Linda’s Story – Truth Telling
Voice takes a profound role in Parliament. Parliament is designed for talk. The clue is in the name[i], coming from the French word ‘parler’ – to speak. It exists for the expression of opinion and criticism[ii]. MPs represent the people and, through the process of debate rather than the individual merit, work toward good sense[iii]. Without diversity among MPs, and the interests they represent, Parliament cannot mirror the nation.
Eight Indigenous Australians have served in the Federal Parliament, with three others acknowledging Indigenous ancestry[iv]. The four current Aboriginal Federal Members of Parliament are Linda Burney and Ken Wyatt (House of Representatives) and Pat Dodson and Malarndirri McCarthy (Senate). Jacqui Lambie also claims Aboriginal ancestry. These current MPs follow four earlier Indigenous MPs – Neville Bonner, his great niece, Joanna Lindgren, Nova Peris and Aden Ridgeway. In addition, former MPs Mal Brough and David Kennedy also acknowledged Aboriginal ancestry.
Of these MPs, there is one whose mother was white. It is the current Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services and for Preventing Family Violence, the Hon Linda Jen Burney. Let’s explore Linda’s story and then briefly look at the other MPs.
Linda’s Story – Truth Telling
Linda’s mother, Rita, came from Whitton. Rita had a relationship with Lawrence (Nonny) Ingram, a Wiradjuri man. This relationship led to Linda’s birth on 25 April 1957. Rita was a white woman giving birth to an Aboriginal baby in a very small Murrumbidgee irrigation area town. Apparently, no-one informed her father of the birth and he was unaware that Linda existed until decades later. In Linda’s history-making maiden speech to the House of Representatives she referred to being told by a former Whitton schoolmate at a reunion 50 years after her school days:
“You know Linda, the day you were born was one of the darkest days this town has ever seen”[v].
The link to Linda’s historic maiden speech is: HERE
In a wonderful podcast with Richard Fidler, Linda speaks of the ‘sin’ it was at that time, not only to be born out of wedlock, but with the added ‘sin’ of a white woman giving birth to a black baby – and in such a small town[vi]. Many single women in the 1950s had their babies taken from them into forced adoption. At that time, in that small country town, black and white were not allowed to mix, let alone have an intimate relationship or marry.
“I was born at a time when a white woman having an Aboriginal baby was shocking and doubly so if that woman was not married.”[vii]
The link to the Fidler interview is: HERE
Linda’s mother’s family reared the baby. Her great Aunty Nina and her great Uncle Bill, who were both single, shared a home next to Linda’s grandmother. In their 60s, they took Linda into their hearts and brought her up until their deaths 14 and 15 years later. Linda’s mother did not continue to live in Whitton. She remained, remotely, part of Linda’s life. Her mother suffered enormously. In the Fidler podcast, Linda says that, when she was younger, she did not appreciate how difficult it must have been for her mother and that:
“Looking back on it now, I can see her suffering.”
Linda’s upbringing was very loving. Speaking of Nina and Bill, persons born in the late 1890s, she said:
“These old people gave me the ground on which I stand today – the values of honesty, loyalty and respect.”
In her maiden speech to Federal Parliament, she called them two very brave people who were, no doubt made to pay for their actions. With forthright words, she referred to her love for them and wondered where she would be if they had not stepped up to raise her.
“I had an absolute passion for books and that was instilled by my great aunt and uncle.”
She was never told she was Aboriginal. “It was never mentioned, ever.” She recalls overhearing a conversation between her mother and Nina saying that if an Aboriginal man walked through the gate, Linda was not to see him. When her grandmother was dying, Linda asked whether she knew who her father was but was told “No”.
By the time Linda was in her mid-teens, Nina and Bill were quite old and each became ill. Linda ultimately became their carer. When they died within twelve months of each other, Linda was devastated.
Linda recalls her own first awareness of difference at four, when she saw a photo of herself with four light blue-eyed maternal cousins. She talks of being called ‘smelly’ and derided for not having a father. At age 11, an adult told her she ‘would not amount to anything’. At age 13, after a school lesson informing the class that Aboriginals were the closest example of stone-age man and savages, she felt a ‘fork in the road’. She needed to decide whether she would pretend that she was not Aboriginal or take ‘the path to Truth’. Linda chose truth.
