holder. He wouldn’t have lied about that, surely?

We know Senator Arthur Gietzelt AO, Bob Hawke’s one-time Minister for Veterans Affairs, was a secret CPA member despite all sorts of denials, but he was a politician, after all, and even trousered $14,500 in libel damages from the ABC in 1976 for calling him a Red. The late Stuart Macintyre in his CPA history, The Party (2022) outs Gietzelt (p248) but that was already old news.[1]

Eddie Mabo, in contrast, was such a good chap that Sir Ronald Wilson at the Human Rights Commission in 1992 awarded him posthumously a Human Rights Medal for his work for Aboriginal rights and justice. The next year, my favorite newspaper, The Australian, awarded him their Australian of the Year title. James Cook University, now notorious for its persecution of honest Barrier Reef scholar Peter Ridd, in 2008 christened its Townsville library the Eddie Koiko Mabo Library. Astronomers have named a star Koiko after Mabo, and in 2017 the Mint issued a 50-cent coin with his smiling portrait.

Well, brace yourselves. Eddie Mabo was indeed a CPA ticket-holder. The Mint might as well re-issue its Mabo 50-cents with added hammer and sickle logo. Seeing that Mabo was definitely a CPA member (Townsville branch) in 1964 during the party’s Soviet-worshipping era, the Mint could switch the coin’s wording from “Right Wrongs, Write Yes for Aborigines!” to “ Ригхт Щронгс, Ригхт Йес фор Аборигинес!

This little essay is not about the pros and cons of the High Court’s 1992 Mabo land-rights decision, nor about whether there was anything villainous about the Communist Party doing a united-front job with oppressed Aborigines. I’m just putting stuff on the public record so Eddie Mabo’s Communist Party membership can be included in the materials copiously dished out to pre-schoolers, primary and high schoolers and starry-eyed undergrads at universities (who all might consider Communism a good thing). I hope Mabo’s greatest fan, the ABC, will amend its Mabo material after a close study of my essay.

MY SOURCE for the Mabo revelation is the same Macintyre history, The Party. He writes (p468) with my emphasis,

John Nolan, a member of the Queensland state committee [of the pro-China breakaway outfit CPA – Marxist-Leninist], subsequently formed a branch in Townsville and tried to entice Eddie Mabo across from the CPA branch there.” [2]

How did Macintyre know that Eddie Mabo was in that CPA branch? His relevant footnote is “minutes of meeting of Townsville branch of CPA (M-L), n.d. [1964]” which looks kosher to me.[3] There’s no further info from Macintyre about how long Mabo had been card-carrying pre-1964 and how long thereafter. It was clearly a significant span of years.

Now let’s turn to Eddie’s story, straight from the horse’s mouth in Edward Koiki Mabo, His Life & Struggle for Land Rights, by Professor Noel Loos (James Cook University) and Koiki Mabo, (University of Queensland Press 1996). The Foreword is by Marcia Langton, who writes that, thanks to Mabo, “Australia is a more honorable nation” and “The decision was a ‘watershed’ having ‘an impact like no other legal event in Australia since Federation.”

The book consists of Loos’ tape-recordings of Mabo between 1984 and Mabo’s death from cancer in January 1992, four months before the decade-long native title case was decided. The book in turn became the “bible” for a Blackfella Films episode in First Australians (2008), by Rachel Perkins, daughter of late Aboriginal Affairs Department head Charles Perkins. Melbourne University Press followed up with hard- and soft-cover coffee table books, a paperback reader, “and a well-produced study book for use in schools”. Four years later, Perkins directed a full bio-epic on Mabo for the ABC.

Loos writes that he was having meals with Mabo during a Canberra academic conference and urged him to recount his life on tape.

This he did, without interruption, for some time. We then developed a dialogue in which I asked him to elaborate on some aspects of his story and, in the process, more of his story unfolded, but it was still very much work in progress when he died. Because of his unique place in Australia’s history, I have edited the tapes to express his perspective of his life in his own words and minimised, as much as possible, my contribution to the dialogue.

…It is my attempt to complete the autobiography we set out to create. As a result, we have this remarkable, if incomplete, life story of possibly the most important indigenous Australian in Australia’s history.

