Canberra next stop on Linda Burney’s unfinished journey
Having for decades operated with no Indigenous members of federal Parliament, the Australian Labor Party may soon have three.
Esteemed Aboriginal leader Patrick Dodson will join Nova Peris in the Senate. On the other hand, Linda Burney , who resigned recently as deputy leader of the NSW Labor Party to contest the federal seat of Barton , could be the first Indigenous woman in the House of Representatives.
The talented Burney is likely to win Barton, which, following a recent electoral redistribution, is now notionally a Labor seat. As well, Burney will bring to this year’s federal election contest a formidable capacity for hard work.
When she sought Labor preselection for the state seat of Canterbury, Burney met with every eligible preselection voter. In 2003, she became the first Aboriginal to serve in the NSW Parliament.
Burney’s biography ‘Linda: Unfinished Journey’ is due be released this year. Its title is prophetic.
According to author Noel Beddoe: “At the time of completing the current version of my book there was no talk of Linda entering federal Parliament. It was clear, though, that she would not be satisfied to eventually leave Macquarie Street and rest on a beach!”
Prior to Burney entering state Parliament, leading NSW federal Labor MP Anthony Albanese discussed with her the possibility of investigating a federal seat. At the time, Burney rejected that notion because her passion was education, which is primarily a state responsibility.
Last year, it seemed clear that Burney had a sense of having achieved about as much as she was going to at a state level. She was perhaps the most successful minister of community services in the history of NSW. In the current climate, it’s revealing to remember the work she did with Labor premier Nathan Rees to apologise to and offer support for those who had been abused in state homes for children in NSW. In the turnover of responsibilities at the last state election, Burney achieved her long-held ambition to be spokesperson for education.
If Labor wins the next federal election , and that possibility does not seem so remote as it did some months ago , Burney may enter the federal ministry. According to Beddoe: “If she got her choice of ministries she would become federal Minister for Education, although Labor’s party hierarchy may prefer her in Aboriginal Affairs.” Indeed Burney’s previous experience as a state department head and then parliamentary minister would give her a considerable edge in experience over such notable Indigenous figures as Peris and Dodson.
Linda Burney is a fascinating figure. Her mother was an unmarried white woman. Her father was the charismatic Wiradjuri folk singer Nonnie Ingram. The two met in the mid 1950s when Nonnie visited Whitton , a small town located in Leeton Shire in NSW , to perform at The Rice Bowl Hotel. This was more than a decade before the referendum on May 27, 1967, “awarded” Australian citizenship to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.
Beddoe comments, “I don’t wish to denigrate the behaviour of Linda’s mother, but it does seem to me that, when she realised that she was pregnant, she may not have known the colour of her baby.” At the time, unmarried motherhood was a major issue for women all over Australia. In the very conservative atmosphere of a small Riverina town it was massive. The fact that an Aboriginal man clearly had fathered the baby must have been a major social bombshell.
After her mother left hospital without her, Burney was taken in by an unmarried brother and sister, white people, who raised her as best they could, despite their own poverty and major health issues.
When as a 12-year-old, Burney fell over at school and broke off a front tooth, there was not enough money to have it replaced. Beddoe explains, “As a teenager she would attend Leeton High School, come home and change from her uniform into work clothes, see to the needs of her infirm uncle and aunt, then be taken by utility truck to the tomato farm of the O’Meara family out between Leeton and Darlington Point to pick and sort tomatoes until midnight. When she’d raised enough money she took herself to the dentist and had her tooth replaced!”
Given her life history, it is not surprising that Burney is tough and resilient. I remember the day in NSW state Parliament when then Liberal premier Barry O’Farrell told Burney that she had not achieved her place in the world through merit. At the time I recall thinking that he was wasting his time sneering at her , she’d endured much much worse than O’Farrell!
Before entering state Parliament, where she held a number of ministries, Burney headed a major state department and had led such major social innovations as “The Walk for Reconciliation” across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2000.
If, as seems likely, this year Burney wins the seat of Barton, she will be a major addition to federal Parliament and to Australian politics in general.
Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 39 books, including the co-authored sexual/political satire ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest AdventureÃ¢â‚¬â€¹’.
‘The Canberra Times’, 14 March 2016.
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