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.”