Last month Linda Burney made political history once again, becoming the first Aboriginal women elected to the Australian parliament. The MP for Barton is now Labor’s shadow minister for human services. Some 13 years ago, Burney became the first Aboriginal person to serve in the NSW Parliament.
Today she was one of the first of the new batch of MPs to deliver their maiden speech in Canberra. Here is an edited extract of what she said:
It was in this chamber I experienced one of the most remarkable moments of my life.
I was in that gallery just up there. It feels like it was just yesterday.
I pay respect to the ancient Ngunawhal and Ngambri. I am giving my first speech and I am deeply moved. I have journeyed to another place. A powerful place. I am one person. I wish to honour, respect, to be gentle, polite. I am thankful, happy. I could weep.
However Mr Speaker I say to my elders and to you that that last bit may not always apply in Question Time.
I mention respectfully the traditional owners of the seat of Barton – three clans of the Eora, the Bidjigal, the Gweagal and the Badigal – custodians of the land from the Cooks River, to the shores of Briton le Sands and out to the Georges River. It is strong country. And to the traditional owners of all the lands from which members of chamber and the other place come. These lands are, always were and always will be Aboriginal land – sovereignty never ceded.
So, what was that remarkable moment? Many of you were here.
It was the first sitting of the new Labor government, 13th February 2008. Kevin Rudd was the new Prime Minister, Jenny Macklin Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Brendan Nelson Opposition Leader.
Our nation had been holding its breath for a long time waiting for 3 words – “we are sorry”.
The stubborn refusal of the then Prime Minister to apologise for policies which had ripped many thousands of Aboriginal children, from their family, culture and country. The devastating effects still felt today.
Around the perimeter of this chamber sat some of those Aboriginal children, now old people. Still wearing the scars of forced removal on their faces. They were joined by all surviving Prime Ministers bar one.
Finally, as the words rang out across this chamber, this land and around the world– “for this we are sorry”, the country cried; and began to breathe again.
As the speeches concluded two women stood and handed the Prime Minister, leader of the opposition and Minister an empty coolomon. It is the most gracious and generous thing I have ever seen. It was profound. A gesture that made us all better people.
Friends, a coolomon is what we carried our babies in. I carry this empty coolomon into this place today, a reminder of that moment, of the power we exercise in this building today, and that it must be for the good of all, it must be gracious. But that it has not always been so. That day the truth was told in this place, and the power of generosity was writ large.
The significance of coming down from the gallery and onto the floor of this chamber is not lost on me.
Members, in this term of parliament I want to stand in this place knowing that the document on which it is founded finally tells the truth.
Recognition of the First People in our nation’s constitution is the next step in the path we are walking towards a country that can look itself in the eye, knowing that we have come of age.
Fundamentally reconciliation is about 3 things; Reciprocity, restitution and truth telling.
One of the bravest statements I have ever heard was in the opening ceremony of the 1997 Reconciliation Convention in Melbourne. The chair at that time was now Senator Patrick Dodson and I was an executive member. He said that there could never be reconciliation without social justice.
Nor, Mr Speaker, is the significance of the first speech lost on me –
It is defining. It sets out what has made you, what you believe in, what you stand for. It talks about the seat and the people whose hopes, hurts and aspirations you carry into this place. It talks of the deep affection you have for those people.
Because of that significance, I carry this cloak, made by my Wiradjuri sister Lynette Riley, who sang us in. The cloak tells my story, it charts my life. On it is my clan totem, the goanna and my personal totem – the white cockatoo, a messenger bird, and noisy!
Let me share with you a little of what has made me.
In 2010 I returned to the little town I grew up in. It’s called Whitton.
I’m freshwater kid from the Riverina. I learnt to swim in irrigation channels with we shared amicably with yabbies, fresh water mussels, leeches, red belly blacks and I suspect a considerable amount of chemicals… It was the 150th anniversary of Whitton public school. I was a Cabinet Minister at the time and thought I looked pretty flash.
I man a little older then me, I guess he would have been one of the big kids at school, said to me “You know Linda the day you were born was one of the darkest days this town has ever seen.”
I was so shocked I just could not respond.
Despite being more than 50 years prior, I was born at a time when a white woman having an Aboriginal baby was shocking and doubly so if that woman was not married. I was born at a time when the Australian Government knew how many sheep there were but not how many Aboriginal people. I was 10 years old before the 1967 referendum fixed that.
I was raised by two very brave people whom no doubt were made to pay for their bravery and generosity. My Great Aunt Letitia Laing (Nina) and her brother William\Billy. They were of Scottish heritage and in the latter part of their life. I have wondered often had they not stepped up to raise me where my life would be now. I loved them very much and experienced their passing and grief early in life. I was rescued really after their death by Coral Smith and her family.
