Issue 9, Semester 1, 2019
I was hesitant to accept the Aurora Internship in Katherine at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA). I had applied for placement in Melbourne as I had some knowledge of the local Aboriginal history and cultures. Katherine seemed like a step too far—I had no knowledge of the political or cultural landscape and knew no one who lived there. After conversations with family, friends and university mentors, I realised that I would never feel ‘ready’. I was encouraged to recognise and never underestimate my ignorance, and to exercise patience in emerging from it. I accepted the internship under no delusions that I could actually help in any way. Rather, I wanted to ally myself with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through listening, absorbing and learning. Immersing myself in a wholly new environment was beneficial as it forced me to confront my prejudices and insecurities. The internship was a total culture shock and provided the challenging, thought-provoking and inspiring experience I had been hoping for.
In preparation, I watched SBS’s First Australians: The Untold Story of Australia, read Bill Neidjie’s story as told by Mark Lang in Old Man’s Story: The last thoughts of Kakadu Elder Bill Neidjie, as well as the ABC’s Northern Territory (NT) News and relevant articles in The Conversation and New Matilda. I was particularly interested by an article on Kriol, the second most common language in the NT and the largest language spoken exclusively in Australia. This awareness was important as I interacted with many Kriol speakers. Without understanding that Kriol is a language with its own grammar, syntax and definitions, one may not realise the importance of translators. For example, I was told that ‘kill em’ in Kriol means ‘to hit’ in English. Needless to say, this is a very important distinction within the law. Nevertheless, translators were not routinely utilised for police interviews, even when questioning young Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people.
Miscommunication was a recurring theme within NAAJA’s legal matters. One startling example were the debts that many clients owed to Telstra and Vodafone for contractual breaches. I assisted NAAJA lawyers to draft complaints to the telephone companies regarding debts--often over $10,000--that had been accrued within a matter of months. The Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander customer may not have understood the difference between post- and pre-paid, or the terms of the contract which included large exit fees. The retailer may not have understood that the service did not operate in the particular ‘remote’ community. The phones would be discarded when it turned out they didn’t work in community, yet the debts would keep increasing. Then the harassment would start. NAAJA helped some individuals while many others would not have sought legal support. Like most other matters that I worked on, I recognised underlying systemic problems exacerbated by an absence of government regulation.
The civil law team worked on a wide range of matters, including complaints against government agencies, employers and police. I assisted on matters relating to Centrelink, public housing, workplace discrimination, fines, debts and police misconduct. Understanding the civil law in the NT required me to wrap my head around both federal and state/territory jurisdiction. Importantly, the NAAJA lawyers provided an invaluable source of mentorship and insight. I felt comfortable asking questions and exposing my ignorance. The most valuable part of the experience were the conversations about the systemic and interconnected nature of legal issues impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Every day I returned home shocked or inspired by a new revelation.
My time in Katherine was vivid. The weather was a mixture of thunderous storms and vibrant heat. The red earth was coated in thick green grass. My weekday evenings were lonely—I read four books in the first week—yet the weekends were busy. The excursions to overwhelmingly beautiful swimming spots were a highlight. As it was wet season, the droves of tourists were absent, yet this came at the cost of an increased risk of crocs. Pleasingly, this didn’t seem to bother the locals too much (who I always allowed to swim first). Closer to home, Katherine’s YMCA pool—arguably the best pool in the Southern Hemisphere—was the perfect location to take a leisurely reprieve from the evening heat while watching the storms roll in from every direction.
Applications for the summer 2019/20 round will be open from 5 through 30 August. For more information see http://auroraproject.com.au/about-applying-internship.
Sophie is a First Year JD Student.