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Leonie’s Reflections

Could it really be NAIDOC week again?

NAIDOC week celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This year’s NAIDOC theme is:

Voice, Treaty, Truth: Let’s Work Together for Shared Future

Kellehers Australia (KA) has a longstanding pro bono professional role working together with Aboriginal People to enable them to express their voice.  We believe that if lawyers such as us:

support the voice of Indigenous Australians by providing independent legal research and strategic options, … (we can) develop Australian law and understanding of Indigenous issues[i].

We believe that it is not our voice that needs to be heard – but it is the voice of Indigenous Australians that must be heard. When Indigenous Australians can secure independentlegal advice, they are strongly empowered to articulate their own voice – and in that way appropriately improve development of Australian law to their needs.

KA is routinely approached for legal support by Aboriginal people from all over Australia. The need far exceeds our firm’s capacity. To the regret of our entire legal team, we all too often must decline instructions due to sheer overload. Over the years, we explored (on occasion with other clients) creative options including an on-country legal office and a simple hotline. There remains a grievous gap.

by Hubert Algie


During this NAIDOC week, KA will use its platform to explore stories of non-Indigenous women who formed important personal and working relationships with Aboriginal People. Varied and hidden, their stories are important to tell.  They reveal the truth of the ‘lived’ beauty of Aboriginal culture and record its sheer power to draw in deep commitment. Such relationships are not often spoken of, but form a vital part of the brave and important story of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples’ achievement. Our principal, Dr Leonie Kelleher, has formed important relationships with Aboriginal People.

Dr Leonie Kelleher OAM

Today’s NewsFlash begins with the personal – Dr Kelleher herself.  It draws on her long professional experience, her relationships with Aboriginal clients and her PhD thesis. Leonie’s story is offered to share her personal experiences. It is not to replace Indigenous voice, but to support and amplify Indigenous voice by providing an example of the richness that working together can bring to a remarkable and unique shared future.  Leonie and the KA team are the beneficiaries of knowledge shared by Aboriginal people whose voice we have heard enriching our lives. We pay respect to these Aboriginal People and their Elders, acknowledging the great gifts given to us in this way.

Leonie Kelleher is a Melbourne woman with 4 adult children and one grandson. She holds a PhD on the topic of The Impact of Regulatory Change on Entrepreneurial Opportunity  – with her case study examining the impact of the Native Title Act on Indigenous entrepreneurship. She has over 40 years of specialist legal experience in practice as a solicitor, including almost two decades of pro bono legal assistance to a remote Aboriginal community. Her professional expertise is in the law relating to complex property, environmental planning and government. She is an experienced business owner and social entrepreneur. She has held important leadership roles including board positions on the Council of the Law Institute of Victoria, the Victorian Heritage Council and is currently vice-chair of the Australian  Environment and Planning Law Group and executive member, Legal Practice Section, of the Law Council of Australia. She is not an Aboriginal or a member of any Aboriginal family and so is an ‘outsider’ looking into the Indigenous world[ii].   


Let’s now consider the NAIDOC theme of ‘Voice’.  It is so extremely important – but why? 

“How is it that some fella putting in a flag over there in that Country near Botany Bay could possibly have any impact on us here thousands and thousands of miles away in the desert?”, says an Elder.

The quietness of his voice – its every word effortlessly chosen with skill, humour and accuracy. He, as the ‘Pied Piper’, leads the children to where he needs them to be thinking.  

“Who owns that water there?”. 

He kicks aside a rock covering the permanent waterhole in the desert.  Voice is a physical and emotional force that contrasts with apparently rational elements of law[iii].

by Hubert Algie

Lawyers profoundly know the importance of listening – of allowing another person’s voice to emerge and be actively heard.  Often, with Indigenous-related matters, there are no end of persons keen to tell Aboriginals what should be done.  Far fewer are willing to listen.  People who are silent or silenced ultimately tend to be ignored[iv].  In a room surrounded by desert, he asks his lawyer:

“It says we won’t have any control of that snake story Country.  But, they can’t do that.  That’s our story. We must be part of that committee.  Leonie, look again, it must be there in that paper you’re reading”.  The Elder is alarmed.

“It’s not there.  What I read before is what it says.” His lawyer advises.

It’s the first time anyone has taken this Elder through the long, complex but all-important legal document issued to him with multiple gaps, errors and omissions. They are making heavy and urgent demands that he sign it immediately – he is to be a rubber stamp.  It takes me literally days to read through it with him, sitting at a wobbly dusty Laminex table in the Aboriginal Centre surrounded by visitors and cooking smells.  Each line causes alarm.  Gradually, over several days, he realises the devastation the document causes to his People.

“That can’t be what that document there says.  It’s all wrong.”

“It is.  I’ll read it again.”

“But that can’t be right. It is our story.  We must be involved.”

Voice is core to interface with legal systems, particularly in western democracies. ‘Heard’ voices influence and shape the law. Stories give life to that voice, particularly for those who are marginalised, in the minority or ‘outliers’[v].

Learning inch by inch, visit by visit, small parts of ancient ‘foundational’ myths and, then learning about the wanton destruction of an integral part of that Country and then being shown that destruction on elevated land which is one arc within the traditional initiation journey path (never before visited by lawyers).

