Central Arrernte Traditional Owner Leanne Liddle was the first female Aboriginal Police in South Australia and is the driving force behind the Northern Territory’s ground-breaking Aboriginal Justice Agreement.

Now, after a lifetime of fighting for her people, she’s been named the Northern Territory’s Australian of the Year for 2022.

She said she’s “chuffed” by the honour.

“I was really happy for my parents. I just think it was a reflection of how that brought us up as kids, and how they’ve put in the hard yards to make the people that we are,” Liddle said.

Born and raised in Alice Springs, Liddle has always had a passion for justice.

“My grandfather was a World War Two veteran, and I remember he would be treated one way when he was in the RSL Hall and when we walked out, he was never recognised for or given the respect that he deserves as a return soldier, let alone the person that he was: an Aboriginal champion,” she said.

“As a 10-year-old, you’re sitting there going, ‘why are we being treated differently because of the colour of our skin?’”

Liddle said her experience of law enforcement as a child was “pretty bad”, with police presence inescapable throughout the town.

In spite of her experiences with the police, Liddle had what she calls a “burning desire” to become an officer.

“There’s a level of injustice, and the amount of racism, that I saw growing up in Alice Springs, and I probably recognised quite early that a police officer has a position of power and privilege, and if it’s used properly­ … you could do good,” she said.

Liddle spent the 1990s in the SA Police Force as their first ever female Aboriginal officer, but a decade in the uniform left her wondering if anything had changed since her childhood in Alice Springs.

“It was very hard to shift people’s biases once they’ve made decisions on whether you as a non-Aboriginal person got dropped off at home, or you as an Aboriginal person went to a police cell,” she said.

“You can argue that as much as you’d like, but [the police] almost convinced themselves that the best place for Aboriginal person was in the cells at the end of the day, and I didn’t like that.”

Being treated differently to other officers after a serious assault was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and Liddle left the force to study law.

She said policing taught her how to operate inside the system.

“There’s no trap door for people to fall into and say ’that’s how we do it here’ because I already know what I’m dealing with,” she said.

After some years studying, travelling, and working with the United Nations, Liddle headed up the South Australian Government’s Food Security Strategy in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands.

Situated on the border, the work gave her a close view of the effects of the Northern Territory Intervention.

“We saw so many people coming across the border from the Northern Territory into these Aboriginal community in the top end of South Australia,” she said.

“People were saying ‘they’re going to take the kids off me, they think mistreating my children’.”

“It was quite devastating, because once you had the conversation with people saying ‘that’s not going to happen in South Australia’, most people didn’t return back to Northern Territory for some time.”

When first approached by the Northern Territory Government to work on the Aboriginal Justice Agreement, Liddle was sceptical.

“[I asked] ‘what’s it gonna do?’ Because I’ve seen [lots of] Reconciliation Action Plans.”

“I didn’t want it to be just a document that was ink on the paper, I wanted it have the impact that it needed to have.”

In the lead up to the Agreement, the Aboriginal Justice Unit did 160 consultations with communities across the Territory.

“We went into the remotest places in the corners of the all the borders and people said to us: ‘We want community courts so we can assert our cultural authority and hold people accountable for the behaviours that are causing their offending. We want to be part of this because it’s not working and we want to change the levels of crime. We want to make this place safe for our kids and grandchildren’,” Liddle said.

“It was quite powerful conversation and it was very clear to me that this conversation hadn’t happened in this honest and transparent way in decades.”

Liddle believes the Agreement is the transformational change Territorians needed.

“We’ve got money, the money’s not the problem. The issue will be people doing things differently, and shifting into a space where they feel uncomfortable so we as Aboriginal people feel comfortable,” she said.

Liddle said she’s a reflection of her parent’s efforts to make sure their children didn’t have to go through what they went through.

“My mum was a member of the Stolen Generation and my dad, the oldest of 14 children,” she said.

“They grew up with poverty, disadvantage, and discrimination, they made sure that we weren’t going to have the life that they had.

“I remember in primary school, we were always shown as Aboriginal people as this bloke with a spear. And everyone then was pointing and laughing at you, because you’re the only Aboriginal person in the classroom.

“And I said, ‘No! You obviously don’t know my family’.”

“I owe that back to my parents. I was always empowered by them to call out racism.”

“There was plenty of times I felt terrified or scared, but I knew that I had the ability to hold my ground.”

By Sarah Smit