Fighting the good fight

2022’s NT Australian of the Year, Leanne Liddle is a former policewoman who works for a better future for Aboriginal people.


Leanne Liddle has a barramundi on her line and it isn’t giving up easily. Neither is Leanne.“Barra are really smart fish,” she says. “They’ll do absolutely anything to get that lure out of their mouth.”

Leanne, an Arrente woman, is at Shady Camp on the Mary River, two hours from her Darwin home. Waterlilies cover the surface of billabongs and saltwater crocs average 15 per kilometre. Sometimes she reels in half a fish, as the snared barramundi attract passing crocs.

Leanne says colleagues are surprised when they hear she loves fishing. “It takes a lot of patience and I’m not known as a patient person in the office,” she laughs.

It’s the fight that Leanne likes. She was the 2022 NT Australian of the Year, an award that recognises her lifelong commitment to fighting “the good fight” for justice and a better future for Aboriginal peoples.

Leanne was born into a high-achieving family, including her sister Kerrynne, the first Aboriginal senator for SA, her aunt Lorraine, the first Aboriginal barrister in the NT, and her brother, a captain for an international airline. Her grandfather Harold Liddle and his brother are believed to be the first Aboriginal men to lease a cattle station.

Leanne is proud of her family’s achievements, but unimpressed that Aboriginal people are celebrating firsts that she thinks should have been reached a long time ago.

“My grandmother Nana Dolly was like a walking encyclopedia, but no one bothered to ask her anything, because they thought she was uneducated. She spoke at least six languages and had incredible fire-lighting skills to heal country. She worked with environmental scientists who had PhDs, but because she mopped their floors they thought she knew nothing.”

Her grandmother later taught her to light fire to heal country, a skill she counts as one of the most valuable she has (and which later complemented her land management and conservation studies).

Her mother, a member of the stolen generations, was strong in her expectations for her kids, but incredibly supportive. “Mum and Dad were really noble people in their principles. Dad used to say, ‘You’ve got to treat everyone in the same way as you treat your boss’.”

Leanne’s family lived in Alice Springs, but spent every weekend and holiday at her extended family’s cattle station Angas Downs. “We used to jump on a horse at sunrise and not come back until sunset,” Leanne says.

But she soon learnt that injustice due to race was the rule and not the exception. “Growing up in Alice Springs was hard,” Leanne says. “I learnt very quickly that we were treated differently, but I did not have the answer to the question of why … I couldn’t put it into words as a child, but I was made to feel like I was a second-class citizen.”

By the age of 10, Leanne knew she wanted to be a police officer because of the opportunity it would provide to fight for justice, and so, at 18, she donned a police uniform, becoming the first Aboriginal woman in the SA Police.

“I remember getting kitted out, putting on the hat with the badge,” Leanne says. “I felt like I’d made it that day. I thought it was the beginning of an ability to apply fairness and justice and equality across the legal and policing system.”

Her father had advised her that if she wanted to join the police force she should do it somewhere other than their home state, flagging the impact that tensions between the police force and Aboriginal people might have on the family. So, Leanne moved to Adelaide.

Leanne was not ignorant of the scale of the challenge she had taken on, but systemic racism took its toll over 11 years of policing. Fellow police officers would say to Leanne that the safest place for an Aboriginal person was in a cell. “I expected racism from the public. But it was harder to accept from the police force,” she says. “They would always comment that ‘We’re not talking about you, Leanne’. But the reality is, if they were talking about Aboriginal people, they were talking about my family.

“It took me a long time to work out that what I thought policing could do was not what it could do. I realised I had very little energy to fight the good fight anymore.”

Leanne’s disillusionment hit an all-time low in 1990 when she was assaulted in the line of duty, after which she lodged a complaint against the SA Police Force with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. “I knew from the very first day we took that action that my police career was over. I grieved for that loss, because I had thought I’d be a policewoman till I retired.”

Joanna Richardson, now a judge, was the lawyer who took Leanne’s case to court, defending Leanne over 35 gruelling days in the Federal Court until the matter was settled out of court. “It was probably one of the most humiliating experiences I’ve ever had,” Leanne says.

“It was a very difficult time for her,” Joanna says. “She became very unwell. It was a courageous step, but in the long run it made her more resilient … Leanne is a strong person who has a very clear idea of what is appropriate or inappropriate. And she’s unafraid to speak out if she sees that things are going wrong.”

After 18 months of rehabilitation, including multiple surgeries, Leanne slowly uncovered a new avenue for changing the outlook of Aboriginal people. “My mother said, ‘You need to get a law degree’.” 

So, Leanne undertook law school at Flinders University, graduating in 2004. She performed environmental and policy roles, including a stint with the UN, before taking on the role of director of the Aboriginal Justice Unit in 2016. Leanne flew across the NT, visiting 120 Aboriginal communities to understand why Aboriginal people are imprisoned at 15 times the rate of non-Aboriginal people and why quality of life for Aboriginal Territorians was so low. 

“It was one of the saddest experiences of my life,” Leanne says. “It was disheartening and gut-wrenching. I thought I’d seen the worst of the worst as a police officer, but during those consultations I realised we hadn’t moved too far forward, despite the millions of dollars spent and the road trains of experts tasked with fixing the problem.”

The consultation process took Leanne away from her two children, but she hopes her work will contribute to a brighter future for all Aboriginal children. 

In 2021 she launched the NT Aboriginal Justice Agreement 2021–2027. It aims to reduce Aboriginal incarceration, increase Aboriginal leadership and improve justice responses for Aboriginal people. It has been groundbreaking in its ability to attract bipartisan support, and Leanne hopes it will give Aboriginal people the power to make change on their own terms.

Friend and barrister Andrew Collett describes Leanne as “having a strong, formidable and courageous presence”.“I am told that my tone is too aggressive,” she said to a Reconciliation Week audience in Darwin a few years ago. “That I am too emotional, too angry and too insensitive as I upset too many people.”

Friend Lesley Johns says Leanne’s generosity is the reason Aboriginal communities trusted her during the justice agreement consultations. “She really does care for people. She has an ability to draw people together and connect with them.” This is one of the reasons the RFDS appointed Leanne as a board member in June 2022. 

Leanne’s lived experience has given her plenty of reasons to be both angry and strong. As well as the systemic racism she experienced during her career, Leanne lost her sister Jennifer just over a decade ago to domestic violence. These experiences flooded her as she rose to accept the 2022 NT Australian of the Year Award. “I actually felt quite upset on the stage, which is unlike me – I just had experiences come back to me,” she says. “I thought of my parents and the hardships they’ve dealt with, and of my sister.”

When Leanne is out fishing at Shady Camp, the phone doesn’t ring and it’s peaceful. She gets to step back from the good fight and focus on the competition with the fish. 

“People see me as a successful person,” Leanne reflects. “They see me as a highly functioning, intelligent, Aboriginal person that probably hasn’t had these bad experiences. But I say, sit behind me, see how it feels and work alongside me. The truth is that most Aboriginal people have these experiences.”