Shannon O'Hara-Smith

Aboriginal Legal Services
Summer 2017

I spent six weeks as an Aurora intern in the Law and Justice section of NAAJA in Darwin in the summer of 2016/2017. I had the pleasure of also doing various tasks for the criminal and the civil law NAAJA teams and so my time there was varied. I drafted letters and I spent time in the local court helping the ‘on duty’ lawyer get through the list of domestic violence order matters for the day. I did interesting research for client matters that prodded emotions and raised further questions. I was taken by the question of how do we overcome language barriers in the Top End to ensure equal access to services such as healthcare and justice for everyone?

Prior to this experience I had very limited experiences with Indigenous Australia. A lot of my contact was through the media- particularly through music, the news and political debate. It was a real lesson to step out of this confined space and into another where you must look at issues such as discrimination before you as they stand, not in theory. Sometimes I didn’t know what to say or what to do and I struggled to be helpful. It’s a tricky position to come in as an ‘outsider’ and I was afraid of coming across as the fool who thinks that they can solve the ‘big issues’ with only good intentions. Thankfully, I was surrounded by hardworking and kind people who welcomed me into the conversation.

I helped to draft submissions and articles, as well as funding applications and learned a lot from the people around me. At first Darwin looked like a small city but soon really felt like a big city- bustling, full of live issues. The Royal Commission following the abuses in Don Dale kept (and still is keeping) everyone very busy. The Commonwealth parliament’s inquiry into freedom of speech in Australia- which has resulted in the Government’s plan to amend s 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act- came to town. I visited a mandatory rehabilitation centre and the adult prison to meet with clients. I also saw the second reading speech of a bill to introduce RU486 to the Northern Territory and I learned about the controversies of introducing fracking to the Territory.

The NAAJA Community Legal Education Team travels to many communities to meet with elders to discuss issues of concern and to find a way forward. This involves a meeting of western and indigenous laws and ideas of justice. Their work is fascinating and inspiring. I particularly enjoyed putting together some research on what Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians might mean in reality- a question that lots of people in community have been asking the CLE team. I discovered how recognition in other ‘settler’ countries has influenced the discourse around indigenous rights in these countries and it was really interesting to compare these histories.

Although I don’t have an answer to the question I outlined above, I do think that I’m now in a much better position to listen to Indigenous Australians and the issues that face them in particular with a greater sense of understanding and ability to consider the real issues.  This experience has definitely encouraged me to engage in the conversation and to look towards further work in the area. I highly recommend an internship with NAAJA.

Lastly, no description of my internship would be complete without mentioning all of the other Aurora interns placed in Darwin over the summer of 2016/2017. I had an amazing time getting to know a great bunch of like-minded people studying Anthropology, Law or Environmental Science from all over Australia. Our weekend adventures in Darwin, Katherine and Litchfield were the cherry on top of a great internship.

For more information about the Aurora Internship Program, go to  Applications for the summer 2017/18 round of internships will be open in August (dates TBC).