The first Indigenous woman in Parliament tells SBS News about being raised by her white aunt and uncle in a small country town.
‘My Australia’ is a special SBS News series exploring cultural heritage and identity, and asking what it means to be Australian in 2018.
Linda Burney made history when she became the first Indigenous woman to serve in the House of Representatives in 2016. And, the Labor MP says, her culture is something she always wears with pride.
“Being Australian, to me, is obviously through the lens of being a First Nation’s woman, Wiradjuri woman, from a very strong proud Wiradjuri nation,” Ms Burney told SBS News.
But it wasn’t something she always had a connection to.
Ms Burney, 60, was raised by her great aunt and uncle (who were brother and sister) in Whitton, a small town in southwestern New South Wales. Ms Burney is also of Scottish descent, as were the relatives who raised her.
“I grew up not knowing my Aboriginal family. Not understanding what country I was from,” she said.
“When you lived in a country town, travelling photographers would knock on your door and take family portraits. I remember at the age of four this happening and seeing the photograph of myself and four cousins who were all blonde and blue-eyed and a very dark little smiling girl at the end of the line,” she said. “I knew that I was very different to other children.”
I knew that I was very different to other children.
She said that around the age of 13 she made a conscious decision to embrace her Indigenous heritage.
“My identity affected absolutely what I have pursued throughout my life. As a young child I always railed against injustice, bullying, and I thought a lot about what was fair and what was right and what was wrong,” she said.
When she was 28, Ms Burney met her father for the first time and discovered she had ten siblings she didn't know about.
The Member for Barton (NSW) previously held prominent positions in the civil service and various non-government organizations and said her heritage was a key driver in her decision to enter politics, first at state level, and then in the Federal Parliament.
“The three motivating factors for me pursue a political career, was my Aboriginality, the fact that there weren’t enough women in parliament and my whole life has been in pursuit of social justice,” she said.
From 2003 to 2016 Ms Burney served in the New South Wales parliament, becoming Deputy Leader of the Opposition in 2011.
She said since entering politics she has been lucky to have the opportunity to take on a range of portfolios and not just work on Indigenous affairs.
“Your Aboriginality in public life is one aspect of you, but it is not necessarily going to be the thing that pigeonholes you,” she said.
When Ms Burney moved to federal politics in 2016 she became the first Indigenous woman elected to the House of Representatives. She is currently one of only four Indigenous parliamentarians, alongside Federal Liberal MP Ken Wyatt and Labor senators Patrick Dodson and Malarndirri McCarthy.
Longtime friend and fellow Wiradjuri woman Lynette Riley said Ms Burney’s role is to provide a link between Wiradjuri people and mainstream Australia.
“Her totem that she has, which is the white cockatoo, that was actually given to her because she is seen as a communicator for our people with the Australian government and other agencies,” Ms Riley said.
And, she says, Ms Burney is one of the most resilient women she has met.
Ms Burney took leave from Parliament in October after the sudden death of her 33-year-old son Binni. At the time she said her son had struggled with drug addiction and mental health. Ms Burney's partner Rick Farley passed away in 2006.
“That resiliency shores her up and strengthens her and allows her to get past the adversity so that she can continue on and do the work for other people,” Ms Riley said.
Ms Burney says the date of Australia Day on January 26th means it isn't a day of celebration for Indigenous people like her, but she's glad it is creating a conversation.
“I think one of the good things about the 26th of January is it creates a debate that gets people thinking about who we are, how we a perceived and what it means to be Australian,” she said.
While she adds she doesn’t believe the date of Australia Day will change anytime soon, she hopes a new public holiday is created to celebrate Indigenous culture.
“I want the day to come in this country where everyone is as proud of the Aboriginal story as Aboriginal people are, and I think we will get there at some point.”