I was hesitant to accept the Aurora Internship Program placement in the civil law division of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) in Katherine. I had applied for placement in Melbourne as I had some knowledge of the local Aboriginal history and cultures. Katherine seemed like a step too far — I had no knowledge of the political or cultural landscape and knew no one who lived there. After many conversations with family, friends and university mentors, I decided to accept the invitation. I realised that I would never feel ‘ready’. I was uncomfortable in my ignorance yet knew how important it was to ally myself with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in action rather than just words. Immersing myself in a wholly new environment was beneficial as it forced me to confront my prejudices and insecurities. The internship was a total culture shock and provided the challenging, thought-provoking and inspiring experience I had been hoping for.
In preparation, I watched SBS’s First Australians: The Untold Story of Australia, read Bill Neidjie’s story as told by Mark Lang in Old Man’s Story: The last thoughts of Kakadu Elder Bill Neidjie, as well as the ABC’s Northern Territory (NT) News and relevant articles in The Conversation and New Matilda. I was particularly interested by this article on Kriol, the second most common language in the NT and the largest language spoken exclusively in Australia. An awareness of Kriol was important as I interacted with many Kriol speakers. Without understanding that Kriol is a language with its own grammar, syntax and definitions, one may not realise the importance of translators. For example, I was told that ‘kill em’ in Kriol means ‘to hit’ in English. Needless to say, this is a very important distinction within the law. Nevertheless, translators were not routinely utilised for police interviews, even when questioning young Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Miscommunication was a recurring theme throughout my internship at NAAJA. One startling example were the debts that many clients owed to Telstra and Vodafone for contractual breaches. I assisted NAAJA lawyers to draft complaints to the telephone companies regarding debts — often over $10,000 — that had been accrued within a matter of months. The Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander customer may not have understood the difference between post and pre-paid, or the terms of the contract which included large exit fees. The retailer may not have understood that the service did not operate in the particular ‘remote’ community. The phones would be discarded when it turned out they didn’t work in community, yet the debts would keep increasing. Then the harassment would start. NAAJA helped some individuals while many others would not have sought legal support. Like most other matters that I worked on, I recognised underlying systemic problems exacerbated by an absence of government regulation.
The civil law team worked on a wide range of matters, including complaints against government agencies, employers and police. I assisted on matters relating to Centrelink, public housing, workplace discrimination, fines, debts and police misconduct. The legal context of civil law in the NT was conducive to wrapping my head around both federal and state/territory jurisdiction. Importantly, the lawyers provided an invaluable source of mentorship and insight. I felt comfortable asking questions and exposing my ignorance. The most valuable part of the experience were these conversations about the systemic and interconnected nature of legal issues impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Every day I returned home shocked or inspired by a new revelation.
My time in Katherine was vivid. The weather was a mixture of thunderous storms and vibrant heat. The red earth was coated in thick green grass. My weekday evenings were lonely — I read four books in the first week — yet the weekends were busy. The excursions to overwhelmingly beautiful swimming spots were a highlight. As it was wet season, the droves of tourists were absent yet this came at the cost of an increased risk of crocs. Pleasingly, this didn’t seem to bother the locals too much (who I always allowed to swim first). Closer to home, Katherine’s YMCA pool — arguably the best pool in the Southern Hemisphere — was the perfect location to take a leisurely reprieve from the evening heat while watching the storms roll in from every direction.