By Phillip Matthews
During the summer before my final year of law school, I had the great fortune of undertaking an Aurora internship with the North Queensland Land Council (NQLC), a Native Title Representative Body (NTRB). I had applied for the internship because I wanted to be involved in the important work that NTRBs perform, and because I thought that an Aurora internship would offer an experience that I could not have elsewhere. What I experienced at the NQLC far exceeded my expectations.
I was placed in the NQLC’s Cairns office in the Future Acts, Mining and Exploration (FAME) Unit under the supervision of Julia (Jules) Taylor, a Senior Legal Officer for the Council. I felt very fortunate to have been placed in the FAME Unit, as it enabled me to see that there is more to the native title sector than the making of determinations for Traditional Owner groups (although this is very interesting all on its own).
As I sat in meetings with various representatives from Traditional Owner groups and Prescribed Bodies Corporate (PBCs), I was able to observe the diverse range of issues that these groups face in exercising their rights in relation to their determined lands. In turn, I realised the diverse range of skills and knowledge that the field requires native title lawyers to develop. From debt collecting, forensic accounting and legal research, to negotiating with stakeholders such as miners, renewable energy developers, local councils, government agencies and religious organisations, the native title sector has it all.
Admittedly, I was very nervous before beginning my internship. I did not know what sort of tasks I would be performing or what kind of environment to expect. I quickly realised that I need not have worried about either. My supervisor spent almost half of my first day at the NQLC introducing me to everyone in the office and detailing their respective roles, giving me a better idea of the work undertaken by the Land Council and the warm atmosphere therein. For my second day I was whisked away for an educational outing with the NQLC’s erudite Mr Danny O’Shane, a Western Yalanji man with an intimate knowledge of the Cairns region, who was kind enough to spend the day imparting some of this insight to me. It was amazing to see the region I grew up in from a new perspective and I found that this was one of the most rewarding aspects of the internship.
Although I was invited to go on many wonderful excursions to beautiful locations – such as the Atherton Tablelands – for client meetings (which are always a great learning experience), I was also able to perform a lot of important work in the office. One of the first tasks I undertook was looking through the records of a PBC and organising the information therein so that it would be compliant with the relevant legislation. During this process, I accidentally stumbled across financial records needed to finalise some long outstanding accounting issues. Good financial management is a top priority for a PBC, given how vital external funding is to many of these corporations. Finding the records needed to do this at the beginning of my internship demonstrated how something as simple as finding some papers in a box can constitute a significant victory.
Another of my tasks was to prepare plain English summaries of an Indigenous Land Use Agreement required to gain consent from Traditional Owners for the Agreement. This process taught me about the importance of being able to draft in a style that is comprehensible to people with no legal training but which also accurately reflects the law. The ability to explain legal concepts in this way is, of course, an essential skill in all areas of the law.
Additionally, I was given the opportunity to conduct research into how deeds of company arrangement affect debts payable to PBCs by companies that have agreed with the State to operate under Native Title Protection Conditions. I was unable to find any previous research or cases that answered this question directly, so it was a great experience to examine such a unique legal scenario. Questions such as these reflect native title’s uniqueness as an area of the law, showing how it lends itself to inquisitive minds who enjoy a variety of challenges.
I was also very lucky to attend two directors’ board meetings for a PBC. At the first, near the beginning of my internship, I was tasked with taking minutes for the meeting. Although I was not very familiar with what was being discussed, I received positive feedback on the minutes from the directors themselves, which was a nice little confidence boost. At the next board meeting, my supervisor had lost her voice and I was able to act in her stead after receiving a written brief in the morning, with the occasional further written note from her. The two meetings, at opposite ends of my internship, reflected the knowledge I had built up over my six weeks at the NQLC, not only in the law but also in client interactions and particular matters facing PBCs.
All in all, I had an amazing experience and I am extremely grateful that the Aurora Internship Program enabled me to have it. Even when performing administrative tasks such as printing copies of agreements and filling boxes with outdated mining and exploration leases, the vibrant workplace atmosphere and the knowledge that I was doing meaningful work made it all a breeze. Not only was my internship highly enjoyable and fulfilling, but I was also happy in the knowledge that I was improving essential legal skills such as drafting, research, file management, and auditing. I would strongly recommend an Aurora internship to anyone who has an interest in the native title sector or Indigenous affairs more broadly, two areas set to grow in prominence as Australia works increasingly toward reconciliation. I would also recommend Aurora to anyone who is unsure of which direction to take and who is keen to try something different from any other internship program in the country.
Applications for the winter 2018 round are open until 30 March 2018.
Applications for the summer 2018/19 round are open from 9 to 31 August 2018
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