At the end of year 10, she left Whitton and came to live for two years with her mother in Penrith. Her mother had married, Fred Stachey – “a wonderful man” – and she had a stepfather, stepbrother and stepsister. Sadly, with her mother’s absence throughout her childhood, Linda never developed a close relationship with her.
“You can’t put back all those years.”
Linda, who loved and excelled at school, qualified as a teacher in the late 1970s.
She became involved in the New South Wales Aboriginal Education Consultative Group in the mid-1980s and participated in the development and implementation of the first Aboriginal education policy in Australia. She ultimately held senior positions in the non-government sector, serving on a number of boards including SBS, the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board and the NSW Board of Studies. Burney was an executive member of the National Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, President of the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group and is a former Director-General of the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
As an adult, and after extensive searching, she found her father, discovering that he and her extended family had lived only 40 minutes away from Whitton and that she was strikingly like one of her half-sisters[viii]. In the late 1990s she became the beloved partner of Rick Farley, high profile chief executive of the National Farmers’ Federation.
In 2003, she began her Parliamentary life as the Member for Canterbury in the New South Wales Parliament becoming the first Aboriginal person to serve that Parliament. That inaugural speech referred not only to her great Aunty and Uncle, but proudly to her Aboriginal ancestry:
“I am a member of the mighty Wiradjuri Aboriginal nation … Growing up as an Aboriginal child looking into the mirror of our country was difficult and alienating. Your reflection in the mirror was at best ugly and distorted, and at worst nonexistent.[ix]”
Within two years, she had been appointed to senior leadership roles, including Parliamentary Secretary for Education and Training in 2005, Minister for Fair Trading, Minister for Youth and Minister for Volunteering, Minister for Community Services and Minister for the State Plan. She was elected Deputy Leader of the Labor Party and, after Labor’s 2011 election loss, became the Shadow Minister for Planning, Infrastructure and Heritage, Shadow Minister for the Central Coast and the Hunter, Shadow Minister for Sport and Recreation and, on 23 December 2014, Acting Leader of the Opposition, being subsequently re-elected as Deputy Leader and then becoming Speaker of the NSW Legislative Assembly.
In August 2016, when becoming the first Aboriginal woman elected to the House of Representatives, she famously presented her maiden speech in a traditionally made kangaroo-shaped cloak holding an empty coolamon (baby cradle and water holder). She began her speech in Wiradjuri language, with Wiradjuri woman, Lynette Riley, singing her into Parliament in language. Since her appointment to Federal Parliament she has held senior Shadow Ministry appointments including Shadow Minister for Human Services that later included Preventing Family Violence and Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services.
The powerful message Linda says that she wishes to take into Parliament is the power of truth telling[x]. Her voice, graciously expressed and born of her life’s hard, hard journey, is powerful truth indeed.
Current Indigenous Federal MPs
The other current Member of the House of Representatives is Liberal Party member Ken Wyatt, Cabinet Member and Minister for Indigenous Australians[xi]. He is Noongar Wangai Yamatji of Western Australia. His mother, of Wongi and Noongar descent, was a Stolen Generation woman relocated from Country to Roelands Mission farm near Bunbury. His father was of Irish and Yamatji ancestry. Ken’s parents met at Roelands Mission farm, where he was born.
In the Senate are Pat Dodson from Western Australia, currently Shadow Assistant Minister for Reconciliation & for Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians, and Malarndirri McCarthy, from the Northern Territory.
Pat Dodson is a Yawuru man from Broome[xii]. His mother was Indigenous and his father non-Indigenous. Pat’s family moved to Katherine, when he was aged two, specifically to escape Western Australian laws banning race-mixed families. His parents died only three months apart when he was 12. Pat was made a ward of the state. Finally, a scholarship from Monivae College in Hamilton, Victoria enabled him to complete his education.
Northern Territory senator, Malarndirri McCarthy was born in Katherine, but grew up with her mother’s family in Borroloola, descended from Garrwa and Yanyuwa. Her mother was Limandabina Charlie. Her father, John McCarthy, has Irish descent, with this first ancestor arriving as a free settler in 1842 and ultimately becoming a local magistrate[xiii].
