Who is an 'Aboriginal leader’?

Aboriginal leadership does not equal being an elder. But who defines 'Aboriginal leaders'? Unfortunately, too many.

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Are there leaders at all?

Traditionally, Aboriginal nations did not have what today we would now call a ‘leader’, or previously a ‘king’ or a ‘chief’.

Rather, experienced and senior initiated men and women were held in high esteem, and physically, spiritually or intellectually gifted people were also able to command significant respect. The community consulted such elders of high esteem for advice and leadership in official matters.

"[An Aboriginal] leader is a person to whom other people will listen, and who can create and maintain consensus," writes Frances Morphy, a Fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) at The Australian National University. "Thus leadership is conferred conditionally and has to be constantly earned. It is a process rather than simply an ascribed position in a hierarchy."

There is also a big difference where leaders stand. "The English metaphor implies a view of a leader as the apex [top] of a vertical hierarchy, whereas the [Aboriginal] metaphor implies a flat structure in which the leader forges ahead and others follow."

Aboriginal leaders wouldn’t consider their positions as powerful or privileged, but from a perspective of serving their people and nurturing their physical, spiritual, mental and emotional well-being. Leaders are holding and looking after the community they serve.

Other characteristics of Aboriginal leadership include

  • Sharing: Leaders have different responsibilities for different matters and are expected to share and discuss information, ideas and decisions with their fellow group members. Leaders usually spend a lot of time listening;
  • Age & gender: Age and gender are factors that determine the nature of leadership, status and roles. Women can be responsible for different things than men;
  • Hierarchy: The amount of valued knowledge and experience determines where a leader stands in their community;
  • Diversity: Aboriginal leaders can be female or male, and not all leaders are equally powerful—some are more influential than others;
  • Qualifications: A leaders' authority depends on their cultural knowledge and reputation, personal qualities, recognised expertise and their ability to look after others, Country and the law;
  • Networking: Leaders are often highly connected within and across communities and maintain strong relationships. Thus the leadership of a nation, community, extended family or clan group consists of a network of influential people.
  • Limited scope: Leaders rarely speak for all Aboriginal peoples. They follow strong culturally-based rules that limit them to only speak on behalf of the ‘right’ people (their own family, community or land-owing group), about the ‘right’ issue (their own Country and own business).

Leadership is earned; it is given when you have proven you can deal with responsibility and you understand that responsibility.

— Linda Burney, MP

Who qualifies as a ‘leader’?

Contrary to the Maori people from New Zealand, Australian Aboriginal nations are very diverse, not only culturally but also when it comes to which solutions work for them and their political views. Many politicians who tried blanket solutions found out the hard way that in order to succeed, solutions need to be developed and tried locally.

This diversity makes it difficult, if not impossible, to find someone to represent Aboriginal Australia. But what helps is travel the land and get to know the diverse views.

"You do have people like the Social Justice Commissioner who does represent the view[s] of Indigenous people because he canvasses and travels very extensively and talks to Indigenous people," says Dr Tom Calma, Reconciliation Australia co-chair. "He's able to present an unbiased interpretation. He's probably the only one in the nation who can speak with that level of authority."

In lieu of people, there are some Aboriginal organisations which can be considered representative: The National Congress of Australia's First Peoples is an elected representative body of Aboriginal people; Reconciliation Australia, an independent, national not-for-profit organisation promoting reconciliation, which has many influential Aboriginal people on its board; and the Northern and Central Aboriginal Land Councils.

Nations like the Yolngu, the Nyoongar, the Yidinji and the Ngarrindjeri have all their own leaders and points of authority. Even in urban Aboriginal communities, like Redfern or Western Sydney, the community recognises its leaders, usually informally.

Don't write about 'Aboriginal leaders'

If you are writing about Aboriginal affairs you'll be tempted at some point to describe someone as an 'Aboriginal leader'. But that's a minefield you need to avoid.

Why? Because:

  • It's too simple. The term oversimplifies the complexity of contemporary Aboriginal societies, the diversity of communities and organisations, and the fact that 'Aboriginal' is a generic term which refers to hundreds of different groups: nations, communities, families, etc. There are no single, identifiable leaders who can speak on behalf of all Aboriginal people.
  • It's lazy. It's far too easy to just refer to an apparent homogeneous group of Aboriginal people than to establish an informed opinion on a given subject. "I’ll support whatever Aboriginal people say they want." – If you are said this, you would reject to actually examine an issue, hear all sides, and come to your own conclusion, while trying to appear to be culturally sensitive.
  • It's you who decides who's a leader. If you're using ‘Aboriginal leader’ it's actually you, the journalist, editor, or organisation, who decides for your readers who is an ‘Aboriginal leader’. This is not only unfair for the person being described in this way, as they might never describe themselves this way, but it is also misleading for your readers who want to learn.

It doesn’t even matter if the thing believed to be a positive or a negative, it is still misguided and harmful when applied to all Aboriginal people.

— Luke Pearson, Gamilaroi man and founder of IndigenousX

Do this instead:

  • Use their job title. Many Aboriginal people of authority are employees of some group, business or organisation.
  • Use the group's name. If they are a leader with appropriate authority within a specific group or community, then refer to that group or community.
  • Ask them. Simply ask them how they would like to be described.

I doubt many people will respond, "Just call me an Aboriginal leader, thanks".

— Luke Pearson

Avoid pitfalls and traps by knowing the correct terminology to use when you write about Aboriginal affairs.