Loos sums up:

At the time, the 1960s, many of the union leaders in Townsville who supported Koiki were members of the Communist Party: Eddie Heilbronn, Bill Timms, Bill Irving and Fred Thompson. In one way this was fortunate as the Communist Party had demonstrated a formal commitment to Aboriginal advancement reaching back to 1931 and affirmed in 1943. This had clearly been accepted at branch level in Townsville…

Mabo considered his understanding of mainland politics was largely derived from his involvement with the trade union movement, but initially he didn’t even know what ‘Communism’ or ‘Communist’ meant.”  

Loos writes (my emphases) p124, “I asked Koiki if he had ever thought of joining the Communist Party.”

Mabo: No. It was like the Labor Party. I never ever joined it. I don’t know why. I got nominated [for the Labor Party] a couple of times, and I wanted to join the Labor Party while I was down at the Harbour Board. Then someone said, ‘You’ve got to have a good record and no police convictions.’ Well, I haven’t got any police convictions anyway. They said, ‘…You’ve got to know three or four members of the Labor Party who would make recommendations for you to join.’ And I said, ‘Oh, no. Forget it.’ I didn’t know any other members then. I didn’t continue on with it.

The quote above could read as Mabo’s deflection of the original question about Communist Party membership. The Labor Party did not admit Communist Party ticket-holders.  Mabo  found himself being abused as a “black Commo”.

“Although some attached this label to him, he said he was never tempted to become a member,” Loos wrote in 1984 (p9-10).

I’m no psychiatrist, but while reading the tape transcripts I kept wondering if Mabo was required by the Party to conceal his membership, but being a basically truthful man, he compensated by being disarmingly frank about his intimate ties with Communists and their Townsville branch.

Mabo hero-worshipped his Communist mentors in Townsville, especially “old Communist” Eddie Heilbronn. He would hang around Townsville’s “tree of knowledge” — an almond tree between the Post Office and the SGIO — to enjoy Heilbronn’s stump oratory. He told the tape-recorder:

I never ever heard of Communist people before; I never heard of them, never read anything about them. The state elections were coming up and Eddie Heilbronn somehow nominated himself as a candidate. He was giving a speech and I stood by and listened to it. And I picked up something. He really got me, you know. I was sort of mesmerised by the way he spoke. And I got attracted to that, and then when I saw him again down at the Harbour Board, I used to ask him a lot of questions.

Mabo repeatedly explains that he got to know Communists as friends, only later discovering they were Communists. “But it didn’t make any difference to me,” Mabo said, “because I saw them as the kind of people that I could rely on for any advice.”

Mabo paid dearly for his curiosity by the “almond tree of knowledge”. Several Harbour Board anti-Communists spotted him there and snitched to the bosses. This got Mabo transferred to lower pay on a sledge-hammer gang. His Communist friends would give him advice but made it clear he had to fight his own battles. He took this to heart: “The Communist Party had a long history of involvement with Aboriginal people. They were the first white political party to offer them support in their struggle for justice.” 

In the mid-1960s Mabo and a Queensland Aborigine, Dick Hoolihan, were invited on to the Townsville Labour Council and enjoyed its conferences, he said (p118).

Mabo: I even went to the Communist conference. The Queensland Communist Party would have their conference and they would ask us to go, me and Dick Hoolihan. I think that was the starting off point of my political involvement in organisations.

Does that strike you as a rather sophisticated “starting off point”. It certainly does me.

Mabo said the National Party [i.e. CP/Lib] government was keeping him under surveillance, viewing his group’s activism, such as its black community school and inter-racial seminars, as Communist fronts. He thought the police were tapping their phones and warning off supporters such as the local clergy.

For certain, the Australian Security Intelligence Agency (ASIO) was keeping Mabo under surveillance. Perhaps the police were also involved.

Loos asked Mabo (p121-2) if he had ever attended Communist Party meetings.

I did. I went to a conference. There was a news crew, television, I think. The first time we had television back in 1966, I think, or ’67. Or ’68.

I was still down the Harbour Board when we had the Inter-Racial Seminar [in 1967]. It was after that, after the Inter-Racial Seminar, that I got invited to attend a conference. I wanted to hear their State President. I believed he was a very good speaker who couldn’t repeat the same word twice. And I got attracted there because I admire people who can talk on the spot in front of huge crowds of people.

