Over March and April 2015, I completed a five week Aurora internship at the Central Land Council (CLC) in Alice Springs. Getting off the plane down the portable stairs and onto the tarmac felt like stepping onto a BBQ hotplate. “45 degrees in town today” had said the pilot on our way down.
The CLC is a statutory body that represents the interests of Aboriginal people living across almost 800,000 square kilometres of the Northern Territory (an area more than three times the size of Victoria). It is a large organisation with staff working in legal, anthropology, community development and a number of other teams. On my first day, my supervising lawyer shows me around the modern office building. “You’ve come at the right time” I’m told. “We’re expecting a cool change: 38 degrees on Friday”.
One of the roles of the CLC is to assist Aboriginal people to manage land over which they have freehold title under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976. It is also a Native Title Representative Body (NTRB) under the Native Title Act 1993. I am surprised to find that most lawyers at the CLC are mainly working on “land rights” matters rather than native title and I spend the next five weeks learning about the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976, a piece of legislation unique to the Northern Territory that recognises Aboriginal land ownership.
The legal work I am allocated is mainly “commercial”. I examine property, corporations and contract law issues and learn about lease drafting, mining agreement negotiations, Aboriginal company structures and more. Most importantly, I learn how lawyers apply commercial law skills to manage the land rights of the CLC’s “clients” – the traditional owners and the communities.
I am also able to go “out bush” with the lawyers. We drive a few hours out of Alice, along dirt roads and out to communities for consultation meetings with traditional owners. Should leases be granted over land? How should lease money be spent? These face-to-face consultations are an essential part of a CLC lawyer’s work, allowing them to build relationships with people in communities and to gain their understanding, confidence and trust. They are very different from the “over-the-phone” client meetings I’ve attended in Melbourne law firms. Definitely not your usual day in the office.
Once back at the CLC building, I’m given a range of tasks, from analysing new NT Liquor Act provisions to researching the effect of a mining lease on native title rights. By the third week, I have a specific role: I complete the first drafts of Aboriginal community development contracts, adapting templates to suit the particular requests of community members. A remote community wants to renovate their local supermarket? I write a project funding agreement, specifying who will do the work, when the renovation must be completed and so on. Best of all, a few weeks later, I go out to that community where I can see the store being renovated. This makes the work real.
Alice Springs itself is an exciting place full of exciting people. There is always plenty to do: film festivals, art shows and evenings at Montes pub. A few weeks in, I’m told by friends that I’m in Alice at the right time. It’s perfect waterhole swimming weather, a balmy daily 30 degrees. We go out camping most weekends, exploring the rocky West MacDonnell Ranges just outside town.
The weather changes fast in Alice though. By the end of my five week internship some mornings are a nippy 10 degrees and I occasionally need a jumper. “You’re here at the right time” my housemate says. “Autumn in Alice Springs is the best time of year.”
This leaves me wondering, maybe it’s always the right time to be in Alice?
My Aurora internship at the CLC was a challenging, valuable experience. It made me think about how the legal system can empower Aboriginal people by recognising and enforcing their land rights. Most importantly, I finished the internship with a better understanding of how commercial law can be used to protect the interests of Indigenous Australians and, more broadly, to forward social justice. I hope to visit Alice Springs again soon