It's Mambo vs Mabo as surf brand rides into aboriginal spat

It is Mambo versus Mabo, and it looks like the Australian surfwear company whose T-shirts feature a cartoon Jesus and farting dogs picked the wrong fight.

Eddie Mabo is Australia's best-known land rights activist; his campaigning led to a landmark High Court ruling in 1992 which overturned the notion that the continent was empty before Europeans arrived. His son, Malcolm, wants to launch a clothing range under the name Mabo, featuring indigenous artworks including his own designs. This week it emerged that Mambo is opposing Mr Mabo's application to trademark his family name and logo – a move greeted with near universal condemnation.

While the company quickly softened its stance, its managing director, Angus Kingsmill, said yesterday he was still concerned about the similarity between the brand names, and about Mr Mabo's plans to produce beach and surfwear.

Eddie Mabo, who died in 1992, was from an island in the Torres Strait, between north-eastern Australia and Papua New Guinea. Malcolm lives on Palm Island, off the north Queensland coast. Few in his impoverished community have jobs. He says his business will provide work. "We need to break the welfare cycle and create an economy in these communities," he said.

He was "pretty surprised" by Mambo's objections. "It's my name; I can't change it," he said. The idea he should produce no surfwear was "pretty silly" given that "we are salt-water people; we come from the islands".

Mambo – once seen as radical, now considered quite mainstream – has promoted indigenous causes. At the time of the High Court decision, it produced a T-shirt with the slogan "100 per cent Mabo". It pilloried the right-wing firebrand Pauline Hanson, donating the proceeds to an Aboriginal arts development group whose funding she sought to cut.

Founded in 1984, Mambo is clearly mortified by the bad publicity. Mr Kingsmill claimed the media had concocted the dispute. "Mambo totally supports Mabo," he said. "We are sensitive and respectful of the great Mabo name and its place in Australian history."

The High Court judgment, rejecting the doctrine of terra nullius (or land belonging to no one), paved the way for Aboriginal people to reclaim their ancestral lands. But many indigenous communities remain blighted by poverty and dysfunction. Brian Acre, who is the chief executive of the North Queensland Small Business Development Centre, believes Mr Mabo's venture will create jobs and business opportunities. "The Mabo name is very powerful, and we can leverage off that," said Mr Acre, whose organisation has invested in the company and supports the legal fight.

Mr Kingsmill said Mambo has always made it clear it wished to resolve matters amicably. Both sides will hold a phone conference next week, but Mr Mabo has no plans to abandon his name.

"We'll be doing something quite different from Mambo, and people will be able to tell," he said. "Why should they try and stop something that is going to benefit indigenous people? Are they afraid of a bit of competition?"

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