Semester 1, Issue 9
By Dinu Kumarasinghe
The beaches in the Torres Strait are idyllic, but they are not for idle swimming. These waters are for catching whole schools of fish in drag nets, for setting rock traps in changing tides, and for speeding through in dinghies. These waters are for steering clear of when you catch a sucker fish, because you know that means the tiger shark is near.
I was placed amongst these waters for my internship through the Aurora Project, where I worked at the Native Title Office of the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA). The TSRA is the Native Title Representative Body (NTRB) for the Torres Strait region, so I had the opportunity to fly (by tiny eight-seater plane or helicopter) to outer islands for various consultations. I went to Saibai,looked at PNG a few kilometres away and chatted to the Papuans who’d come over for the markets in their dinghies. I went to Ugar and watched two dogs chasing fish at the edge of the reef, some kilometres away at low tide. The sight of these islands from both the air and the ground is unforgettable.
But the one moment that really stuck with me occurred indoors. I was at the Annual General Meeting for a Registered Native Title Body Corporate (called a PBC), just as nominations for directors were to begin. The PBC members entered into a heated discussion that I found hard to follow. It was fast-paced and in creole.
What was important in that moment, I found out later, was for the members to reach an agreement as to how each family on the island would be represented as directors. In what appeared to me to be a mess of voices and opinions, they had come to that agreement. From my seat on the big table at the front of the meeting surrounded by folders, statute and printouts, there were some things I couldn’t understand if I tried.
I’m going to miss deciding whether I have time to get a morning coffee by how low the tide is. I’m going to miss watching systems of governance negotiate, conflict with and complicate the laws I thought I learned in the halls of our dear Melbourne Law School.
You should go to the Torres Strait, because it is breathtaking and illuminating.
Or at least, get yourself some work that lets you see how our law is simultaneously significant and insignificant. It is significant because it can give communities incredible powers and abilities to protect and advance themselves. It is insignificant because it often bears little resemblance or relevance to how these communities operate day to day. Who moves and seconds a resolution is irrelevant when the whole community just wants the damn health centre built. Whether the right procedures are followed in negotiating its construction however, may mean the difference between traditional owners being aware of how their rights are interfered with or not.. I hope that knowing that the law has dichotomous roles—really knowing that—might make us more careful about how we apply the law and our education, and bring a bit of humility to our jobs.
In some seas, you can’t just swim as you please. Stay back, sit down—be humble.
(Applications for the summer 2018/19 round will be open from 6 to 31 August: www.auroraproject.com.au. Start thinking of who you’d get to write your written references and feel free to grab me for a chat)