In June and July 2010, I undertook an Aurora native title internship at the National Native Title Council (‘NNTC’) in Melbourne. NNTC is a relatively new peak policy body that represents the views and positions of most of the Native Title Representative Bodies in Australia. In doing so, NNTC provides an indigenous voice on matters affecting native title rights, and other rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that are closely intertwined with the issue of Native Title. The NNTC engages with industry, government and community groups to improve the Native Title system in Australia, at the levels of policy formulation, legislation and implementation.
On commencing my internship with the NNTC I was briefed by the helpful and friendly staff at the Aurora project – and they told me that my internship was bound to be a rather unusual one. Although another fellow Aurora intern would be joining me in two weeks, I was to be the very first intern at the NNTC, and I would be joining an organisation with only one full time officer in Melbourne – CEO Brian Wyatt. Nevertheless, I was keen to jump into my internship at the beginning of the winter break.
Undertaking a six week internship involved a wide range of varied and interesting work. Unlike some other interns I met through the program, who were situated at NTRBs, working at a policy body was not necessarily united by one claim or issue, which took up the entire 6 weeks. Rather, I worked on a broad range of topics, which included undertaking policy research and suggesting potential NNTC responses to discussion papers; attending meetings; exploring avenues for funding; writing memos; as well as helping out with administrative work.
Throughout the middle of the year, the Federal government had released a series of interrelated policy papers canvassing debate over a range of economic issues affecting, and affected by Native Title claims in Australia. The first released was concerned with reform of the taxation of Native Title payments under the Native Title Act 1993. The current system is complex and troublesome for indigenous groups wishing to know where they stand in terms of tax exemption. The Federal Government was considering implementing either a modified version of a charitable trust exclusively for Indigenous groups; blanket tax exemption on any payments under the NTA; a set rate withholding tax, like that which currently applies to mining payments made to indigenous groups; or a combination of any of these three together. The work we undertook involved researching the current opinions and obstacles in the taxation of native title payments, attending meetings with FAHCSIA, and the Minerals Council of Australia.
Participating in this process provided an invaluable insight into the sheer amount of work and debate that goes into policy development, not only in indigenous affairs, but also just as a general government process. While studying law, we often take for granted the democratic processes that underlie the creation of law in our society. From my work with NNTC, it became abundantly clear to me that policy formulation is a complex and time consuming issue – especially when endeavouring to find the best policy solution for all parties involved.
Unfortunately, our work on Taxation policy, as well as other policy papers that we were considering in conjunction – on Indigenous Economic Development; and increasing Indigenous access to housing, had to be put on hold due to the 2010 election being called for mid-August. Here we were introduced to another facet of democracy, one that must prove frustrating to the public service – that the government directing policy developments is susceptible to change every three years!
Nonetheless, this temporary stop in policy research gave us time to look into other matters – considering how State government mapping and conservation of native vegetation might affect the rights of Traditional Owners; work-shopping programs to increase the potential for Indigenous women to participate in the field of Native Title; securing funding for such a program; and developing a newsletter for the NNTC. I was able to sit in on a meeting to discuss the NNTC’s response to Australia’s upcoming report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, an obligation that the Federal Government must fulfill periodically as a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
From all these disparate projects that I had the opportunity to contribute to and sit in on, I learnt that about the broader aspects of native title – how legal and policy issues interconnect to create a maze of issues that substantially affect the quality of life for thousands of people in Australia.
Undertaking an Aurora Internship was a fantastic way experience this side of Native Title, and to gain a deeper understanding than that which we encounter in our Property Law subjects. I also had a great time getting to know the other interns and staff that worked at the NNTC, as well as Native Title Services Victoria. Aurora provides an incredible amount of support and information to interns, as well as an invaluable opportunity to be placed at any one of the Native Title organisations all over Australia.
Applications for the summer 2010-11 round open on 9 August, and more information is available at http://www.auroraproject.com.au/About.htm.