Emma Szczotko

Native Title
Summer 2015

The Aurora Project runs a nationwide Internship Program for law, anthropology and some social sciences students and graduates interested in working in native title, land rights, policy development and advocacy, all with an Indigenous focus. The Program enables eager social justice orientated law students interested in native title to acquire practical knowledge relating to this exciting and evolving area of law. Many property law university courses only briefly introduce the area of native title law, which can result in baffled confusion towards the operation of the rather complex Native Title Act 1993 (Cth). The best way to understand this developing area of law is to get real, practical experience in the field and meet the lawyers negotiating with companies and government and the Traditional Owners (TOs) making the land claims. So with elementary prior knowledge but a wealth of enthusiasm and willingness to learn, I undertook an Aurora Internship.

My experience

I was placed in the Native Title Unit at the Cape York Land Council (CYLC), which is located in Cairns in Far North Queensland. It is one of many Native Title Representative Bodies (NTRBs) around Australia that act on behalf of the TOs of the local region. The internship was for a period of five weeks from mid-November to late December, enough time to gain a solid grounding in making and negotiating land claims. The CYLC had three interns in total during my placement, two law and one anthropology. The interns at many of the NTRBs perform a vital research assistant role that enables these Aurora partner organisations to carry out much of their important work. An added bonus is the interesting and varied placement locations. I visited waterfalls, tropical rainforests, waterholes, saw colourful Australian wildlife and scuba dived on the Great Barrier Reef during my weekends in the Tropics.

Intercultural Interaction

Working in the Indigenous sector means the very nature of how the work is done will be different from the commercial business transactions coordinated by many large city law firms. The key difference between representing clients of NTRBs and commercial clients is the necessity of understanding the cultural context in which negotiations are conducted and exercising cultural awareness and sensitivity. This may mean all the ‘whitefellas’ leaving the room to allow TOs to have private discussions at various points during authorisation meetings. It could involve adapting typical ‘whitefella’ style interactions and presentations with clients to suit remote community meetings. A memorable occasion for me was during an ‘on country’ trip to Lockhart River where the pilot of our small eight-seater plane not only needed to carefully consider balancing the weight of the passengers across the plane but also accommodating passengers with a ‘poison’ relationship. This is where certain persons are obliged to avoid each other, for example by not making eye contact or even being in the same room together.

Nature of work undertaken

The type of work undertaken by legal interns often involves legal research, writing and accompanying colleagues on authorisation meetings. Specifically, some of the topics I researched included Prescribed Body Corporate (PBC) regulations, consultation and alternative negotiation processes, proposed water legislation reform and how it may affect native title holders and local councils taking quarry materials from native title land. I produced an extensive spreadsheet on native title compensation for a community over a 20-year period, including costs of programs and infrastructure. I compiled a table of party obligations and deadlines under an Indigenous Land Use Agreement. Creating slideshow presentations to deliver to remote Aboriginal communities is common. This may involve explaining the process of setting up charitable trusts, PBC regulations and negotiation processes.

It was an exciting time for the staff at the CYLC during my internship because the ‘One Claim’ was lodged at the National Native Title Tribunal. This was a claim for all the remaining unclaimed land in the Cape York Peninsula. This was an innovative strategy to circumnavigate the time-consuming bureaucratic process that burdens land claims. By grouping all the remaining land in one claim the CYLC was moving quickly to signal to other companies wanting to use the land that first they need to negotiate with the TOs. One of the biggest things I learnt was that many TOs do not want to prevent negotiations for development or business on their land. But rather, they are willing to work with other parties, but seek to have a real say in how it will unfold and affect future generations.

‘On Country’ Trips

There may be an opportunity to go ‘on country’ during your internship, which you should take up enthusiastically if given the chance! Fortunately for myself and the two other interns, a momentous and historical land hand-back ceremony was occurring in Cooktown after a 20-year campaign for the return of the Olkola People’s land spanning over 600,000 hectares. It was a wonderful opportunity to speak to the lawyers involved about the process and negotiations leading up to the hand-back and their collaboration with other partner organisations. It was extremely moving to witness firsthand the significance of the hand-back to the Olkola People who for the most part were rather emotional delivering speeches on behalf of their families and ancestors. I feel extremely lucky and privileged to have attended and participated in this important historical event.

The People

The people I worked with were committed and passionate about their cause. This was refreshing and inspiring. The lawyers working in Land Councils not only navigate complex land claims but also exercise practical skills that extend beyond commercial practice. They need to be able to hold the attention of an audience whilst explaining and breaking down ‘whitefella’ law in the context of a history of distrust. They need to possess skills specific to working in a remote workplace including radio communication operation and contact with dangerous animals. The lawyers also hold certificates in four wheel driving and have plenty of off-road experience. This is not your regular city office job.

Tips for working in the Indigenous sector:


·         Always ask, do not assume.

·         Introduce yourself to TOs and explain who you are and why you are there.

·         Ask permission to sit in on meetings and take photos if you are ‘on country’.

·         Dress appropriately for the situation. For example, in some Cape York communities it is not appropriate for women to wear their hair out. I would also lean on the side of modesty with clothing. And caution: red dirt will stain everything!

·         Be patient and flexible. Things may not go to plan. Problem solving and thinking quick on your feet are highly desirable traits.

·         Native title is considered a niche area of law and may not appear to have a well-defined career progression to follow. Fortunately, when you become part of the Aurora Alumni you will receive regular updates on native title and job vacancies in the Indigenous sector.