I spent six weeks of my summer break in Darwin, interning for the Northern Territory’s largest law firm through the Aurora Native Title Internship Program. The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), an Aboriginal legal aid organisation that does work in Criminal, Family and Civil Law cases; in addition their Law and Justice section deals with law reform, legislative inquiries, policy issues, media releases and community legal education.
I was placed with the Law and Justice section. This allowed for exposure to a broad cross-section of NAAJA’s inner workings as we liaised with lawyers from civil and criminal to establish working examples of how laws are applied.
I was also lucky enough to visit the Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre multiple times, and the alcohol Mandatory Rehabilitation Centre. It should be noted that an internship with NAAJA not so close to Christmas, New Year and the monsoonal downpour of the wet season could see you visiting remote Indigenous communities. Meeting some of the men, women and boys affected by the Northern Territory’s inescapable racist policy of incarcerating Indigenous people was life changing.
One of NAAJA’s Indigenous employees described the many locum doctors, lawyers, nurses, social workers and miners, who fly in and out of the Northern Territory, especially to the remote areas, as white cockatoos. They fly in, squawk a lot, spread their droppings everywhere and fly out! It was this very sentiment that kept me cautious of undertaking an internship in the Northern Territory.
Current generation Indigenous people in the Northern Territory have seen their lands opened up and traditional laws abandoned in favour of intervention. This has been in the form of the Northern Territory Emergency Response and currently Stronger Futures. These are top down, broad policies that go against a central tenet of Little Children are Sacred, that “you can’t solve these things by centralised bureaucratic direction”.
The political backdrop and overwhelming public opinion proliferated by local media would have a casual observer conclude the government is racist, with an overarching aim“to clear the drunks off the streets”.* Yet, perhaps ironically, Indigenous legal services like NAAJA have received increased funding from the intervention policies. Though, my section head, Jared Sharp sees this as giving enough rope; in that legal aid funding is nowhere near enough to match the increase in workload as a result of the intervention. This should give an increasing impetus to volunteer and contribute work that is off the grid.
*Dave Tollner, NT Chief Minister.
There are strings of small victories that are regularly won, for instance NAAJA’s ThroughCare team cut their client’s recidivism rates down from >45% to <15%. Another recent victory was Chief Justice Riley’s decision to allow Yolngu law to supplement mainstream bail conditions, resulting in seemingly total rehabilitation and community acceptance and peace for the male offender. With greater support from volunteers and greater political focus from widespread awareness, applying the methods of success to all cases, will equate to large victories.
At the moment most of the culturally appropriate and effective programs are run by non-government organisations, like NAAJA. Anyone considering working in the top end should roll up their sleeves and dive in. There is a huge amount of work to be done and great appreciation from the NGOs doing that work. More importantly, you will not be a white cockatoo to most Indigenous community members.
On one of my last nights I attended a screening of John Pilger’s Utopia, a film that paints Australian government in a very dark light, from invasion to current day. Despite the film failing to highlight positive work by white people, or Indigenous people who have prospered against the odds (it is propaganda, in a good way), speeches afterwards called for social change. Doctor Djiniyini Gondarra OAM emphasized the importance of walking together, Larrikia Elder, June Mills pleaded that “we need you!”
Interning with Aurora will see you supported from start to finish, with help available by phone or email whenever you need. There is a hugely diverse list of organisations you can intern with, across the whole country. My experience has answered so many questions and asked so many more. Although I am not sure if I intend on working in an Indigenous legal field, I highly encourage interning with Aurora, and with NAAJA.
Applications for the winter 2014 round of internships are open from 3rd through 28th March 2014 on-line via the website at www.auroraproject.com.au