• "I have come to understand what they did back in 57 in a small country town probably cost them enormously." (Supplied)
Linda Burney made history when she became the first Aboriginal woman to enter the House of Representatives in 2016, but behind the confident Wiradjuri woman is a painful past that she says helped shape the leader she has become today.
By
Nakari Thorpe

Source:
The Point
19 Jun 2017 - 3:51 PM  UPDATED 19 Jun 2017 - 4:27 PM

In August last year, wrapped in a kangaroo cloak skin, Linda Burney made history becoming the first Aboriginal woman to be elected into the House of Representatives. 

"I cannot tell you how many people just said you being elected and your speech meant so much to me, and sister you're doing us proud... and that's enough for me," she told NITV in an exclusive sit-down interview. 

The proud Wiradjuri woman ensured her culture was felt across the chamber, asking one of her long-time friends and fellow Wiradjuri woman, Lynette Riley, to traditionally welcome her into Parliament with a song before she made her maiden speech. 

"In the context of Linda being in Parliament, what we're doing is saying, 'this is who we are, we're of the Wiradjuri nation, this is who I am as a person, now tell me who you are," Ms Riley told the ABC at the time. 

Holding up the kangaroo cloak to the chamber, says Linda, tells the story of her life. 

"This 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 very noisy," she said. 

"I intend to bring the fighting Wiradjuri spirit into this place." 

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Watch: Linda Burney includes Wiradjuri song as part of maiden speech
“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 ‘67 referendum fixed that. The first decade of my life was spent as a non-citizen.”

Almost a year on in Federal Parliament and she's already making her presence known in the corridors of power. 

The Member for Barton has been fighting for services like welfare and Medicare while championing Indigenous rights, and the desire to fight for the underdog began from her childhood. 

'Being born Aboriginal and out of wedlock was a complete scandal'

"I was born in 1957 and in a small country (town) being born out of wedlock was one thing and I was but being born Aboriginal and out of wedlock was a complete scandal," she said. 

Linda was born in the tiny town of Whitton in the Riverina region of New South Wales, but it was in nearby Leeton where she attended primary school and high school. 

Separated from her mother at a young age, Linda was raised by her non-Indigenous great aunt and uncle in the small country town at a time when black and white weren't allowed to mix. 

She says if it were not for her great aunt and uncle she would have ended up in institutional care. 

"I have come to understand what they did back in 57 in a small country town probably cost them enormously. They were non-Aboriginal people, they were brother and sister actually in their sixties raising an Aboriginal baby, that was illegitimate and I can look back now and understand just how brave that was. I suspect my life would have been very different had they not made that very brave decision," Linda says. 

It would be many years later that Linda would meet her biological father, Nonnie.

"My father's name was, Nonnie Ingram, Lawrence Ingram and I met him when I was 28-years-old. On the day I met my father I discovered I had ten brothers and sisters that I didn't know ever existed," she says. 

Born ten years before the 1967 Referendum, Linda says the effects of spending the first decade of her life not considered worthy enough to be included in the census is still present.

"It does have a very heavy impact on you particularly at this time when you think it was fifty years ago and a lot of people would say what's changed, I think a lot's changed. I think the 67 Referendum laid the foundation for so much of the movement since 67 and it came at a time with great social change around the world."

She says the historic vote led to the movement of self-determination for Indigenous people and led to the establishment of many Aboriginal organisations. 

Coming to terms with her identity 

It was ten years after this that Linda started to get involved in the Aboriginal movement herself. 

She began to come to terms with her identity, and began to understand there was another story in this country. 

"I felt racism, and I was made to feel very powerfully not part of the establishment and I think I surprised a lot of my teachers of being a bright student, that certainly wasn't the expectation of me but I was raised not to doubt myself, and I think that was a very powerful thing to be raised with," she says. 

Linda's experiences in early life became a catalyst for where she is today, leading her to advocate for education and social justice. 

She trained as a teacher, then went into state politics where she served as a Labor Minister in the New South Wales seat of Canterbury for almost a decade.  

She became president of the Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG), which advocates for equality and aims to ensure that "the unique and diverse identity of Aboriginal students is recognized and valued."

Making political history 

Today in Parliament, Linda values the support of other Indigenous members. 

There are now five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives in federal politics, the most representation Parliament has ever seen. 

"It is very reassuring that there is an Aboriginal voice, a respected Aboriginal voice, across the Parliament, you don't feel lonely at all," she says.    

After serving in state politics for a number of years, the opportunity to take up a federal seat in Parliament arose, but for Linda, it's a very fine balance between politics and Indigenous affairs because her area of responsibility falls within human services.

But she has made clear her stance on a number of pressing issues within the Indigenous sphere like constitutional recognition, and she says despite the Uluru statement rejecting symbolic recognition in the constitution, the matter should not be off the agenda.

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"We need to craft a referendum question that meets the aspirations of Aboriginal people but also have resonance with the broader Australian community and I do think that is going to require a compromise," she said.  

Linda's journey through politics has been no mean feat and offers some sound advice for young Indigenous people aspiring to make it in government. 

"Don't think your Aboriginality is going to get you there, there's a whole lot more to it than that.. your Aboriginality is absolutely fundamental to who you are, it is who you are, it grounds you, it wraps its arms around you but if you're going to be a good politician, you have to be a good person no matter what your background and you have to have the capacity to represent everyone," she says. 

Linda says the driving force behind it all is about truth-telling and she hopes to push this even further in federal politics. 

"It's about Australians understanding that this country has been occupied since the first sunrise and that's something we should all celebrate and be part of and I want everyone to understand that."

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