Tom Weston on his Aurora Internship at the Environmental Defenders Office of the Northern Territory

Thomas Weston

By Thomas Weston

The Aurora Internship Program provided me with a unique opportunity to gain practical legal experience, work in public interest environmental law, meet with Traditional Owners of the land, and explore and live a new city all at once. Each of these different elements combined to form an unforgettable experience. I’ve come away from the internship with a better understanding of environmental law, but also of the broader interrelations between government, the legal system and the Indigenous affairs sector and how these relations impact people in the community.

Over the summer of 2017, I was fortunate enough to complete an Aurora internship at the Environmental Defender’s Office of the Northern Territory (EDO) in Darwin. The EDO is a community legal centre specialising in public interest environmental law. The majority of the EDO’s clients are Aboriginal and living in remote communities. The EDO is a truly unique operation, staffed with just one lawyer and one part-time administrative assistant. The sole principal lawyer, David Morris, works tirelessly to provide advice to clients, participate in law reform initiatives, agitate for change and provide legal education. Prior to completing the internship, I became aware of David’s exceptional reputation and began to discover the importance of the work that the EDO does in representing clients who face systemic inequality and barriers to justice. I commenced the internship with a feeling that I would be developing skills and learning at the same time as contributing something positive toward the community. I was not let down.

There’s something very exciting about Darwin. Electrical storms and stifling heat create an intense climate that’s almost a reflection of the mood of the city. Coming from Melbourne, it was a beautiful and also sadly foreign experience for me to walk the streets and hear Indigenous languages spoken by a large number of people.

From the outset, myself and co-intern Rusty were assigned substantial, practical and interesting tasks. They ranged from legal research, file-work, writing memoranda, and the opportunity to draft a piece of legal advice. I spent time researching regulatory and legislative developments in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) overseas, as well as looking into the value of third party review rights and merits review rights in planning law. It felt empowering to know that the job I was doing was contributing toward the important work of the EDO. In particular, it was heartening to hear that the work I did had assisted my supervisor with a presentation to the NT Fracking Inquiry as well as a meeting with Traditional Owners of Larrakia land.

Perhaps the most compelling and challenging aspect of the internship was observing and assisting with a two-pronged approach to a legal problem. The problem concerned the current practice in the Northern Territory of treating mining security bonds as commercial in confidence and therefore not available to the public. The first prong was a piece of strategic litigation on a yet untested area of law that will set the legal precedent for the Northern Territory. The second was a submission to a government inquiry on the same issue. It was challenging to take the detailed research I had completed on this issue and formulate it into arguments within a draft policy submission that were both persuasive and balanced.

I learned that sometimes it’s beneficial to simultaneously address a legal problem through multiple avenues to achieve the same result. It is possible that the case may be successful and thereby set a favourable precedent but the inquiry might ultimately result in no change to the policy, and vice versa. Effecting change through the courts and law reform initiatives requires a comprehensive understanding of the law and the use of persuasive and creative arguments. It also requires a pragmatic and tactical approach. Observing my supervisor allowed me to develop a better appreciation and understanding of the strategies employed to achieve change.

Weekends during the internship were the perfect opportunity to explore different parts of the Territory, such as Litchfield National Park, famous for it’s swimming holes and water falls, which at the height of the wet season are overflowing and truly spectacular. One weekend a group of Aurora interns from Darwin rented a mini-bus and took a trip to Katherine, stopping at the beautiful Edith Falls on the way. Visiting Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park was a particular highlight. The road in was flooded and a metal dingy was operating as a ferry to get people across the only road and into the park. On the way back to Darwin we stopped at the iconic Adelaide River Pub for a barramundi burger and a schooner, and to say g’day to Charlie (the taxidermied buffalo from the Crocadile Dundee movie). This was a true Territory experience.

I’m incredibly grateful to my supervisor David Morris for providing me with this unique internship experience and for his guidance and training. I’m also very thankful to the Aurora Project for providing me with this opportunity. I strongly encourage anyone who is passionate about Indigenous affairs or native title law to apply for the Aurora internship. It’s a great opportunity to gain exposure to this area, develop practical skills, meet like-minded people and develop a professional network in the field.

For more information about the Aurora Project, check out their website. Applications for the summer 2017/18 round will open in August.

Lise Leitner