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The Moment: Siobhan McDonnell

Ginger Gorman

Lawyer and anthropologist Siobhan McDonnell, 40, cried and cried when she found out she was accidentally pregnant with her second child back in 2008.

Siobhan was living in Alice Springs with her husband, Laurence, and their first son, Will, who was eight months old at the time.

“We lived in a really beautiful bush block, so every night we could see the kind of sunset over the Ilparpa ranges. It was divine, it was kind of a dream come true really,” she recalls.

“I absolutely loved it,” Siobhan says, adding that being in the desert for six years “really grew me up.”

“I moved out of Canberra and I went out into Aboriginal Australia and I had these experiences that almost nobody gets. I went out and did women’s law and culture with groups of women.

“I travelled round the country. I knew stories about a place, and I would translate that knowledge from the Land Council, and I would bring it to Canberra and I would lobby for Aboriginal issues in all kinds of different ways.

Siobhan was “deeply passionate” about her work with the Aboriginal organisation, the Central Land Council. But everything was about to change.

Listen to our podcast, or keep reading, to find out what happened next.

“I can remember vividly sitting on the toilet in my house and looking down at the pregnancy test,” she says, “it was a terrible shock.”

“I remember it so vividly as a point that I knew my life direction would change,” she continues.

Siobhan describes her first child, Will, as “gorgeous” but “totally full-on.”

“Juggling him and work had been tricky. And I knew that if I was pregnant with a second child – so two kids under the age of two – I needed my mother. And that meant coming back to Canberra, and it meant leaving Alice Springs.

“I cried for about three months. I just couldn’t believe it. I just – I couldn’t believe that we were so far away from that life that I loved,” she says.

In the depths of Canberra winter, Siobhan found herself dismally wondering: “What have we done. How did we get here?”

After living in the Northern Territory, Siobhan was struck by both the wealth in Canberra and the lack of Aboriginal faces.

“I started to think, you know, I can’t be at home with these two kids, I’m going to go crazy. I need to do something,” she says.

At the same time, she found herself deeply disappointed at the state of Indigenous affairs in Australia.

Despite the Apology to the Stolen Generations, “the big policy space hadn’t changed very much. And I was burnt out,” she explains.

Then Siobhan had an idea. After a family holiday to the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, she became interested in land rights in that country and wondered how her skills could translate.

A thought struck her:

“I’ll have this baby and I’ll start a PhD [about Vanuatu], because that will fit really seamlessly with juggling two kids and consulting work – no problem,” she recalls with a laugh, “I am an eternal optimist, which is both a strength and a weakness.”

“So I went and then picked up the whole family and we went and lived in Vanuatu for a couple of years. And that was an amazing experience, but hard as well,” Siobhan explains.

While Siobhan manages to brush this over in a few sentences, her achievements are immense.

She worked as the legal advisor to the Vanuatuan Attorney General on land issues and also as a legal advisor inside the Vanuatu Cultural Centre. She then became the legal advisor to the Minister of Lands, Ralph Regenvanu.

This latter work was incredibly complex because it involved walking a fine line between understanding “how people are attached to the landscape” and translating into a western legal system.

“A lot of my understanding about how to do it came straight from the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in the Northern territory. So the story really joins up. And I think that’s what life is. I think you take the understanding that you build from one part of your life, and you translate it into other parts.

“In that role, I drafted all the new land laws in Vanuatu. I rewrote all the legislation and I redrafted the constitution,” she says.

However, Siobhan openly admits things weren’t always easy for her family in Vanuatu.

“It wasn’t what Laurence wanted to do, it wasn’t necessarily what the kids wanted to do.

“That’s a difficult thing, I think, for a woman,” she says, referring to the decision to move her family for the purposes of work.

Now Siobhan and her family are back in Canberra. Professionally, Siobhan feels the experience in Vanuatu “opened up my mind again.”

She’s currently working back at ANU’s National Centre for Indigenous Studies with prominent Aboriginal leader, Mick Dodson.

Find more episodes of The Moment here.


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Ginger Gorman

Ginger Gorman is a fearless and multi award-winning social justice journalist. She has an innate ability to connect and communicate with some of the most interesting and marginalised people in our community. Ginger works hard to translate those untold stories into powerful and insightful journalism. She regularly writes stories, makes radio and TV for media outlets such as:, Fairfax online, The Guardian, The Big Smoke, HerCanberra and the ABC. You can follow Ginger on Twitter @GingerGorman. More about the Author