Anyway, I went along to it. Me and Dick Hoolihan sat in the background and I really admired that man. Anyway, while he was talking, there was a camera crew working. And of course I didn’t know that we were detected as well. We were picked up by the camera. And of course that night the news flash went on television and someone from the Harbour Board picked it up. And about a week later – the Vietnam War was on at that time too – someone called me a Viet Cong. ‘You’re a Viet Cong.’ ‘What are you talking about? What do you mean?’ He said, ‘I saw you on television yesterday.’”

Macintyre publishes in The Party (p555) an ASIO photo of Mabo at the 1965 conference of the North Queensland District Communist Party. ASIO was always particularly interested in undercover CPA members, as distinct from overt members.

His Communist sympathies – or probably his actual Party membership – riled his wife Netta, who as a teacher’s aide became the breadwinner when he was between jobs. Mabo says

Netta’s attitude was much the same as the church-influenced people. I learnt at that time the difference between the Communist Party and the Labor Party and the Liberals and the Country Party, and that Queensland was governed by a coalition of both the Liberals and the National Party, the Country Party. And because she was constantly being brainwashed, maybe during her childhood days, against Communism – either through the church or somewhere along the line anyway – she developed a very bad attitude towards them, towards Communists. And she threatened me at one stage.

She said, ‘If you don’t get out of it, I’m going to leave.’ I had to get out of the Advancement League and all the organisations that I was getting involved in, or she was going to leave. And then I tried my hardest and then eventually I convinced her that we’ve got no one to turn to. The moderate political organisations won’t listen to our pleas. We’ve got to have white support. You know, we’re very much in need of it and we should grab any hand that comes to us.

And she eventually took it in and said welcome to people like [CPA member] Fred Thompson and [co-traveller or member] Frank Bishop. They would come in at any time and she would welcome them. I eventually convinced her.

Loos suggested to Mabo that it must have been a long step for Netta from her Islander village outside Halifax, which itself was a backwater near Ingham, to becoming aware of the political complexities of the world. “Yes. That’s right. Even for me too it was a big step from that little island in the Strait.”

He quit the Harbour Board in 1967 and became a gardener at James Cook University for eight years to 1975. He impressed the academics, who encouraged his self-education and from there the seeds of the Mabo land rights claim were sown. His university gardening job also helped pay off their mortgage. Loos asked him:

Loos: It wasn’t bought by the Communist Party as someone once said?

Mabo: Oh, no. We both laughed.   

Tony Thomas’ latest essay collection “Foot Soldier in the Culture Wars” ($29.95) is available from publisher ConnorCourt


[1] Macintyre, Stuart. The Party: The Communist Party of Australia from heyday to reckoning. Allen & Unwin, 2022.

[2] I’m not surprised Mr Nolan failed to win over Mabo to his splinter party’s brain-numbing mumbo-jumbo about rights and wrongs of the China-Soviet split, eg., “Such differences are the cause of great concern to all here who desire to uphold the purity of our proletarian science.”

[3] When the mainstream party folded in 1991, it generously bequeathed both $3 million in assets (today’s equivalent, $6 million) and tonnes of its long-secret meeting records to scholars and archivists – Macintyre being of that genre. Party members in Victoria had already folded their branch in 1984 and tipped its cash into a new Socialist Forum, this Party money funding Ms Julia Gillard’s part-time salary as administrator/clerk and “Stiletto Specialist” from 1984-87.

22 thoughts on “Comrade Mabo Emerges from the Red Closet

  • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

    Thanks Mr. Thomas, it has always intrigued me, a born and bred a far North Queenslander familiar with our Peninsular aboriginals and the ones from Torres Straits including Murray Island (Mer) just how Mr Mabo did what he did for he didn’t have the background of say Mr. Noel Pearson of Hopevale who was educated by the Lutherans where a modern day cynic might opine that the greatest display of new FWD Toyota Landcruisers is on view there to even a casual observer, so someone must have “pulled” Mr. Mabo’s strings as it were. Your essay above explains who did pull Mr Mabo’s strings.

  • Claude James says:

    Ask any former resident of the Soviet Union about “communism”.
    They will tell you that the party elites got lots of good stuff -and the non-elites were worked to death.
    But golly, The Arts flourished.
    That’s why 90% of members of the arts-entertainment/media complex vote ALP-Greenist.
    And it’s why Paul Keating always explained that the ALP could rule in perpetuity once they engineered the inflow of people who do not like to work for living. Promise them the world, then they’ll vote for the ALP, then the ALP and union and Greenist elites will take over, and then it’s a bad surprise for the budding communist residents.

