“I am a member of the mighty Wiradjuri Aboriginal nation… For the first 10 years of my life, like all Indigenous people at that time, I was not a citizen of this country. 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 non-existent…”
This is part of Linda Burney’s Inaugural Speech when she became the first Aboriginal person to serve in the New South Wales Parliament. A political career, in her own words, was a “natural evolution for me”.
Looking back on the 1950s we can only imagine what life was like for Linda’s mother, a young white woman pregnant to an Aboriginal man, and the subsequent life of the child born into such a society. To ‘resolve the situation’, Linda was raised in a predominantly white society by her great aunt and uncle, Nina and Billy Laing, who were brother and sister. Linda knew what it was like to be different and to be the object of racial discrimination from an early age, but in spite of this, admits to having “a strong sense of social justice – I couldn’t bear to see anyone suffer.” Much of this was innate, and some she attributes to Billy, the great uncle who inspired her most as a child.
Sadly, Linda lost Billy and Nina while in year 10 at Leeton High School but remained in Leeton with a friend and her family until she completed the School Certificate. The last two years of high school were completed in Penrith, where she stayed with her mother, step-father and family. This was a difficult time transferring from a country town to a virtual city, adjusting to the loss of her aunt and uncle and leaving the country town where she had grown up. Linda admits that she was incredibly homesick.
Education has always been a priority for Linda: “Education is the pillar, the cornerstone of social justice. It is what equals us out … It is education that can bring about equity…”.
As a child, she was a good scholar and an avid reader, working her way through most of the books in the small library, which occupied a room in the community hall in Whitton, where she grew up. After completing the Higher School Certificate Linda won a NSW government scholarship and completed her Diploma of Education to became the first Aboriginal person to graduate from the Mitchell College of Advanced Education, now Charles Sturt University.
It was around this time that she began her search for her father, Laurence (Nonny) Ingram, whom she met for the first time in 1984. She discovered that he lived about forty minutes away from where she had grown up. She also discovered she had an additional ten brothers and sisters to add to her existing two brothers and two sisters from her mother’s side.
Involvement with Aboriginal Education began with Linda’s first appointment as a teacher at Lethridge Park Public School in 1979, where she set up an after school homework group and organised self-funded holiday camps for Aboriginal children. In the mid eighties she became involved in the New South Wales Aboriginal Education Consultative Group becoming Executive Officer and later President. Linda contributed greatly to the development and implementation of the first Aboriginal education policy in Australia. It was during this busy time her two children, Willurei and Binni were born.
Aside from an ongoing interest in Aboriginal education, Linda has been heavily involved in the reconciliation movement. She was appointed to the second National Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation where she became an executive member. Linda also established and chaired the NSW Reconciliation Council, which was formed in 1997. She was also a key organiser in a number of successful state and national events. Perhaps the most significant were Corroboree 2000 and the ‘People’s Walk for Reconciliation’ when almost half a million people demonstrated their support for reconciliation in a walk across the Harbour Bridge.
Other key positions include National Vice President, then President of the Australian Labor Party, Board Member of SBS Television and Radio, chairing the NSW Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee and former Director-General of the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
We could be forgiven for identifying Linda as an indigenous crusader working for a single cause. This is not so. Linda represents a community comprising more than 130 different ethnic groups – the electorate of Canterbury. This electorate is deemed one of the poorest in New South Wales. Linda says “Despite this, it sets an example for the rest of Australia in terms of social acceptance and cultural diversity.” She has affectionately referred to her community as “the rainbow people of Canterbury”.
When asked about her political career and where she felt most at home she responded, “Most (politicians) would view the Minister for the Department of Community Services as a poison chalice. However, I found it suited me – I had background knowledge and an attachment to the community – I could operate at a grassroots level. Sadly you have no idea of the terrible circumstances many kids have to put up with.”
Linda stated in her Inaugural Speech to parliament that “one of the keys to leadership is the ability to take off your own shoes and to stand comfortably, intelligently and sensitively in the shoes of others.” In many respects Linda has not only stood in the shoes of others, she has worn the shoes of poverty, discrimination and adversity to mention just a few. She has also worn the shoes of personal achievement and success and worked hard to qualify for those shoes. Linda attributes much of this success to the influence of many people in her life, “I am incredibly lucky to have had aboriginal and non-aboriginal friends to lift me up – I have always taken lessons from lots of people.” Whatever the recipe for Linda’s success, her journey is inspirational.