Coral’s daughter, Barbara, is my oldest friend on earth, 51 years! I spoke to her on the weekend. Friendships over ones whole life are rare things indeed.
I didn’t meet my Wiradjuri father until I was in 28 – his first words to me were “I hope I don’t disappoint you.”
His name was Nonni Ingram, of the great Ingram Clan. Nonni and his wonderful wife Launa had 10 children. 10 brothers and sisters I did not know existed! We grew up 40 mins apart. The power of racism and exclusion were not things you could see but you certainly felt.
I had two sets of brothers and sisters – my mother married my step dad Fred Starcke, my sister Kim joins us today. So thrilled you are here. Fred spent his life serving in the Air Force and served in WWII.
I’d ask all of those listening this afternoon to imagine what it was to be a 13 year old Aboriginal girl in a school classroom, taught that her ancestors were the closest thing to stone age man in existence and struggling with you identity.
Being in this chamber today feels a long way from that time. And from the man at the school anniversary – well, here’s to you mate. In many ways these experiences have been the catalyst for my subsequent life as an advocate for education and social justice. The Aboriginal part of my story is important, it is core to who I am.
Let me tell you a little of the Wiradjuri story.
In Wiradjuri lore Biami is the creation spirit. He is the source of both our physical and moral landscape. The story of invasion and conquest for the Wiradjuri is a brutal one.
The deadly art of poisoning flour and watering holes began with the Wiradjuri and massacre sites are dotted all over Wiradjuri lands, their scars still evident.
In 1823 martial law was declared in Bathurst after Windradyne and his warriors waged a fierce war of resistance – 4 months later 1000 Wiradjuri were no more, their deaths sanctioned murder. In 1842, during the second Wiradjuri wars, on horror saw all but one young boy slaughtered when settlers opened fire on a group taking shelter on an island amongst the reeds in the a creek off the Murrumbidgee river. That creek is now known as Poison Waterhole Creek and their sheltering place as Murdering Island.
Scars as much on our national landscape as on our national soul.
I am of the Murrumbidya Wiradjuri. In Barton, from the beach in Brighton Le Sands, you can stand and look towards Botany Bay where the first fleet in 1788 first entered these shores.
Settlement or invasion is a matter of perspective – whether you were on the shore or on the boats in the middle of the bay.
I spoke earlier of truth telling – perhaps another great act of honesty and healing would be a permanent remembering of those frontier wars just down the road at our national war memorial.
I will say that I intend to bring that Wiradjuri fighting spirit into this place, for the people of Barton, for the First Peoples, and for those great Labor values of social justice and equality for all people.
I enter this place as a representative of the people of Barton, a community I have been proud to live in for almost 20 years.
If there is a god of demography it is one of his great ironies that the seat named for the architect of the White Australia Policy has become amongst the most multicultural in the country. Over half of the people in Barton were born overseas; almost 10% in China; we have a well-established post World War II Greek Community; A thriving Arabic speaking community;
We have a rapidly growing Nepalese community and a small but active Indian community. People from every corner of the globe. Barton is a kaleidoscope of languages, ethnicities and cultures
I’m not sure what Sir Edmund would think of this ethnic wonderland being represented in this place by, of all people, me and a Koori woman to boot! From Campsie to Kyeemagh and from Beverly Hills to Brighton – this electorate couldn’t be a more shining example what our modern Australia looks like.
For the benefit of those in this house and in the other place who doubt it, I want to place here on the record;
We are a stronger community because of this diversity;
We are better for our differences, and;
We are richer for the broader cultural experience that it affords us.
There are many stories from election day but let me share one.
It’s at Hurstville Public School, its 5.45pm, its dark, its cold. The booth is being packed up. A car pulls up. There is a very old woman in the car, she needs help to walk. It’s a long way across the playground. Her daughter says mum don’t worry we can just pay the fine. This old woman says no I’m voting. This is history.
It is history indeed. That my friend’s is Barton and we made history together.
Barton is the endless generosity of Khalil and his family at Ibrahim’s Pastry in Rockdale;
The tireless advocacy of James Zhou, Lily and little Chloe for their Chinese Australian community;
It is the enthusiasm of Harry Danalis and Nia Kateris for their Greek Orthodox Community across the region
Or the passion of families like Joe Awada’s our proud Arabic community.
For my money the only division that counts for anything in our electorate is the one between the Canterbury Bulldogs and the St George Dragons. My office and I are already preparing a public response should both teams play in the grand final next year but I have already told my grim faced media advisor that I will remain a Doggies fan and a true friends to the red Vs.
