Linda Burney’s speech to parliament yesterday was not like those we normally hear from the House of Representatives. There were no slogans, no shouts, no accusations or name-calling.
But there was singing.
Clutching a kangaroo skin cloak, Burney looked to gallery as her Wiradjuri sister, Lynette Riley, sang a song of welcome and celebration in their traditional language. Such an act is not normally permitted in parliament, but the courtesy was extended for the occasion – the maiden speech of the first Indigenous woman elected to the House.
That cloak, made by Riley, was an expression of Burney’s personal story, and featured both her clan’s totem, the goanna, and her own personal one, the cockatoo – a “noisy messenger bird”, laughed Burney, as she showed it to her colleagues.
A long-time state politician, the former NSW school teacher was lured into Federal politics by the ALP. Come July, she stood for and won her place as the representative of Barton, a seat named after Australia’s first Prime Minister and, poignantly, the architect of the White Australia policy.
That irony has not been lost on Burney. A proud Wiradjuri woman, the 59-year-old yesterday told her story; the story of “a freshwater kid from the Riverina”, a kid scandalously born to a white mother from an Aboriginal father, a kid who was not even recognised as a citizen for the first ten years of her life, until a long-overdue referendum corrected that injustice.
“I was born at a time when the Australian government knew how many sheep there were but not how many Aboriginal people,” Burney said.
“I would ask all of those listening this afternoon to imagine what it was like for a 13-year-old Aboriginal girl in a school classroom, being taught that her ancestors were the closest thing to Stone Age man on earth and struggling with your identity.”
Things may have moved on, but prejudices certainly remain. In yesterday’s speech, Burney spoke of returning to her home town of Whitton in 2010, only to be told by a resident that her birth “was one of the darkest days this town has ever seen”. To him, from the lectern in Australia’s federal parliament, Burney said, “Well, here’s to you, mate.”
It’s just a little taste of what Burney identified as the “fighting Wiradjuri spirit” she plans to bring with her to parliament.
“I will bring that 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,” she said.
For Burney, that equality especially means constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians; an act, she said, that would represent reciprocity, restitution and honesty for her people.
“Members, in this term of parliament, all I want is to be able to stand in this place knowing that the document on which it was founded finally tells the truth,” she said.
“Recognition of the First People in our nation’s constitution is the next step on the path we are walking towards a country that can look itself in the eye knowing that we have come of age.”
She also called on others not to be limited by their circumstances. “I spoke earlier of what it was like to be a young Aboriginal girl in the 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 of Leeton, who is here today—whose imaginations are not so limited. If I can stand in this place, so can they. Never let anyone tell you that you are limited by anything. ”
When her speech concluded, the house and the gallery erupted in applause. There were tears, handshakes and hugs from her Labor colleagues. Then another person joined the congratulatory queue, having crossed over from the opposite side of the chamber. Liberal member, Ken Wyatt, a man of Noongar, Yamitji and Wongi heritage.
And so the first Indigenous man elected to the federal House of Representatives embraced the first women.
“It’s going to be so good to serve with you,” he said.
Watch Linda Burney’s full speech here.