Land Councils, Constitutions and Community: Centring People in Human Rights Practice
In Conversation with Elly Patira (JD 2009)
“There was a resolve in me to work with community and for community.”
Elly Patira describes herself as a working-class kid from a working-class family. Despite being the current Deputy Secretary of the First Peoples-State Relations Group in the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Elly’s approach to work remains grounded in who she is, where she comes from and her desire to work with and for community.
As an Indigenous woman with links to Gunai and Ngaphui country, being involved in human rights was never a question for Elly. “When you come from people who have experienced a long history of marginalisation, who have showed great resilience and strength in the face of adversity, you don’t need to learn about inequality and rights. You live it.”
Elly’s experience at Melbourne Law School reinforced the impact of privilege on student representation. Surrounded by students and studying legal institutions that were predominantly white and middle class, Elly struggled to see her experience as a working class First Nations women reflected in her peers. This sense of not-belonging, experienced by women and people of colour, often culminated in imposter syndrome and a fear that you were one assignment and one piece of work away from everyone realising that you don’t belong.
Studying law, however, was empowering. Elly talks about how being able to understand the source of power and authority and having the skills to hold that power to account was the antidote to the “otherness” that she felt. Human rights was the epitome of that, harnessing the law to advocate for those who experienced injustice at the hands of power.
“What I thought were my greatest weaknesses, were my greatest strengths.”
One of Elly’s early forays into human rights law was a three-month pro bono secondment to the Kimberly whilst she was a lawyer at a corporate law firm. There, she worked on historic cases of stolen wages from First Nations workers. In the Kimberley, Elly was able to draw on her experience as a First Nations person to create a safe space for claimants to talk about their own experiences.
“I could sit down and talk to mob, sit in the dirt and create a safe space for people,” she said.
Elly’s time in the Kimberley represents the view that she has always taken: that human rights is about people and connection to people.
Building on her work in Western Australia, as well as working with the Central Land Council in the Northern Territory, Elly then travelled to Fiji to work on a draft Fijian Constitution. Alongside constitutional experts such as Yash Ghai and Christina Murray, who were instrumental in drafting the Kenyan constitution, Elly learned the importance of having political institutions that hold people accountable and the sort of human rights protections that could only be enshrined in a constitution.
“Sometimes… you don’t get everything you want.”
But alongside these successes, there were also failures. The draft constitution was rejected by the military-led government and Elly learned yet another important lesson about working in human rights, namely that progress was incremental. Human rights achievements could be iterative and could be worked upon by others in the future. Though the draft constitution was rejected, the work done by Elly and other constitutional experts influenced the ultimate constitution put forward, featuring aspects such as a bill of rights and the ability of the judiciary to oversee the implementation of those rights.
“This work is about people and the importance of truth for addressing trauma and supporting people’s heading.”
All these experiences have influenced the work that Elly has done within her own community. As acting CEO of the Yoorrook Justice Commission, Elly worked on developing the processes that would allow First Nations people to address the trauma of colonisation and propose reforms to systemic issues. The Yoorrook Justice Commission, whose broad mandate includes establishing a public record of historic and ongoing injustices perpetrated against First Peoples since colonisation, goes to the essence of what is needed for transformational change in this country.
Elly’s focus on community has also manifested itself through the creation of Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights (‘ALRAR’), which has brought strategic litigation to raise the standard of housing in remote Aboriginal communities. Working together with other volunteer lawyers, Elly has fought to empower Aboriginal tenants to enforce their rights to safe and habitable public housing. Having established the standard for habitable housing in the Northern Territory Supreme Court, and now looking at a potential High Court case, ALRAR is a testament to Elly’s drive to work with and for community.
Elly’s journey has explored human rights law in almost every form. From ALRAR, Aboriginal land councils, corporate law firms and now, as the Deputy Secretary of the First Nations State Relations Group in the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Elly credits all of her experiences with teaching her valuable skills, and talks about how there is valuable human rights work to be done in each space.
At a corporate law firm, Elly talks about the value of learning how to be disciplined in her legal reasoning and how to draft well; skills that would allow her to be an effective advocate in her later work. Elly credits her times with ALRAR and Central Land Council as teaching her the value of developing relationships and putting people at the centre of the work you do.
“You are working on matters that are deeply personal to you, they are about your community, they are about your children, they are about your future generations. It is incredibly hard to switch off.”
When asked about emotional burnout, Elly commented on how many different aspects there were to it. Part of it was feeling like you only had one opportunity to make an impact. Another part was also the way in which her work touched members of her community. Elly describes how community members often approach her to talk about matters she is working on, or air their frustrations about government action, whether in a work context, or at a pub on a Friday night. For her, there was no way to switch off. There is also the tricky task of balancing community members’ cultural authority (for example, Elders and Traditional Owners), with her own professional and/or legal authority. In professional settings where there are very few women of colour, there was also a sense that you had to work harder to build credibility and earn respect so you weren’t seen as just a token voice at the table.
Through our discussion, Elly was able to break down the dual burden that First Nations people experience when working on issues that affect them so closely. Unlike many of us, who are able to set clear personal-professional boundaries, the human rights issues that Elly worked on often followed her home.
Elly’s piece of advice was to find people who you identified with wherever you worked. For Elly, this was a group of First Nations Executives in the public services who had created a safe space to support, share and be vulnerable with each other. However, she acknowledges that this too is a work in progress and that she is still learning how to balance personal and professional boundaries.
“Human rights advocacy should not be about what you can get out of it, but what you give through it.”
Elly’s advice for young people looking to get involved with human rights has always been to voice your interest and take up any opportunity you get. Elly mentions that she had once mentioned her interest in working in the Pacific to her lecturer, and that was what led to the opportunity to work on the Fiji Constitution.
Elly also encourages young people to set their expectations. As seen through her own experiences, human rights work is not always glamorous. A lot of it is what she describes as grunt work; drafting letters, filling in paperwork, filing court documents, and most importantly working with people. In times like those, Elly encourages students to focus on the things they can do for a particular cause or community, and not just what they can get out of it in terms of interest and experience.
After wrapping up the interview with Elly, I felt I had been reminded about why I wanted to get involved with human rights work in the first place. The frustration at existing systems in place, the impact it had on those around me, and above all, a focus on what I could do to help my community. I think Elly embodies a human-centred approach to human rights, one that is informed by her own experiences and culture as a proud First Nations woman. As human rights becomes increasingly more mainstream and glamorous, advocates like Elly remind us to sit in the dirt and put people at the centre of our work.
Prepared by: Michelle Lam
JD Student MLS