Former Federal MPs
The current Indigenous MPs follow four earlier Indigenous Federal MPs.
Senator Neville Bonner[xiv], the first Aboriginal to enter Federal Parliament, represented Queensland in the Senate from 1971. He was born on Ukerebagh Island, a small island on the Tweed River in New South Wales. He became an Elder of the Jagera people but never knew his father. His great niece, Joanna Lindgren, also a former Federal MP, shared the Jagera ancestry along with Mununjali.
Nova Peris was born and raised in Darwin[xv]. Her mother, Joan Peris, as well as her grandmother and grandfather, were all members of the Stolen Generation. Her father, John Christophersen, came from the Cobourg Peninsula, traditional land of the Murren People. He was five years younger than Joan and the couple split up when Nova was two.
Aden Ridgeway is a Gumbaynggirr man, born in Macksville NSW and brought up by his mother, aunts and grandma[xvi].
Federal MPs Identifying Aboriginal Ancestry
Jacqui Lambie identifies maternal Aboriginal ancestry as a descendant of 19th century Tasmanian Aboriginal leader, Mannalargenna. These claims are questioned by some Aboriginals whilst others accept her[xvii]. Mannalargenna’s Country was the Ben Lomond area of north-eastern Tasmania[xviii]. In KA’s NAIDOC 2018 series, we told the story of Luggenmener, who also came from this Country, her exile from Country and the role of John Batman in taking her sons[xix]. This is a poignant Indigenous connection indeed.
Former MPs David Kennedy and Mal Brough have Aboriginal ancestry. David Kennedy is a fifth-generation descendant of Mannalargenna, with whom Jacqui Lambie also claims connection[xx].
Mal Brough’s Indigenous ancestry comes through his maternal grandmother, Violet Bowden, whose father was Aboriginal – another choice by a non-Indigenous woman of the kind made by Linda Burney’s mother[xxi]. Violet believed that her missing father was an Aboriginal and told the story of a birthday during her childhood when a black man visited briefly, and was identified as her dad[xxii]. Brough’s sister, Carol, identifies as Aboriginal[xxiii].
Voice, Treaty, Truth: Let’s Work Together for Shared Future
Our Federal Parliament enables voice and truth-telling. Its diversity enhances our nation. Indigenous MPs, day to day, actively work together with their Parliamentary colleagues for Shared Future. Australia should be proud of their life journeys that, without exception, involve great hardship, a harsh unforgiving legal system, family separation and sheer racism. These men and women present significant models for Australia’s shared future.
[ii] Parry, Jonathan, 2019, Educating the Utopians, London Review of Books, 18 April, 10-12 at p 10.
[iii] Bagehot, Walter, 1867, The English Constitution, cited in Parry, Jonathan, 2019, Educating the Utopians, London Review of Books, 18 April, 10-12 at p 10.
[iv] https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1718/Quick_Guides/IndigenousParliamentarians accessed 090719, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parliamentary_Library_of_Australia accessed 070719.
[v] https://www.aph.gov.au/Senators_and_Members/Members/FirstSpeeches/Linda_Burney accessed 070719. Burney, Linda, 2003, Inaugural Speeches: Linda Burney, Hansard, Parliament of New South Wales, 6 May.
[vii] ABC op. cit.
[viii] APH op. cit., Burney op. cit.
[ix] APH op cit., Burney op. cit.
[x] ABC op. cit.
[xii] Sources for Dodson are hthttps://www.alp.org.au/our-people/our-people/patrick-dodson/ and https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat_Dodsontps://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Wyatt, both accessed 070719.
[xiii] Sources for McCarthy are https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malarndirri_McCarthy and https://australianpolitics.com/2016/09/14/sen-malarndirri-mccarthy-alp-nt-maiden-speech.html, both accessed 070719.
[xiv] National Archives Australia, http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/fact-sheets/fs231.aspx accessed 070719.
[xv] Sources for Peris are http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/peris-nova-17821 and https://www.australianoftheyear.org.au/alumni/connect/nova-peris/ and https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nova_Peris, all accessed 070719.
[xx] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Kennedy_(Australian_politician), accessed 070719. Also, as to Mannalargenna, utas op cit.