The making of leaders in the media

The media is complicit in shaping Aboriginal ‘leaders’. Given that it is takes time and effort to find out who’s responsible for an area, and if they are authorised to talk about a specific matter, journalists take shortcuts.

Mainstream media simply defines some ‘leaders’ as spokespersons for all of Aboriginal Australia. If these people are skilled speakers in front of a camera and require little to no coaching, journalists covering Aboriginal politics search no further. For them they are “Aboriginal, articulate and usually available”.

Unsurprisingly, ordinary Australians form their view of Aboriginal politics from quotes of a ‘leader’, oblivious to the fact that there are most likely dozens, if not hundreds, of other Aboriginal nations whose views might differ.

"There are instances where those people don't represent anybody. Sometimes they make it clear they're representing people, sometimes they're just expressing a view," says Dr Calma (often labelled a ‘leader’ himself).

Without reporting the diverse views, Australians may be forgiven that they don’t know Aboriginal groups prefer self-determination over government solutions, treaties over recognition, land ownership over title rights, listening over being told.

As Aboriginal journalist Myles Morgan puts it: “While usually well-intentioned, the mainstream media generally doesn't have the time, resources or inclination to canvass the huge variety of Indigenous political opinion. If they did, they’d find respected and astute Indigenous elders and leaders in every community who could add unparalleled depth to the political debate.”

The media’s leadership pyramid

The media ranks Aboriginal 'leaders' as follows:

  1. Politically influential leaders. For example, Noel Pearson (founder of the Cape York Institute) or Warren Mundine (Chair of the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council).
  2. Respected elders. Examples are Galarrwuy Yunupingu and his brother Djawa.
  3. Prominent Aboriginal people. A few of these are Professor Marcia Langton, Dr Tom Calma, Mick Gooda, Lowitja O'Donoghue, Justin Mohamed, Joe Morrison, Nova Peris, Bess Price, Gayili Yunupingu and Adam Goodes.

Western views of political, administrative and civic leaders

After Europeans invaded Australia the colonial government tried to find leaders in Aboriginal communities, as it expected their structure to be similar to European societal hierarchies.

Yet in the absence of Aboriginal-elected leaders, it selected its own 'preferred' Aboriginal leaders, bypassing the Aboriginal communities’ leadership choices. To easily identify them, they gave them copper plates to wear around the neck. Except for the plates, nothing much has changed in that regard.

The Western view categorises Aboriginal leadership into political, administrative and civic.

Political leadership

As of early 2018, there are 9 former or current federal Aboriginal parliamentarians :

  • Neville Bonner who served the Queensland Liberal Party as Senator from June 1971 to February 1983 and was the first ever Aboriginal member of Parliament.
  • Aden Ridgeway was a Senator for the NSW Democrats from July 1999 to June 2005.
  • Kenneth (Ken) Wyatt, of the WA Liberal Party, is the first Aboriginal member of the House of Representatives, elected in 2010. He is also the first Aboriginal member of Parliament to hold a ministerial position as the Assistant Minister for Health from September 2015.
  • Nova Peris, Senator for the NT Labour Party, is also the first female Aboriginal senator, elected in September 2013.
  • Jacqui Lambie is an independent Senator in Tasmania, elected in July 2014.
  • Joanna Lindgren, the great-niece of Sir Neville Bonner, is a Liberal Senator in Queensland, elected in May 2015.
  • Patrick (Pat) Dodson was chosen by the Parliament of Western Australia in April 2016 to represent that state in the Senate.
  • Linda Burney was elected to the House of Representatives for Barton, New South Wales, in 2016.
  • Malarndirri McCarthy was elected to the Senate for the Northern Territory in 2016.

Members of the elected national Aboriginal representative bodies could also be counted as political leaders . Such bodies are the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (1973 - 1977), the National Aboriginal Conference (1977 - 1985), the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC, 1990 - 2005), and the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (NCAFP, founded in 2010).

Administrative and civic leadership

Administrative Aboriginal leaders could be those in executive positions, for example the CEO or Chairperson of ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner within the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, or the Chairperson of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.

As for Aboriginal civic leadership, this could entail public servants of the Commonwealth Office of Aboriginal Affairs, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, as well as the Aboriginal Development Commission.

Aboriginal leaders can move between the administrative, political and civic areas over time, all the time maintaining their identity-based commitment to Aboriginal interests.


View article sources (7)

[1] 'The Language of Governance in a Cross-cultural Cultural Context: What Can And Can't be Translated', Frances Morphy, 2007, Ngiya: Talk The Law, vol. 1, no. June, p. 98, available at
[2] 'Authentic Leadership: Clashes, Convergences and Coalescences’, Donna Ladkin and Chellie Spiller (eds.), p.260
[3] [3a] 'Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Concepts And Leadership Structures', Indigenous Governance Toolkit, chapters 4.1.1–4.1.3, available at
[4] [4a] [4b] [4c] [4d] [4e] ‘Comment: The anointing of Indigenous 'leaders' uses logic of its own’, SBS 24/7/2015
[5] [5a] [5b] 'Take me to your Aboriginal leader?', NITV/SBS 7/2/2017
[6] [6a] [6b] [6c] 'Public Leadership—Perspectives and Practices: 12. Outsiders or Insiders? Strategic Choices for Australian Indigenous Leadership', Will Sanders,, retrieved 28/3/2016
[7] 'Indigenous parliamentarians, federal and state: a quick guide', Parliament of Australia,, retrieved 31/12/2017

Cite this page

Korff, J 2022, Who is an 'Aboriginal leader’?, <>, retrieved 25 July 2024

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