Emma Riggs

Barristers/Legal Firms
Winter 2011

Adelaide Barrister and Mediator, Andrew Collett, has worked with Aboriginal people for his entire career, and this is a milestone not to be taken lightly. The Aurora Native Title Internship Program gave me the opportunity to live in the life of Andrew for a month, to share in the ups and downs of working in native title and realise that native title is not just about knowing the law, rather it encompasses so much more than just the initial issue of property rights.

Life as a Barrister is certainly hectic, and working in native title is an extreme contrast to dealing solely with whitefella law. Almost every day, we would quickly walk to meetings or the court through the busy city streets in Adelaide, talking about the matter I would be observing or chatting about social justice and how to sustain a long-term career in native title. This is in stark contrast to attending a meeting on Maralinga Tjarutja land which involved a few hours on a light plane. One day we were working in the city, the next we flew over hundreds of kilometres of stunning Australian outback, far out of range for emails or work phone calls to reach us. I was treated to the brilliant red soil and native eucalypts which occupy and make for breathtaking scenery on the Maralinga Tjarutja land.

 On this trip, I was fortunate enough to be accompanying the Chairperson of the Council. Throughout the journey, she could tell me exactly where we were in relation to different landmarks and sacred sites, identifying the sacred areas and explaining to me the customs, for example, not looking directly at such areas. Instead of pulling up to a city meeting on foot, we landed on a small landing strip and were driven to Oak Valley, the meeting location, a small remote community, with a fluctuating population of between 50 and 150. Oak Valley was established for the Anangu people who were displaced from their lands by the British atomic tests. The closest neighbouring community is Yalata, south of Oak Valley.

At the Council meeting, where Andrew was to give some legal assistance, I saw how the Council interacted with the mining company representatives working on their land. I was impressed to see how self-sufficient the Council have been and what they have put in place for the benefit of their community. The community have a number of skills, transport and equipment items which can be contracted out, the finances of which are channelled directly back to benefit the community as a whole.

Fighting for native title is a long emotional process, and native title claimants are not always successful. In this case, Maralinga Tjarutja has been declared a body corporate which holds a freehold title over the land under the Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act 1984. Here the Council, as set up under the Act, were confronted with whitefella business, that is, mining. This involves company representatives, contractors and sub-contractors utilising the land, requiring roads to be built, heavy machinery to be transported to the site and drilling which all needs to be done without disturbing the community and damaging specified areas of the land. Agreements need to be drawn up, enforced, the money coming in needs to be managed and the Council members are then put in a position of deciding where this money is to go. This is an incredible burden for Council members to bear and attending this meeting showed me just how difficult these situations are in such a remote community where, otherwise, city problems do not regularly arise.

From this experience, I have seen the importance of the role of native title lawyers and of their longevity with the community they are assisting. Receiving native title or other property rights is a stressful and emotional time for a community, and after this, further obligations are required from the community when people or organisations request the use of their land. Instead of dealing with these requests in the traditional Anangu way, this community had to make changes to conform with Australian law as a body corporate. To make this easier for the community involved, in my opinion, having a stable legal counsel is vital.

I cannot recommend participating in the internship program highly enough. This internship has given me the opportunity to experience the reality of native title. I have not only gained legal knowledge, but a much better understanding of the legal management involved in property rights and trust funds. I have met, and shared my passion with other stakeholders in protecting Aboriginal rights and have made a friend and a mentor with Andrew.

For more information about the Aurora Native Title Internship Program visit www.auroraproject.com.au.