Truly though, both teams have long histories in Barton.
Like all good local sporting clubs (of which there are many in Barton), they aren’t just something to barrack behind – Teams like Denis Loether and the City Suns in Rockdale are part of the glue that keeps our community together.
Because people in our community know that the invisible hand of the market cares little for the needs of the most disadvantaged. They recognise that the government’s job is to ensure services are provided – whether it is education, healthcare or social assistance – government cannot simply outsource its responsibility.
Rhetoric about the evils of government intervention mean nothing to a mother in Campsie escaping domestic violence and searching for a bed that night.
As a school teacher, as member of the NSW Anti-Discrimination board; as a Director General; a representative of first Peoples to the UN; Local member and as a Minister responsible for at risk children – I’ve seen why government intervention is necessary. We cannot sit on our hands in places like these this hoping for it to be so.
Government has a role to serve and to lead. Throughout my political career and before I have been consistent – much work of government is important, but nothing more so than education It is not a silver bullet to all of our social ills – but is the closest we have.
But our parliament must commit to more specific goals too;
Things like lifting the birthweight of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children – an increase of just 191 grams could change lives.
Reducing the rate of juvenile incarceration must be a priority – because we cannot be satisfied that this is a fair country while so many of our young people are locked up – most of them Indigenous.
There is no justification for the incarceration of a 10-year-old, not when we know that getting kids to school and intervening early works so effective. The challenge of domestic violence in our communities is a national crisis – strong rhetoric must be matched with strong action and leadership. And we should take seriously our custodianship of the land – we cannot leave this task to our children. Landcare groups like the Mudcrabs in Barton know this all to well.
On issues of political debate and policy the message from those in our electorate and outside it has been clear. People have decried what they see as the lack of sincerity and a lack of good faith in our political conversation.
They see it when some members of this parliament rally behind their right to hate speech, but say nothing of the effect this will have on our most marginalised communities. Too often these calls to amend our Racial Discrimination Act come from those for whom this kind of discrimination it totally alien. People don’t ask too much – they want to be heard, they want to be treated with respect and with empathy. These are Labor values and ones I will proud to carry into this place.
So Mr Speaker, why Labor? Well my story speaks for itself: raised by a drover and boundary rider; shaped by a combination of love and adversity; politically blooded in the Aboriginal rights movement; and embraced by the strength of Labor and the Labor movement. There was never a question of being anything else!
I have been in public life for some time – but I have to admit that with the frenetic pace of a local campaign I did not contemplate the response that the election of the First Aboriginal woman to the House of Representatives would get. I have been overwhelmed. I have received countless letters, emails and calls all heartfelt and generous – some of which contained very flattering words about me as a role model.
If this is true, it was only possible thanks to the role models who guided me. In truth I come to this place not only through my own labour (although I like to think I’ve put in a fair bit of that). I’ve travelled paths blazed by those before me and resting on the shoulders of so many around me.
So to the impossible task of recognising those shoulder’s I’ve leaned on and thanks those who have come on this journey with me.
The fact is, I cannot name everyone but your help, early mornings and hard work was appreciated. My children Binni and Willuari, my pride and love for you is more than all the stars in the sky.
My partner in life, the late Rick Farley I don’t know what you would think of me sitting in this place but I do know that our country is poorer for having lost you.
To the people of Barton. You have put your faith in me and I will not let you down.
When I entered state politics all those years ago I made 2 promises to those that had elected me – I will always work hard for you and I will always do my best.
I make those promises again today to the people of Barton, to my party and all the people of Australia.
I spoke earlier of what it was like as a young Aboriginal girl in 1960s, sitting in a classroom and being told that my capacity was limited by my race and that my potential was capped by expectation.
Thanks to voters in Barton I hope that there are young people who sit in classrooms, (like Chloe Noak from my home town, Leeton here today) whose imaginations aren’t so limited.
If I can stand in this place, so can they. Never let anyone tell you are limited by anything.
In 1927 a Wiradjuri man name Jimmy Clements or Nangar and his friend John Noble walked over the mountains to Canberra from Brungle Mission, the mission my father was from. They had decided that they wanted to attend the opening of the Provisional Parliament House. When the local police saw their attire they were asked to move on but the crowd in front of the old parliament house wouldn’t hear of it.
The stood up for Nangar and John and eventually they stayed.
I like to think of the electorate today as a bit like that crowd – and thanks them there are more Aboriginal voices in this place than ever before;
Bonnar; Rydgeway; Wyatt; Lindgren; Lambie; Dodson; McCarthy and, thanks to the good people of Barton, now Burney.
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