Liam Fitzpatrick

Native Title
Thursday Island
Winter 2019

My time as an Aurora intern at the GBK Sea and Land Council on Thursday Island was, in many ways, a great honour. The internship provided me with a once in a lifetime opportunity to immerse myself in a remote Indigenous community, and to be exposed to the culture, challenges and unique way of life there.  For a month, I worked with the Senior Solicitor responsible for the native title aspect to the organisation.

Thursday Island is an untouched paradise in many ways. With a population of only a few thousand, and little infrastructure; the people are laid back, centre their lives around the clear, aqua waters which are always in eyesight and have maintained a striking sense of community. The people are open, welcoming and do everything with a sense of humour. There are numerous dialects in the region, and it was genuinely exciting to be in a part of Australia where English was a second language. In many ways, my assumptions around what remote Indigenous communities are were confounded. Thursday Island, and the Torres Strait people, do not suffer from the same abject disadvantage which many communities on the mainland experience. Indeed, there is a disconnect between mainstream Australia and the Torres Strait. This is something which the community are proud of and hold on to. Culturally, socially and linguistically; the Torres Strait felt like an untouched, unplagued, serene pocket of Australia.

Parallelly, the island is over-governed, and leaves the community with the distinct feeling of being “mission managed.” State, federal and local governments; the army, border force, customs and general police; numerous local authorities; and a litany of agencies, all exercise dominion over the Island. Part of this is by necessity: TI is the centre of gravity for the Torres Strait and must monitor the international border between Australia and PNG. Beyond that however, there is a duplication of responsibility, with little streamlining and a great deal of confusion over what body is responsible for what. Despite the floods of money which government pour into the region, there is little strategic vision or cultural soundness to that investment. Even reliable phone connection, wifi or fresh, affordable food are needs which governments seem to think can be left on the shore of the mainland. In essence, I believe governments at all levels, and from both persuasions, are emboldened by a view that living in a remote community is a choice, or luxury, for Indigenous peoples; which permits the half-baked provision of resources, services and amenities.

The work itself gave me an insight into an area of law which I had never been exposed to. Native Title law, and the work of the body corporates and native title holders who are the local stakeholders responsible for its maintenance, is  immense. TI has exclusive possession of the land, and non-exclusive commercial rights to the sea. Part of my work at GBK was a scoping study into the legal and practical implications of Akiba, a recently successful native title claim in the region, which was incredibly interesting. I came to the view that the implications of Mabo, whose birthplace was in the region, to more recently in Akiba, for the sea and land councils on the island are extremely complicated. Though there is great opportunity, and prosperity, to be derived from successful native title litigations; the impression I was given was that the windfalls are not felt by local people. The system is plagued by detail and procedure, which force communities to conform to culturally unsound processes and notions. Despite this, the courts have permitted, for the first time, the use of the seas for commercial reasons. I believe this could be greatly galvanised around to accrue social and economic prosperity for, and by, the TI community. GBK, in its capacity as the conduit between local investment opportunities and native title holders and chars, is perfectly placed to harness these opportunities.

All in all, the Aurora internship was an incredibly immersive experience, and one which I feel very grateful for. I believe it vital for law students to understand law in a truer context than the halls of corporate firms in Australia’s major cities. Too much of this country, it’s lands, peoples and challenges, remains secret to too many. I think programs like this, and for me the generosity of spirit at TI and GBK, should be taken advantage of and enjoyed. I certainly did mine.