A few weeks in medical care after a brutal attack is a hard chore for most, especially when it was in the line of duty and in pursuit of a life-long ideal.
For this year’s NT Australian of the year Leanne Liddle, Alice born and bred, the first Aboriginal to be accepted into the SA police force, it took 18 months of care and rehab.
Yet two years after this ordeal she studied to become a lawyer and two degrees later lives in Adelaide, working for the South Australian government, as Ms Liddle told Alice Springs News journalist ELISABETH ATTWOOD in 2005: “I’m not special or exceptional. I’m committed, focused and have a strong family behind me.
“I know what disadvantage is and have had to overcome hurdles. Even today I deal with people’s ignorance and intolerance but I think it’s important that Indigenous people try things.
“I’m where I am today because of my family.”
And her family must have done something right – her brother Jamie, at the time, was a senior first officer pilot for Cathay Pacific and lived in Hong Kong. Her twin sister Lynette was a government scientist in Canberra, and her other sister, Kerrynne, was a journalist with her own business.
“Dad [Geoff] was pretty strict but very fair on us kids. He learnt those qualities from our grandfather. His family is passionate and committed to what they do and that’s reflected in all us kids.
“Mum [Jean] and dad encouraged us to take the opportunities put in front of us and never discouraged us from doing what we wanted to do.
“That kind of support is really important. No one can get where they are without people behind them. The people I’ve had the privilege to meet enabled me to do what I want to do and I’d like to see more positive stories out there about Aboriginal people.”
But Leanne also said there were times when she had to go against her family’s wishes to achieve her ambitions. She left Alice at 17 after being educated at Alice Springs High to join the police force in Adelaide because “I always wanted to help people”.
But it was one of the most difficult times of her life: “My family weren’t happy, they didn’t want me to go.
“We had no close relations down there, I had no friends and basically I was starting off all by myself.
“I had been placed into an institution and I wasn’t the typical police officer they’d seen before. Suddenly they had to deal with this girl from the bush.
“There were so many things I hadn’t experienced – even things like traffic lights when I took a driving test.”
But racism was the hardest thing to cope with.
“I was dealing with it every day from both other officers and the public. It hurt. It was a horrible time.
“I kept going because I thought I could make a difference.”
Leanne “kept going” for 11 years, working in the bush and Port Adelaide as well as the city itself – but eventually took the police force to the human rights commission on the grounds of racism.
The situation was resolved in an out of court settlement, but Leanne had also been badly assaulted while she was investigating an incident. It was still too painful for her to talk about the experience and all she’d say was: “It wasn’t a pleasant experience for me”.
The attack resulted in damage to the nerves in her back and after several operations she had to take 18 months off from work. She came home to Alice Springs to live with her family.
“I actually don’t remember it that well. The memories are difficult,” said Leanne. “I became an introverted person.
“But I look at it now as an experience rather than a hindrance. It was a challenge for me to get better.”
Being back in Central Australia cleared her head and Leanne decided not to go back to her old job but instead go back to university.
She’d just finished a degree in environmental management and this time she would read law: “I think it was something I had to do. I had to move on from such a bad experience and not dwell on things.
“The human rights case was a catalyst for me. I’d been exposed to legal issues and having the police background helped as well.
“I still felt an obligation to help people. I think it’s been entrenched in me from my parents – if you can help someone, you should do it.
“My grandfather [Harold Liddle] was a strong, admirable type of person – being fair and having high morals, knowing what’s right and what’s wrong.”
And Leanne’s aunt, Lorraine Liddle, was the first Aboriginal barrister in the Northern Territory.
But life at Flinders University was “an uncomfortable experience.
“Coming from Alice Springs and being Indigenous didn’t fit the normal mould of what a law graduate should be. I didn’t come from a background of lawyers and doctors.”
But again she refused to give up: “My parents always said: “You can’t give up, you can’t give up.
“They’re my driving force and made me see things as a challenge rather than simply giving up.”
Leanne says she wouldn’t change growing up in Central Australia for anything: “Surrounding yourself with positive people is important.
“We’ve never thought of ourselves as special. With the help of other people we grasped opportunities and ran with them. I think it’s important that Indigenous people try things – and if it doesn’t work, try again.
“No one’s ever said that what I’ve wanted to do is impossible. You have to give it a go and see what happens. Most times things have worked out.”
When she was admitted to the bar a whole contingent of family came down to celebrate: “We had an afternoon lunch for about 40 people who helped me. That was something that was really important to me.”
She, like her siblings, still comes home all the time Kong: “Alice is our home. We’ll be buried here.
“There’s a lot of people behind me who have sacrificed a great deal to get where I am. I love home. I love our family.”
Since returning from SA to Darwin, Leanne has worked as the Senior Policy Advisor for the Northern Land Council and the Principal Legal Policy Officer in the Department of the Attorney General and Justice, where she is now, as the Director of the Aboriginal Justice Unit. Together with a small team she is responsible for delivering the NT Aboriginal Justice Agreement.
She was the driving force behind the agreement, travelling thousands of kilometres to meet and listen to Aboriginal communities across the Northern Territory.
In partnership with Aboriginal people, the agreement aims to: reduce imprisonment rates; increase Aboriginal leadership; and improve justice outcomes for Aboriginal Territorians.
Leanne has previously worked on the international circuit; for the United Nations with stints in Geneva, New York and Paris with UNESCO, and as a director for Bush Heritage Australia. She has published scientific papers on the critical importance of integrating Aboriginal science into landscapes.
Last updated 2 November 2021, 9.27pm.