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    Same as Nelson Mandela then, shy about his communist party membership. Who else I wonder?

  • GG says:

    “Native title” while offensive to the majority who actually earn what they’ve got, isn’t something to be too concerned about. It’s like giving a Sheriff’s Badge to a 7 year old. With that silver star, he’s a gun totin’ sheriff and you’ll do as you’re told. All the land ultimately remains the property of the Crown. As it should.

  • IainC says:

    Given that Communists are either sociopathic genocidal fascists or moral-and ethics-free slavish followers undertaking to raise the former to positions of power through Useful Idiocy, it’s no surprise that some would want to keep their political leanings secret. Those days weren’t like now, where boasting that you’re a Communist gets you a promotion to Head of Programming or Dean of the History Department or whatever, instead of (justifiably) blackballed. The sooner Communists get treated like Nazis in polite society, the better for the world. 150 million murdered – Never Forgive, Never Forget.

  • Brian Boru says:

    I enjoy reading articles by Tony Thomas and this one too but I did not find anything reprehensible about Eddie Mabo here.
    I have always been anti-communist but I also travelled vicariously on Charlie Perkins bus because I have always also been against discrimination and apartheid.
    I am in particular against any discrimination which treats aboriginal people preferentially over other Australians.
    Mabo had a cause (with which I disagree) but I cannot blame him for seeking/ taking support where it appeared to help him. There was no hint here of him supporting the reprehensible aims or tactics of communism.

  • NFriar says:

    @Brian Boru

    You have completely missed the point.

    “There was no hint here of him supporting the reprehensible aims or tactics of communism.”

    Of course not – in your own words they supported him.
    “Mabo had a cause but I cannot blame him for seeking/ taking support where it appeared to help him.”

  • Brian Boru says:

    From what you have said I guess the point you think I missed is that it is somehow wrong to accept the support of a communist towards an end (other than communism) which may otherwise be good.
    If I am right in that understanding, then I can only say I disagree with you.

  • rosross says:

    Does it really matter if he was a member of a party from another age and era? Communism in its day had appeal for many including a lot of intellectuals. How relevant is his membership in regard to him or his ‘legacy?’

  • Tony Thomas says:

    Thanks for the feedback. As I wrote, I was just putting some new facts on the table concerning Eddie Mabo. Since his court cases led to a change of title over one third of our continent, it seems important to get a full understanding of how this came about.
    I hope my little essay inspires experts to do follow-up research, particularly, how long after 1964 was Mabo a secret CPA member and what role did the CPA play in the ten year legal saga leading to the High Court decision? If you or I consider the decision a good one, wouldn’t the CPA at least deserve some credit for Mabo’s political education? Wouldn’t that mentoring of Mabo be the most significant achievement of the CPA since its foundation?
    Alternatively, if the High Court decision were viewed as a bad thing e.g. for fracturing the Australian model along racist lines, and the case in some way involved CPA input, then the CPA’s malign influence would be playing out in Australia today long after the CPA’s dissolution 30 years ago.
    Either way, let’s hope scholars will now give these hypotheticals a proper exploration. It seems worth looking into. For example, the Mabo decision led to Noongar in SW West Australia wanting $290b compensation and title to an area as big as Victoria, a bit of an ambit claim but they seem to have wound up with the tidy sum of $1.3b.

  • Rebekah Meredith says:

    Mabo was part of murderous cult, however far removed from the actual murdering. That is relevant to his reputation, just as it is to Mandela’s (as Ian MacKenzie pointed out above). Had he been a Nazi, I believe that that would be considered damaging–if, of course, the indigenous lobby could not manage to keep it covered up.

  • Tony Thomas says:

    I forgot to add, for those who imagine the CPA was an innocuous group, here’s a partial list of its funding from Moscow (amounts in USD):
    1953 – $25k; 1958 – $112k; 1961 – $170k; 1963 – $80k; 1966 – $130k; 1967 – a large sum that helped the CPA buy its headquarters building in Day St.
    It is typical of Stuart Macintyre’s history “The Party” that it contains virtually no detail of such funding, other than the $25k of 1953 which surfaced in the Petrov commission.

