Subeta Vimalarajah

Native Title
Alice Springs
Winter 2017

Most law students have a basic understanding of native title, but few – including myself, prior to my Aurora internship at Central Land Council – have any knowledge of the land rights regime in the Northern Territory.

In August of 1966, 200 Aboriginal stockmen and their families walked off the Wave Hill pastoral station in the Northern Territory, initially in protest over their wages. That protest began a movement that culminated in the government’s ratification of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (‘Land Rights Act’) ten years later.

The Land Rights Act gave Aboriginal people inalienable freehold title to land, full legal protection of sacred sites, and Aboriginal control over mining on Aboriginal land; rights which are far more robust than those provided by native title. The Land Rights Act also established Land Councils, like the Central Land Council (CLC).

Of its many functions, the CLC provides legal representation to Traditional Owners of Aboriginal Land Trusts (land referred to as ‘Aboriginal land’ under the Act) claimed under the Land Rights Act, native title holders and other Aboriginal groups who hold interests in land in the Central Land Council region.

During my five week internship at CLC in Alice Springs, funded and facilitated by my employer, Gilbert + Tobin, I was exposed to the complex and novel ways in which property, commercial and corporate law are vital to the continued economic development and use of Aboriginal land, at the direction of Traditional Owners.

Before granting any interest in relation to Aboriginal land, the CLC takes its instructions from Traditional Owners, many of whom live in remote communities. Boarding a troopy, with a swag tied to the roof for an overnight trip, is therefore part and parcel of the job of a CLC lawyer.

During my internship, I was privileged enough to accompany CLC lawyers across the CLC region, observing consultations in Santa Teresa, Hermannsburg, Areyonga and Utopia. These consultations were an invaluable opportunity to observe the way lawyers take instructions from clients, and to be involved in the related work of preparing documents and handouts to ensure clients understood the complex proposals their consent was being sought in respect of.

These consultations also allowed me to observe corporate law operating in environments that do not match the corporate stereotype. For example, I observed a general meeting in a community with a single pay phone and no reception. Driving up, the ordinary questions of quorum were complicated by the difficulty in contacting members prior to the meeting to confirm their attendance.

In addition, the day-to-day work of the CLC is legally involved and varied, as CLC lawyers not only work directly for Aboriginal people in drafting leases, mining agreements or other land use agreements, they also operate as in-house counsel for the other departments at CLC. I was therefore able to contribute to work relating to data protection and intellectual property, heritage listing, permits and drafted several contracts for community development projects.

In this sense, CLC was not only a fulfilling experience for exposing me to the realities that face Aboriginal people in Central Australia, it was also beneficial to the development of my technical legal skills in legal research, drafting and the provision of advice. My experience at CLC made me appreciate the value of commercial and property work outside the scope of a traditional commercial law firm.