Shane Carpenter

Native Title
Winter 2011

I like to think of myself as a worldly kind of guy. I've lounged in Parisian cafes, eaten too much in Rome, deciphered the Japanese train network, and even survived the worst a Canadian winter could dish up. But, having racked up a few miles and very nearly finished degree #2, I recently got a reminder of just how much of the world I know nothing about. Zero. During the mid-year break I was lucky enough to spend 5 weeks as an Aurora intern with Perth-based Central Desert Native Title Services. Central Desert is a Native Title Service Provider (NTSP) representing native title claimants and holders of Western Australia's Central Desert region. It's a federally funded body of lawyers, anthropologists and support staff with responsibility for more than 800,000 square kilometres overlaying the traditional lands of numerous Indigenous peoples. While those 800,000 square kilometres represent a vast and culturally rich landscape right in our backyard, if you're anything like me you've only ever contemplated them from 30,000 feet—and probably then because you were trying to avoid eye contact with the overly chatty person in the seat next to you. We tend not to give too much thought to the red heart of our state, or the people who've lived and breathed the land for millennia. Thanks to the opportunity I was given this winter, I was able to do just that. The experience has given me a whole new perspective on the place I call home, not to mention my future career.

My internship with Central Desert was facilitated by the Sydney-based Aurora Project. Aurora is a national program that gives students and recent graduates in law, anthropology and other social sciences an opportunity to undertake a placement either in the native title system or within a broader circle of organisations engaging with Indigenous policy issues. In recent years Aurora has successfully placed hundreds of interns with a wide range of host organisations. And, being a national program, it offers plenty of opportunity to escape the daily grind and explore somewhere new while you're gaining that practical experience. You could find yourself working with a Native Title Representative Body (NTRB) in the Northern Territory or far north Queensland, a policy organisation in Melbourne, a government agency in Canberra, or any number of other organisations Australia-wide. As an Aurora intern you will have the benefit of support from the friendly Aurora placements team for the duration of your placement and, when its over, you'll join a growing alumni network. You may even find yourself being supervised by former Aurora interns whose short-term placement turned into a career.

My host organisation, Central Desert, is one of 15 NTRB/NTSPs established under the Native Title Act 1993, which was enacted in response to the High Court's landmark Mabo decision. Central Desert's role is to assist native title claimants lodge and progress their claims under the Act, as well as to work with native title holders to ensure previously determined rights are adequately protected. At 9.00am on day 1 I wasn't quite sure where a mere legal intern like me would fit into this picture. Much as I wanted to get to grips with some practical legal work, I had visions of hours standing by the photocopier going slowly loopy or doing the rounds of the office, scratchpad in hand, taking lunch orders. Thankfully, nothing could have been further from the truth. After some initial introductions and the all important crash course in coffee machine wrangling, I was assigned my first task. From that point on, a steady stream of jobs from the busy legal team landed on my desk. No photocopying for me.

Over the course of the 5 weeks I was kept busy with a variety of tasks, from researching questions of law and drafting documents, to proofreading court submissions and helping with meeting preparation and minute-taking. Some of the specific areas of law I was exposed to include native title law and property law more broadly, resources law, negotiation and mediation, drafting and procedure, corporations law, administrative law and ethics. I was also given the opportunity to attend matters before the National Native Title Tribunal and the Federal Court of Australia. Given a free hand in managing my time, the steady workload provided by all members of the legal team kept my days varied and interesting.

In the final week of my placement I was also lucky enough to have the chance to go 'on country' and take part in a claimant group meeting. This involved a flight north to Broome and then a two-hour drive south to the Aboriginal community of Bidyadanga. Here, under the shade of a large tree, I witnessed the human impact of the law for perhaps the first time since embarking on a law degree. There were no weighty textbooks pontificating about obscure points of law here, no argument removed from the practical world of consequences. Instead I saw clients calmly deliberating about how best to instruct their legal representatives and trusting that those representatives would put their case forward diligently. It was a valuable insight into the responsibility that comes from being a legal professional.

I left Central Desert with an understanding of the steep learning curve ahead of me in making the transition from law student to lawyer. But I also left with an appreciation of the great learning opportunity I'd been given—and, I have to admit, I had fun. For anyone with an interest in native title or Indigenous policy issues more broadly, applying for an Aurora internship is a great way to get some hands-on experience before you join the workforce. Even if it's not an area you've given much thought to, the experience of a placement like the one I did might just surprise you.