Madalena McKeever Ford

Social Science
Summer 2019


I arrived in Darwin on a hot and humid afternoon in mid-January, excited and a little nervous and with little idea what to expect from my upcoming five-week internship with Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the Northern Territory (APO NT) through the Aurora Internship Program. Fortunately, the next 5 weeks proved to be an amazing experience that left me with many good memories and a sense of having grown and learned a lot.

Although my university studies meant that I was aware of some of the issues faced by Indigenous Australians, I hoped that this internship would give me a deeper and more practical understanding of these issues and the effects they have on communities in the NT, and how people in the Indigenous and advocacy sectors are working to influence policies to alleviate this disadvantage and work towards achieving social justice. I was also curious to see another side of Australia and to experience a little of what life in Darwin is like, so I was very happy to learn that I had been placed with APO NT.

APO NT is an alliance of peak Aboriginal organisations in the Northern Territory, including the Central Land Council (CLC), Northern Land Council (NLC) and Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the NT (AMSANT). The alliance was created in 2010 to provide a more effective response to critical issues facing Aboriginal people in the NT. It works to advance the rights and wellbeing of Aboriginal people and communities by providing practical policy solutions to government and by supporting opportunities for Aboriginal community control.

The work I did at APO NT was varied and diverse. I spent my first day reading through some of APO NT’s major submissions, policy papers and forum materials produced over the last few years to get a better sense of who APO NT was and the significant issues that they address, which include a critical lack of adequate housing, substance abuse, and endless punitive social welfare policies. This gave me a deeper understanding of the work being done across the Territory towards achieving social justice for Aboriginal Territorians, and a renewed sense of the importance and extent of the advocacy work being done by organisations such as APO NT.

After reading up on some of the key issues and having familiarised myself with APO NT’s position on various government policies and programs, I was tasked with drafting and finalising a brief submission to the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act Amendment Bill. I was given significant independence to develop this draft, which meant a steep learning curve in the first week in order to familiarise myself with the writing style and format of a policy submission. It was however a great way to start my internship, as it gave me a sense of purpose and the sense that I was able to contribute something useful from the very beginning.

Some of the other work I was involved in over the next five weeks included researching and summarising proposed amendments to the Burial and Cremation Bill NT, researching and developing an internal briefing paper to help with the future evaluation and monitoring of APO NT’s Partnership Principles, and coordinating the APO NT submission to the Social Security Commission Bill inquiry. The team at APO NT offered guidance but also gave me a lot of autonomy in developing my work and in deciding what needed to be done to achieve the goals we had set. This was exciting but also daunting, as I understood the importance of the work I was involved in and sometimes felt unqualified and inexperienced. However, my supervisor and the other policy officers at APO NT were generous with their time, despite their busy schedules and numerous deadlines, and were more than willing to offer support, guidance and feedback throughout my different projects that helped me to move past these concerns. I feel that the independence and autonomy I was granted definitely helped me to gain confidence and skills that I otherwise might not have been able to develop, and meant that I found it incredibly rewarding to take responsibility for the work I produced. Additionally, the feedback and suggestions I received from other policy officers both within APO NT and the wider advocacy sector helped me to further develop not only my own ideas and writing, but also my understanding of how policy positions evolve and are formed by the contributions of a number of people and organisations.

Perhaps one of the most difficult but rewarding projects was researching and putting together an internal briefing paper on the monitoring and evaluation of APO NT’s partnership principles for NGOs engaging in service delivery partnerships with Aboriginal community-controlled organisations in the NT. This was a challenging project to work on because I had little experience with this topic and APO NT has had limited capacity to undertake work on this process, meaning there was little previous work for me to draw from. However, my own research and analysis skills combined with the helpful and generous feedback and suggestions of APO NT policy officers meant that I found it a fascinating project to work on. It was exciting to be a part of the developmental stage of a process that would help ensure the efficacy and effectiveness of principles that were central to much of APO NT’s work, and I certainly learnt a lot about what constitutes a genuine partnership between NGOs and Aboriginal community controlled organisations, the importance of monitoring and evaluation of these partnerships, and the role of a peak body such as APO NT in this process.

Over the course of the 5 weeks I was also involved in the AMSANT staff planning day, and attended and helped organise meetings with APO NT officers, key government departments, and policy officers from other organisations within the advocacy sector. These meetings were very informative and helped me to better understand how policy bodies, organisations and government interact with one another. Another highlight of my internship was being taken out for a drive to see some of the town camps in and around Darwin, which once again helped to put into perspective the disadvantage faced by Aboriginal communities in the NT and the work that I was a part of.

Darwin itself was a welcoming and fascinating place to live. I made many new friends, both within and outside of the Aurora program, and really enjoyed exploring the local markets, beaches and some of the incredible landscapes of Litchfield and Kakadu.

Similarly, APO NT was a warm and welcoming workplace where I certainly felt challenged, appreciated and useful. It was a privilege to work with the people I did and a great opportunity to get a taste of what working within an Aboriginal controlled organisation can be like. Working within a large peak body such as APO NT was also a great opportunity to see how organisations can collaborate and work together to lend their positions the power to potentially influence policy change. Through my research and drafting of submissions and papers, I was able to deepen my understanding of the key issues facing Indigenous Territorians and be reminded of how government often deals with these systemic social issues by subjecting Indigenous Australians to punitive, experimental policies. This reinforced for me the importance of advocacy in this space and made my work with APO NT feel all the more valuable and rewarding.

Based on my experience with APO NT in Darwin, I would highly recommend anyone who’s interested apply for an Aurora internship.