Malarndirri McCarthy has a had a whirlwind career. She began as a journalist, before entering politics in the Top End. Then she returned to her first love of story-telling, but now she's back as a politician but this time in the federal arena.
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The Point
31 Oct 2017 - 6:28 PM  UPDATED 8 Nov 2017 - 4:18 PM

Senator Malarndirri McCarthy wears her heart on her sleeve. 

She tears up when asked about the people who inspire her. 

"The people who have inspired me are the people who are in my own family. Even today I look at my aunties, and I get a bit emotional about it because they still struggle. They raise all these kids, and a lot of that is because we're still dealing with the alcohol, and the unfairness of systems that still refuse to budge and they're the people who keep me going," she told NITV. 

Senator McCarthy first opened up during her maiden speech, in September last year, speaking on a personal experience in a bid to highlight the effects of public scrutiny. She urged Malcolm Turnbull to reconsider a plebiscite on same-sex marriage. 

Senator Malarndirri McCarthy delivers powerful maiden speech
Senator McCarthy used the speech to highlight how issues around recognition and marriage equality affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

"Please pull back from this brink of public vitriol and make marriage equality a reality in this parliament," she told the Senate. 

She recalled the passing of a young gay family member who took their own life after struggling to deal with their sexuality and the cultural values of her Aboriginality. 

"One night she left this world, just gave up at the age of 23," she said. "She was suffocating from her inability to find balance in her cultural worldview."

Throughout her speech, Senator McCarthy laid bare her beliefs - telling the Parliament where she stood. 

"I think of the women in my life struggling still just to survive, I call them my mothers, sisters, my friends, who endured tremendous acts of violence against them, with broken limbs, busted faces, amputations and sexual assaults. I stand here with you. My aunt who lost her job that she had had for 10 years without warning simply because she spoke out about the lack of housing for her families, I stand here with you. To the descendants of the Stolen Generation[s] still seeking closure, I stand with you. To the people with disabilities forever striving for better access to the most basic things in life, I am with you," she said. 

Her powerful speech was felt across the Parliament and received a standing ovation in the chamber. 

"I'm a story-teller" 

As a proud Yanyuwa woman from Borroloola in the Northern Territory, Senator McCarthy has never been afraid of the spotlight. She began her professional life as a journalist. 

"I'm a story-teller and I like to think that this a very natural gift for First Nations people because our history is based on telling stories. We didn't write them down, we didn't have TV cameras, we didn't record the stories the way you do today. We did it by telling the stories through song and dance, which we still do, we did it by paintings, cave paintings, but it was very much oral history," she says. 

Her opportunity to start as a cadet journalist at the ABC came unexpectedly. 

"My English teacher said to me in Year 12... She just put an ad in front of me while I was sitting in class one day and said, 'I think you should apply for this job.' And I just looked at it and I just laughed and said, 'yeah right'," she remembers. 

But soon after Ms McCarthy scored the job, and for the next 17 years, she never looked back. 

Political beginnings 

She says it was the debate around Indigenous affairs that began to have an impact on her and fuelled her motivation to enter into politics. 

"It was never on my radar, certainly not for a very long time. The debate around Indigenous affairs did start to affect me. I felt the decisions around the dismantling of ATSIC was deeply wrong, incredibly flawed, and unfair in relation to the Northern Territory. We had some very good regional councillors in the Territory in relation to ATSIC and that was the point where I thought these sorts of things should not be happening at the whim of [how] they want to do it because they can, in terms of abolishing something that was, in my view, in the NT was working very well at a grassroots level," she says. 

But she admits, after two terms representing the people of Arnhem Land, her time had come to an end. 

"Like everything in politics, if the people are not happy with you, if they're not happy with your team, they'll let you know." 

And seven years later, the people of the Northern Territory let her know. She lost her seat in a landslide victory after a difficult two terms. 

It was at this point that Ms McCarthy returned to her first love of story-telling. 

"Being a storyteller is who I am and I think as Indigenous people we are naturally political anyway, because we've struggled to survive, and all of our families can tell that story and we don't need to belong to a particular party to know that we are political. We are strong people, and we will fight to survive," she says. 

Like many Indigenous Australians, survival has long been part of McCarthy's existence. 

Early life 

Born to an Australian father and Aboriginal mother during the 1970s, McCarthy's parents faced discrimination from society at the time.

"The policies of the day did impact on people's attitudes and let's not forget it was around the timing of the Stolen Generations. ... But the attitude around Aboriginal people and Aboriginal children against them were not really that different," she says. 

While she was brought up by her non-Indigenous father, he always ensured she knew her culture. 

"He was very passionate about making sure that that was a part of my learning," she says. 

"They [Mum and Dad] were doing the two-way learning before it even became, before we even knew what two-way learning was. They were doing it, I grew up with it, and I'm incredibly grateful, incredibly grateful."

Today, Malarndirri McCarthy has returned to political life in Federal Parliament. But it came as a surprise. 

"This just happened out of the blue. I [had] just set up my business in media consultancy and I got the phone call, which just went crazy, to ask me to stand for the Senate. And again it's those moments where you're forced to stop still and ask, 'am I going to go in this direction or this way?'," she recalls.  

Ms McCarthy has been serving as a Labor Senator for the Northern Territory for the past year, only the second Aboriginal woman to do so. It's where she campaigns for marriage equality, closing the gap and a more multicultural Australia. 

But as a single mum raising three sons, Ms McCarthy owes all her strength to her boys.

"They inspire me everyday. Your children are the future and they give you hope about what's possible, even when you feel like you've gone through the mill, and you feel you've been kicked in the dirt ... you just look at your kids and you say, 'you know what? You are so worth fighting for', and not just them but what they represent. They are the future."  

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