  • 27hugo27 says:

    Ian Mackenzie – Julia Gillard ?

  • Blair says:

    How can you be a Communist without supporting “the reprehensible aims or tactics of communism.”?

  • Brian Boru says:

    The quotes Tony has given from the Loos book have Mabo freely admitting that he went to the Communist conference but he is also quoted as saying that he “never ever joined it”. In writing my comment I have taken Mabo at his word. I have presumed that since he so freely admitted that attendance, he would have just as freely admitted membership had he been a member. I have simply accepted that he had a cause (although I am opposed to that cause) and he was looking for support. Which incidentally and perhaps farcically would have been contrary to Communist doctrine of the land belonging to all people and not to be privately owned.
    But to answer your question; quite obviously the very act of being a Communist involves the acceptance of their reprehensible aims and tactics. That is why I have always opposed them.
    Whilst I am writing this, I also have to say to Tony I have never accepted the CPA as an “innocuous group” and that I disagree with the comment above by rosross.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    Over my life (it is past 80 now) I have learned to become suspicious of any groups whose prime objective is to tell others (or force others) to live in a prescribed manner. It does not matter so much what they name themselves, because the dreadful urge to control others has extended over the wide political spectrum.
    In the 1980s, I instigated and managed a corporate case that ended up before the Full bench of the High Court. We took a then Federal Minister to Court because he was in the process of robbing us blind of a number of mineral leases and exploration licences in the NT, under pretext of allowing the United Nations world heritage rules to apply, without compensation for our loss of an asset that could have been billions of $$$. (One day I intend to write up world heritage on Quadrant.)
    This experience alone was enough for suspicion about the motives of groups seeking to control others. In the present context of Mabo, there has been widespread removal of former activities, taken from many ordinary Australians by the synthetic processes of land rights after the Mabo judgement. Blind Freddy could have seen the failures of all previous attempts to “help” aborigines; the failure of land rights was almost a betting certainty, yet it happened. I do not blame the person Mabo, but I do blame those decision makers who go along with pressure groups that demand actions that predictably will not succeed. Every day Australians are now being robbed blind by taxes being spent on one aboriginal demand after another.
    Ask yourselves what benefit has been returned. Geoff S

    • Louis Cook says:

      ‘One day I intend to write up world heritage on Quadrant’
      GS. Please don’t leave this too long.
      For everybody else, there is nothing good in communism that cannot be had outside of communism.
      The philosophy and evils of communism abound in the world today but never under the name ‘communism’.
      It is supported by some of the world’s richest men and NOT a movement of the working class.

  • Blair says:

    “..perhaps farcically would have been contrary to Communist doctrine of the land belonging to all people and not to be privately owned.”
    Quite the contrary. In traditional Islander culture, all land (and sea resources) were communally owned and allocated to the different clan family groups. Disputes were settled peacefully most times.

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    Most native title is held by tribal groups or families. Individual holdings are in the minority. For a system dreamed up by progressives, inevitably unforeseen outcomes have not resulted in the utopia envisaged. Resurrecting a pre-industrial form of land tenure has consequences in a modern economy.
    Perhaps the worst outcomes result from communal ownership, so individuals cannot get ahead the way they would if they held freehold. Consequently the land remains undeveloped unless a non Aboriginal organization such as a mining company enters into an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (IULA) with payments made to the title holders as a whole as “compensation”. It is possible to build a mine and associated infrastructure on a native title block, but not a house an individual can have secure title to. There is a reason that communes were often divided into privately owned blocks after the fall of communism in Russia. It works much better in a modern economy. Unfortunately Aboriginal Australians are caught in their current pre-1788 system without the possibility of positive change.

  • Brian Boru says:

    When I used the word “privately” I had intended it to also encompass group ownership such as native title as opposed to it belonging to the State which I understand is the Communist idea.

  • restt says:

    “This little essay is not about the pros and cons of the High Court’s 1992 Mabo land-rights”
    I would love to see your paper on this

  • Brenden T Walters says:

    I could never understand how the Chief Justice could hear this case having such an activist and influential son, or, indeed how people of mixed aboriginal descent were made eligible for native title otherwise not available to them under tribal law, or, indeed, why the Catholic church became so prominently involved. As a bishop once said to me ‘you just don’t get it do you’ he was right.

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