It has been a privilege to spend the last five weeks with the friendly people at the Cape York Land Council. The purported challenges of NTRBs, highlighted to me in my Aurora Internship preparatory materials, thankfully never came to be. Lawyers, Administrators, Anthropologists and Policy Officers have all been patient and understanding in their efforts to educate me on the role of Native Title Law in Australian legal practice.
My chief motivation in participating in an Aurora Internship was to engage with an Australian organisation working to advance the interests of Indigenous Australians. Any career considerations were secondary to deepening my understanding and broadening my horizons beyond a narrow focus on social justice issues in Asia. I feel I have met this goal, learnt a lot along the way, and borne witness to the actions of an organisation with a real social consciousness.
Life is good when it is full of interesting experiences. Working at the Land Council has been one of them.
Working at the Land Council
On my second day at the Cape York Land Council I remarked that “Native Title was so much simpler when I knew nothing about it”. I think it is fair to say that on the whole most Victorian based law students, and dare I say lawyers, have only the most passing familiarity with Native Title Law. I came to the Cape York Land Council with a very limited working knowledge of the area.
My first task was to read and understand the High Court case of Ward, a long and intricate case which weaves through the issues of law, culture and country over 400 pages. From there, work came thick and fast, from legal research to drafting policy documents. Taking the attitude that the worse that could happen was that I made a mistake, I took whatever came my way, and I grew accordingly.
Along the way I picked up a few unexpected skills. First, I am now very good at using mapping software to represent any kind of legal data you can imagine. Second, I am vastly more familiar with the vital support role certain legal organisations play to assist resource limited organisations. Third, I am happy to have interacted with several specialist areas of law I had previously never considered. For the naturally curious it is a perfect place to work.
Travelling with the Land Council
Heading to Cooktown for a four day meeting was definitely a trip highlight. I got to see the complex nature of land disputes up close and personal. Each negotiation involves striking a balance between different interests - Government, Private Industry and Native Title holders. The role of the Land Council in advancing land justice for Indigenous peoples is not easy. It is riven by debate over what is the best outcome for all involved, which path should be taken, what outcomes can realistically achieved. Watching everyone involved come together across long distances to discuss and resolve important issues was a real privilege. I have a lasting impression of the Land Council car park: The vehicles sported by the more seasoned Land Council lawyers would leave the Bush Tucker man envious.
Support from the Land Council
My placement wouldn’t have been possible without the support of all the staff at the Land Council. At times I felt I was bumbling around, unsure of what to do, and always there appeared someone to assist me and guide my progress. On the first day I put out a request for work – from that moment it never stopped. I received valuable support and guidance from all the legal officers on staff at the Land Council, inside and outside of the native title unit. My interactions with the legal team cemented my resolve to carry on in a profession working in the interests of others. At the very least, it demonstrated that doing the right thing can be made into a living!
Correcting the past and shaping the future
In the end, I think the most enduring memory of my time at the Land Council will be the interaction the work undertaken by each legal officer has with the history of the Cape York Area. Each case the land council works on involves the history of the region – often brutal – and a concerted effort to attempt, in some small way, to right the wrongs of the past. In that sense the Land Council is involved in shaping a positive future from a negative past. Most Australians know the WIk case. It made history. And this is what the Land Council is about – providing a voice to Indigenous people which helps shape a future where Indigenous interest over land and sea are considered, recognised and respected.