In July-August 2015, I spent 6 weeks interning at the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) on Thursday Island, Queensland. My placement was arranged through the Aurora Internship Program which matches law, social science and anthropology interns with Native Title Representative Bodies (NTRBs), Prescribed Body Corporates (PBCs) and other organisations involved in social justice initiatives concerning Indigenous affairs. Through this arrangement, the Program fulfils its dual aim of providing students/graduates with work experience while ensuring that their host organisations get the additional assistance that they often desperately need.
The TSRA is an Australian Government Statutory Authority which derives its powers and responsibilities from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) Act 2005. It fulfils its NTRB functions under the Native Title Act 1993 through its Native Title Office (NTO). The NTO exists as a physically and operationally separate unit from the rest of the organisation to avoid potential conflicts of interest. Local RNTBCs also receive capacity building and support from the TSRA’s Governance and Leadership Program (G&L) in order to enable them to meet their legislated compliance obligations.
The work I did
During my time at the TSRA, I undertook work for both the NTO and (G&L) divisions, and for solicitors from Gilkerson Legal who were contracted to do NTO work. Most of the work I did was self-directed or coordinated with my co-Aurora intern. We were lucky enough to have supervisors who trusted us immensely and showed sincere appreciation for each task we completed. In those 6 weeks, I condensed legal advice into simple, plain English factsheets for use at RNTBC Director training sessions. I proofread and summarised policies and procedures. I examined and recorded key information in Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUAs) into a spreadsheet as part of an audit. I helped to register a new corporation for WorkCover, Public Liability Insurance and for charitable status with the Australian Charities and Non-for-Profits Commission. I became particularly familiar with the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC) website and National Native Title Tribunal (NNTT) website. I did copious amounts of printing, photocopying, filing and industrial stapling/hole-punching. In summary, I conducted a variety of administrative and research tasks, which exposed me to the many aspects of post-determination native title work. This balance between the intellectually challenging and the mundane helped me to acquire the skills and knowledge I needed and apply them at a steady pace.
Lore and Law
Law aside, I learnt about equally important things that helped me understand the complex history and culture of the community I was living and working in. I spent my first few days memorising maps of the island clusters for quick reference, reading the TSRA’s Cultural Protocol guidelines and examining the Torres Strait Treaty against the background of the TSRA’s administrative framework and responsibilities. I read about traditional garden customs on Mer (Murray Island), the history of the pearling industry in the Torres Strait and about contemporary challenges to traditional hunting and other ways of life. For the most part, working and learning went hand in hand. One of the highlights of my internship was visiting Poruma (Coconut Island), a beautiful coral cay located in the Central island cluster of the Torres Strait. There, I attended an RNTBC meeting where decisions were made following consultations that included discussions of both lore and law.
I also met many wonderful people who contributed to my learning and development along the way. One such person was Mr Seriako Stephen (Uncle Seri), a kind and wonderful gentleman who happens to be the RNTBC Chair for Ugar (Stephen Island). One day, my co-intern and I asked him a few questions. He responded by momentarily putting his work on hold and standing in front of a map of the Torres Strait to give us a two-hour, comprehensive impromptu lecture using only his own memory for notes. Without a notebook to record my lesson, I felt a sense of frustration at my inability to assimilate and retain knowledge through oral tradition. This was a simple reminder of one of the many ways in which lore can be superior to law.
Connection to culture
Personally speaking, learning about the importance of connection to culture was a life-changing experience. Having moved around several times in my life, I never understood what ‘home’ really meant till I came to the Torres Strait. The island communities are small, connected through family ties and ancestral connections, and almost everyone knows everyone else. I acquired a strong sense of appreciation and respect for the peoples’ pride in their ancestors’ customs, knowledge and careful maintenance of family lands. I learnt how important it was to know and acknowledge where you come from. I doubt that the pride, integrity and dignity that come with such awareness can be acquired in any other manner.
What I learnt
Most city lawyers would find this hard to believe, but you can’t find all the information you need to do good work in the Torres Strait through reference to books. Learning here takes careful observance, (a lot of) listening, humility, respect and patience. There is no “handbook” detailed enough to help you unravel the complex layers of land tenure. And although the TSRA publication is a helpful guide, there is no Cultural Protocol Manual dense enough to help you figure out how to address different people based on their seniority and role in the community – you just have to communicate, be respectful and ask for guidance when you are unsure of something. Friendship, trust building and good working relationships take time. Knowing and understanding local customs takes patience; not everything will be revealed to you upon your attendance at a single community event. If you can maintain these qualities, in due time you will learn what you need to know to represent your clients’ best interests.
Even after leaving, I continue to be inspired by the RNTBC Directors and community leaders that I’ve met. The only way I can describe them is as selfless visionaries who work tirelessly to secure a better future for their communities. There is a lot of work to be done in the Torres Strait (island communities facing the threat of coastal erosion, Katter lease notification expirations for invalid applications, and proposed freehold title plans on top of the already complex layers of land tenure, to name a few). It’s the ideal place to be if you want to use your legal skills to navigate increasingly complex legal and bureaucratic avenues to secure the best possible outcomes for your clients. But be warned – come with an open mind and heart because there are already a lot of good people doing this work over here.