Sherin Lim-Hussain

Native Title
Mt Isa
Summer 2014

My experience as an Aurora Native Title Intern based in the Pilbara, WA.

Like almost all penultimate year law students, a noticeable shift occurred in my approach to my law degree over the course of the year.Slowly, my calendar full of upcoming pub crawls was replaced by upcoming application closing dates. Pre-lecture conversation with my peers turned from hilarious re-enactments of weekend antics to frantic discussions about extra-curricular opportunities. After four (or five, in my case) years of relative stress free legal education we had suddenly been gripped by the collective realisation that in a matter of mere months we would be expected to gracefully transition into the real world, armed with shining resumes that showcased the full extent of our limitless talents and abilities.

Needless to say, ‘an unmatched talent for borrowing other peoples exam notes’ or ‘capable of learning the whole of the equity course in SWOTVAC week’ were not among the skills prospective employers would be seeking- as impressive as they may be.

 With the consuming fear to create five page resumes before graduation driving us, we all set about building our legal experience through the considerable number of internship and clerkship opportunities available. After cruising through the Careers Fair and taking more than my designated share of free stationary, one internship opportunity stood out to me from all the other brochures. The Aurora Native Title Internship presented students and graduates with a unique opportunity to be placed within anative title and/or Indigenousrelated body for a six-week period, with some opportunities placing interns around the far-flung corners of remote Australia. With the extent of my native title knowledge coming from a half hour discussion back in second year Property Law, an opportunity to learn more about this mysterious system strongly appealed to me.

After a surprising first-round acceptance email and pleasant panel interview, I was formally accepted as an Aurora Intern awaiting placement with a host organisation. Due to funds I had listed predominately Adelaide-based bodies among my preferences, but inwardly had a strong desire to capitalise on the opportunity to travel somewhere completely unknown to me and experience the native title system first-hand. This opportunity came with a phone call from the Aurora Placements Manager, who asked me how ‘adventurous’ I was feeling. Answering ‘very’ saw me disembarking from a plane to walk the tarmac in Australia’s mining heartland - the Pilbara of Western Australia. Ahead of me stood six weeks working with Kuruma Marthudunera Aboriginal Corporation (KMAC). The flight from Perth had been a bizarre experience, being the only female on the plane and the only passenger not donning high visibility work wear and steel cap boots. Looking down over the empty, endless landscape I recalled all the times I had flown over these places in the past on our annual family trips to Singapore. I had not even realized communities existed out here, let alone pictured myself spending my summer break amongst the mining camps and local pubs that comprise the area. But here I was, looking out over the empty red sanded landscape, realising that this was the first time I had been in a space so vast that nothing stood between me and the horizon. Already, this place felt surreal.

Over the next few weeks the initial isolation and vastness of the Pilbara started to dissolve; as locals welcomed me in, work colleagues became friends and I became a member of the community. I soon found myself speeding along the highway with my supervisor into work, watching the iron ore trains haul Australia’s economy past us every morning. Before long I was working away on a number of diverse and challenging tasks. From day one I was accepted as part of the small but enthusiastic team, being given a high-level of autonomy to work away at my projects. My work was as varied as preparing a social media strategy to reviewing heritage agreements and seeking out bargain office supplies. Of course the usual internship duties of administrative work and mail runs worked their way into my daily schedule, giving me an opportunity to help the small but energised corporation through a number of means.

Working for a corporation dedicated to ensuring Aboriginal members shared in the benefits of the mining operations occurring on their lands offered me rare insight into a difficult area of the law. Whilst the corporation worked tirelessly to negotiate the best possible opportunities for their members, the loss of traditional lands and sites was a seemingly inevitable reality the Traditional Owner’s continuously faced. After heading along to an on country meeting to observe land negotiations, the disparity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal understandings of land became obvious. The native title systems requirement for Aboriginal claimants to frame deep-seated connections to land in terms of formal property rights proved a considerable tension in the system needing to be overcome. The experience thus offered me the chance to be involved in work that felt meaningful whilst also exposing me to the difficult realities inherent in the system.

Far from a mere resume-builder, an Aurora Internship offers anexperience to participants unmatched by any other program. The opportunity to be involved in worthwhile projects, learn directly from Traditional Owners and experience life in regional Australia combine to make the internship truly unique. Thanks to the generosity of my supervisor and support of the Placements team, I was able to undertake a transformative experience that will hopefully direct my future career goals into some challenging but valuable directions.

I encourage all law students looking for a distinctive experience that teaches far more than core legal skills to apply for an internship with the Aurora Project. The next time you catch a flight and look down at the endless land below, you’ll have a lot more to think about than the in-flight meal. Details can be found on their website at Applications for the winter 2014 round close on the 28thMarch.