Angus Woodward

Native Title
Thursday Island
Summer 2013

The Birthplace of Native Title:

For a lesson in native title law, for a glimpse into the future of native title in Australia, and for something completely different, the Torres Strait is where it’s at! I think it is fair to say that many Australians, especially those from my neck of the woods in Melbourne, have barely heard of the place. Turns out it is one of Australia’s best kept secrets. The beautiful palm trees, impenetrable mangrove forests, dangerously inviting sky blue water, and biblical weather, are only topped by the extremely kind hearted nature of the region’s people. Strike up a conversation with any local, and they will trump your friendliness by telling you a few of the must-know fishing tricks. If you lose them when they start talking about the moon, just remember: if no locals are out fishing, don’t bother.

I am about to start my final year of a Law/Arts degree, my Arts major being Anthropology. With a passion for Indigenous rights and for working with Aboriginal people, an Aurora Native Title Internship seemed too good to be true. Luckily it wasn’t. And I could not have come to work on Thursday Island (‘TI’) at a more perfect time. You could spend your entire career as a lawyer and never be part of a High Court case, yet here I was travelling to Canberra with a group of Traditional Owners to pursue native title rights in the High Court. More specifically, we were appealing from the Full Court of the Federal Court for acknowledgment of commercial fishing rights (legal rights) as part of native title rights. As my supervisor put it, “this is the biggest thing since Mabo!” A successful appeal would set a precedent which could potentially open the floodgates for similar claims across Australia. Whether we will succeed, and breathe new life into native title, well keep an eye out for the Sea Claim Case in the news! Now I’m not saying you will get to go to the High Court. What I am saying, is that an internship with the Aurora Project opens doors to some rare and invaluable experiences.

A more valuable than invaluable experience I had was to sharpen my legal filing and administrative skills. Sound exciting? Well it is. If you leave Thursday Island and you can’t tell me what ILUA, RNTBC, DOGIT and PBC mean, you can’t register and send out Future Acts, and you haven’t worn a hole in a rubber thimble punching out a mass of native title, High Court or Land Act service filing instructions, well then you haven’t lived. But it’s not all fun and games, you might be unlucky enough to fly out to one of the beautiful outer islands to consult with various native title reps. If not, you will at least talk to the reps enough on the phone to be best buds anyway.

So work aside, what else can you expect from an internship in the Torres Strait at the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA)? You can expect to pick up a bit of Creole, a pigeon-English spoken in many Islander communities and very worth knowing. You can expect to catch a big delicious fish, if you are patient and not too proud to ask for advice. You can expect to join in the few fun sport activities like touch rugby, table-tennis and volleyball. Finally, you can expect a bit of lively karaoke, high standard pool, and a delicious dinner and cold drink at the local watering-hole.

But now for the pearls of wisdom. One thing I have learnt is that Native Title Law can be a cruel mistress. The nature of many NTRB’s, particularly remote rep bodies, is that they are often quite intense working environments. The relationship between NTRB’s and respective State Governments, and perhaps the Federal Government, is often strained. The land is valuable to all parties involved, for some in a purely monetary sense, some due to deeply rooted cultural significance, and for others a combination of both. And people working in native title have their own (often strong) opinions on what value should be attributed to land, and who should or should not be consulted, or what action should be taken. So how do you manage these complex relationships? The answer is: not easily. I certainly doubt there is one approach which will always keep everyone on-side. In spite of that, I came up with what I call ‘the BHP approach’ (RioTinto was too big an acronym). First, be Brave: advocate fiercely for your client’s interests against what is a powerful adversary. If you show enthusiasm to learn from Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people about their culture and how they perceive the native title process, you will put yourself in a good position to best pursue their interests. Second, be Humble: you may know the law better than your clients, and that does put you in a position of power, but that does not of itself earn you people’s respect. The law is only one realm of knowledge, and knowledge which may hold little weight in the minds of Aboriginal or Islander people. Finally, be Professional: despite your good intentions, and whether or not you are at fault, you may encounter conflict. Do not make it personal, and do not take it personally. If necessary, follow the prescribed channels to resolve the conflict and keep a record of communications, so you can assure yourself that you have maintained your professional integrity. On top of that, have a good perusal of the Aurora Handbook for Interns before you leave, especially what it says about the particular community you are working in, and you will arm yourself with all the tools you need to make the most of this one-off opportunity.