Why does this matter?  This is Leonie’s response:

“It matters to me because this is my country.  These stories are the ancient stories of our land and this Elder privileges me by telling me them. I feel myself far back ancient in my land and my country.  I finally become truly Australian.”

“Myth stories disappear in books.  It is the wind and the sky and the journey that bring them alive. The Country is everything.  There is one word out there for ‘two white clouds sitting low in a clear blue sky on a warm day’. How beautiful is that?”

“I go onto Country often I’ve learnt stories. It is no longer desert, gibber plain, rock or sea.  It is alive with stories.  I travel through a storybook.  As I drive, the next story appears and the last story changes shape. 

Wherever I travel now, even overseas, I seek out the local Indigenous People and whatever I can find of their stories or art.  It gives me insight in the country I’m passing.  I look to give back to each community whose knowledge I receive.”

Even fragile or tentative voice can be extremely powerful.

Let’s Work Together


Karen Martin studied her People, the Noonuccal People of Quandamoopah in south-east Queensland[vi].  Her delicate book reveals the role of ceremony as fundamental to the passing of new knowledge by Aboriginal people. For example, the moment in the dry creek bed where an important story is told to children.

Martin points out that there are non-Indigenous knowledge-giving ceremonies, of which non-Indigenous people tend to be unaware. Often non-Indigenous overlook the element of ceremony and it causes them to omit care toward key knowledge-passing ceremonies within Aboriginal cultures.

An example, during Leonie’s PhD work, was one Elder who approached a key interview with elements of ceremony. Great care was taken as to when and where the interview would proceed. It occurred in an inauspicious open air, informal place on Country at a familiar location, by the campfire (a place where stories are told and issues of concern raised and debated) and within view of sacred Land.  The situation was sheltered and comfortable, with the billy boiling and a cup of tea in hand.  The day chosen by the Elder, despite earlier requests, was just before the end of Leonie’s six days on Country in connection with an unrelated project. The Elder and Leonie had known each other for some nine years. Both had known for months of the request for and purpose of the interview. Nevertheless, the interview did not begin without the Elder engaging in banter unrelated to the known interview topic, but of a kind that demanded that Leonie wait and once again demonstrate respect. Family and Community members were about. It was apparent, without words, that being given new knowledge was a privilege arising from the relationship. 

A non-Indigenous person must be patient and become known, in a genuine and deeply personal human way. No true knowledge-sharing will occur without this.  The non-Indigenous person may be entirely unaware that they what they thought was knowledge, was a polite courtesy that gave only the tiniest, ‘tourist’ tip of a quite public story.  All Aboriginal relationships must involve absolute trust and assurance that there will be Respect for:

  • Aboriginal Land: which also encompasses respect of the Waterways, Climate, Animals, Plants and Skies;
  • Aboriginal Laws: giving honour to Aboriginal Elders as keepers of their Ancestral laws;
  • Aboriginal Elders: as the ultimate authority;
  • Aboriginal Culture: as Aboriginal Ways of Knowing, Ways of Being and Ways of Doing;
  • Aboriginal Community: acknowledging this relatedness amongst aboriginal People;
  • Aboriginal Families: respecting the autonomy and authority of families;
  • Aboriginal Futures: acknowledging the relatedness of past and present in forming a future and accepting personal responsibility for this relatedness[vii].

Working Together

Working together for nearly two decades, KA listens carefully to its Indigenous clients in a way that aims to respect and empower their traditional methods for sharing knowledge.  As non-Indigenous people, we acknowledge our serious responsibility to amplify the voice of Indigenous people and respect their careful traditional methods of bestowing knowledge.

So, as to Voice and Truth and Working Together for Shared Future, we do not regard it as our law firm’s role to interfere.  The law’s tradition is to act at the request of the client. Our role is often to assist the client to tell truth to power. Our shared future as Australians and globally must be shaped by Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians working together. We must not lose the immense power available to our country by the sheer might of Indigenous knowledge and culture. Australian needs empowered Indigenous Australians strongly able to contribute their voice informed by that cultural heritage. 

We share Leonie’s story in the hope that more non-Indigenous people will listen to the voice of Indigenous people without interposing their own views or, so called, solutions – but with humility and deep respect. 

KA is proud of its role in supporting NAIDOC 2019 and its important focus on voice, truth, working together and creating our shared future.

[i]   https://lampaustralia.wordpress.com/  Accessed 080719.

[ii] Martin, Karen L., 2008, Please Knock Before You Enter: Aboriginal Regulation of Outsiders and the Implications for Researchers, Tenneriffe, Postpressed, Brisbane.

[iii] Sinclair, A., 2001, Body and Pedagogy, Conference Proceedings, Gender, Work and Organization Conference, Keele, UK, 2.

[iv] Scheppele, Kim Lane, 1989, Foreword: Telling Stories, Michigan Law Review, Vol. 87, No 8, August, 2073-2098.

[v] Ahl, Helene, 2006, Why Research on Women Entrepreneurs Needs New Directions, Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, September, 595-621, Foley, Dennis, 2005/2006, Indigenous Standpoint Theory, The International Journal of the Humanities, Vol. 3, Number 8. 27-30 citing Foley, D., 2005, Understanding Indigenous Entrepreneurship, Unpublished Thesis, School of Management, The University of Queensland.

[vi] Martin, op. cit.

[vii] Martin op cit, pages 6-7.