Sonali Seneviratne

Winter 2010

Awakening to the realities of Native Title

I learned about the Aurora Project through my friends who completed internships in previous years and was inspired to apply this year as a graduate of Macquarie University.

I undertook an eight week internship at the National Native Title Tribunal (‘NNTT’) from June to August 2010.  It was a time of firsts: it my first proper introduction to native title law and it was the first time that the Sydney Registry had received an Aurora Intern.

The Aurora Project

There is a lack of education and awareness in native title law and Indigenous issues.[1] The Aurora Project fills this gap and is the only program, as far as I am aware, that provides legal, anthropology and some social science (cultural heritage, environmental management, human geography, history and sociology) internships to students and graduates twice a year to work in areas of native title and Indigenous affairs.

Offering internships is one way in which the Aurora Project achieves the recommendations made in the 2005 Report into the Professional Development Needs of Native Title Representative Body Lawyers. Apart from the NNTT, interns provide capacity for Native Title Representative Bodies and Native Title Service Providers and other organisations dealing with Indigenous issues. The variety of possible placements is listed on the Aurora Project website

It is intended to be a mutually beneficial arrangement. By working in the areas of native title law, policy work, human rights, social justice and Indigenous affairs, interns gain a practical insight into issues affecting Indigenous people. Importantly, if interns would like to work in the area, the Aurora placements team are ever willing to assist with possible career opportunities and send regular emails with job openings.

I encourage anyone interested in this area to apply for an internship via the Aurora website at Applications are open every March and August.


The NNTT is a federal government agency that was set up under the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) (‘NTA’) to perform the following functions:

apply the registration test to native title claimant applications
mediate native title claims under the direction of the Federal Court of Australia
provide notification of native title applications and indigenous land use agreements
maintain the Register of Native Title Claims, the National Native Title Register and the Register of
Indigenous Land Use Agreements
make arbitral decisions about some future act matters
negotiate other sorts of agreements, such as indigenous land use agreements.
provide assistance and information to all people involved in the native title process.

My experience

At the interview I was warned not to have high expectations about the type of work I would be doing, so the only expectation I harboured on the first day was that I would be assisting the NNTT in any way I could. I was warmly welcomed by the NNTT. My supervisor ensured that I was well‐prepared – I received documents before starting the internship and on my desk were copies of the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) (‘NTA’), the booklet Native title claimant applications: a guide to understanding the requirements of the registration test, an induction pack, Native title agreement‐making in Australia: a guide to National Native Title Tribunal practice, and the DVD ‘Native Title Stories: Rights, recognition, relationships’. To my satisfaction, my desk was also fully stocked with stationery.

For the first three weeks, I worked with the Registration Delegates, who apply the Registration Test conditions to new or amended native title claimant applications and register Indigenous Land Use Agreements. This was a carefully planned training session and I felt quite fortunate to receive one‐on‐one tuition. During the remaining five weeks, I worked with the Case Management Unit, which assists parties involved in the native title process, applies a range of administrative processes to the claims and mediates claims referred by the Federal Court. The mediation is convened by a Tribunal Member and I was able to participate in a number of
different meetings. In those five weeks I attempted to ensure that my internship was valuable for the NNTT too by contributing my knowledge, skills and experience. This involved a variety of tasks including conducting research in relation to native title rights in water.

The most challenging task I was given was to apply the registration test conditions to a claimant application and produce a mock decision. As the NTA is fairly new territory for me, this was quite an intense learning experience, especially given the complexity of the legislation and case law. Having never made anadministrative decision before, I gained a new appreciation for the drafting of decisions and it was fascinating to read about the claimants’ history and spiritual beliefs. I also enjoyed participating in an induction delivered by NTSCORP Limited, the NSW Native Title Service Provider, and watching a DVD of indigenous people telling their stories. Although it was a different claim group, it was an effective visual representation of the types of
information and stories I had been reading.

It has been a memorable experience and I was privileged to be offered this opportunity. Certainly my expectations were exceeded and I value the internship for the following reasons. It awakened me to the realities of the native title legal environment; it is a complex, lengthy process, taking many years to achieve a positive determination. However, I have also learned that the process can be used to resolve broader issues with related benefits. I have gained a basic understanding of the NTA, the registration test and functions of the NNTT. Finally, I have acquired some good contacts which I will endeavour to maintain.

After eight weeks, I felt settled in and ready to work on bigger projects. Regrettably, there is an end to everything...I will certainly miss the lovely people and interesting work!

I have since been fortunate to have secured a full‐time locum placement with NTSCORP following on from my Aurora internship which I am looking forward to.

1 I note however that Macquarie University, for example, is offering LAW418, ‘Indigenous Peoples and the Law’ in 2011.