The Aurora Project is a program that facilitates internships between tertiary students and Indigenous organisations with an emphasis on native title and social justice for Indigenous peoples. The program places students from a range of disciplines, including law, social sciences and anthropology into a full-time month long internship with organisations around Australia. Throughout the winter semester break of this year, I was fortunate to do an internship with the Native Title Office (NTO) of the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) on Thursday Island.
I began my daylong journey from Brisbane with very little expectation of what my internship would hold. My expectations were by far exceeded as I had the most empowering and inspiring time. Travelling north on two flights I began to realise the remoteness of the Torres Strait as the plane traced the vast coral blooms of the Great Barrier Reef north to the mangroves and muddy inlets of the Cape. The Inner Islands emerge from the aqua water of the Torres Strait and shortly after I was touching down on Horn Island and then boarded a ferry over to the administrative centre of the Straits, Thursday Island.
The next day I was straight into it at the Native Title Office of the TSRA. The TSRA is the Commonwealth Government Representative body for the Torres Strait. It has a range of departments that do a range of administrative and governance work. The NTO are the Native Title Representative Body (NTRB) for the area. The lawyers act on behalf of the traditional owners in regard to their native title rights. What I loved about my internship was the amount of control I was given in the work that I was allocated. Each morning I would have a meeting with my supervisor or one of the other senior lawyers and would be briefed on an issue for the day. I would then spend the day doing a range of important legal work such as drafting legal advice to clients, preparing contractual agreements and deeds and corresponding with government agencies and clients. I was lucky that during my time on TI there was plenty of interesting work to do which kept me busy.
I felt as though I learnt so much during my time on Thursday Island, both about the law in practice as well as the Torres Strait Culture and way of life. The unique thing about native title law is that law and culture cannot be separated. Native title is a product of the common law that recognises the connection that Indigenous people have with their land. It is the culture of the Torres Strait people that gives them legal recognition of their land. I had just completed the Native Title component of my law degree so it was really valuable and interesting to solidify the concepts I learnt at university and to see how they played out in practice. It was also important to see where the law fails people and how there is room for improvement in native title law in Australia.
The highlight of my experience at the TSRA was the ability to travel to the outer islands in single engine, 4-seater aircraft and meet with the locals about their native title rights. On one trip I went to Mer (Murray Island) to negotiate an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) between the native titleholders and a government agency. Mer was particularly special for me as it is the first place in Australia where native title was recognised, therefore overturning the fallacy of terra nullius. Eddie Mabo, a Meriam man from Mer took the State of Queensland to the High Court and argued that based upon his ancestors connection to the land, he had traditional rights pertaining to the land. The High Court agreed and that case was the foundation of all native title in Australia. Mer is a beautiful island and the people there are so happy to share their stories and teach you their ways. I was also fortunate enough to go to Saibai, the northern most island in the Torres Strait from where you can see the Papua New Guinea mainland and observe local Papuans stocking up on essentiasl such as flour from the local Saibai market. In my last week at the TSRA I spent five nights on Poruma (Coconut Island) and was able to interact and live with the community as we undertook governance workshops.
I can’t recommend anyone enough to apply to the Aurora Project and try and put down TSRA as the number one preference. The Internship was without a doubt the best practical experience I have ever had throughout my university degree. Try and make as many friends and get involved with community event as much as possible as the people are really happy and welcoming and will go out of their way to make you feel welcome, especially if you show an interest.