First Aboriginal woman in Australia’s main parliament – tokenism or indigenous power boost?

Linda Burney

While the election of Linda Burney to the main house of the Australian parliament as the first Aboriginal woman is widely celebrated across the country as a major breakthrough, to thousands of young Aborigines, their parents, extended families and tribal kin that’s about as relevant as the bag of rice tipping over in a Chinese warehouse right at this moment. If they take any notice at all, it will be with trauma and smouldering hatred over the thousands of their children wrenched from Aboriginal families in the state of New South Wales on Burney’s watch as its Community Services minister from 2008 to 2011. During her ministry the number of Aboriginal children in 'out of home care' increased from approximately 4,300 – 5,800. A social media report called this “the largest boom in Aboriginal child removal in history”.


State seizure of children from troubled families ‘for their own good’ is one of the worst of the many multi-generational traumas inflicted on Australia’s indigenous peoples by still white-supremacist-minded authorities since British invasion in 1788 and is even now at worse numbers than ever.


While Burnley, now aged 59, was Family and Community Services (FACS) minister in the most populous state – the first part of Australia to be invaded by British troops guarding and treating cruelly prisoners convicted of petty crimes in aristocracy-dominated class-society England – the proportion of Aboriginal children placed with Aboriginal relatives or kin declined from 58% to 50%, that is half of those children forced into ‘out of home care’ were placed with non-indigenous people.


A Melbourne-based pro-Aboriginal activist acquaintance has passed to me social media postings by politically aware people that Burney was also responsible for introducing laws which essentially empowered FACS to automatically take away any new baby from a family from which they had already removed children previously, a cruel policy whose violent effects are still being felt every day in hospital wards across NSW.


University of Technology Sydney Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning researcher Paddy Gibson wrote: “You can’t solve the crisis in Aboriginal communities while continuing the breakdown of the Aboriginal family – this breakdown is the reason there are so many seemingly intractable problems today. Children who are placed in out-of-home care are more likely to end up in juvenile detention, and then jail, who continue the cycle because parents who are in jail are more likely to have their children taken by ‘child protection’."


Born in 1957 to an Aboriginal man and an unmarried white woman in a small rural town Burney strongly identifies as “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.”


Going by other published biographical notes, Burney must know the pain and disorientation caused by being cut off from kith and kin and your birth culture: “I did not grow up knowing my Aboriginal family. I met my father, Nonny Ingram, in 1984 [when she was 28]. His first words to me were, ‘I hope I don't disappoint you.’ I have now met 10 brothers and sisters. We grew up 40 minutes apart. That was the power of racism and denial in the fifties that was so overbearing. I now have two sets of brothers and sisters. I was raised by my old aunt and uncle, Nina and Billy Laing. They were brother and sister. These old people gave me the ground on which I stand today—the values of honesty, loyalty and respect.” She will no doubt also have been strongly influenced by her partner for many years, journalist, politician, land rights and civil rights activist for indigenous Australians, Rick Farley, who died in 2006.


Burney is offside with one of the biggest recent surges in Aboriginal self-assertion now growing across the country, the demand for treaties with First Nations (see my compilation of links to this below). She backs the federal government drive, funded by scores of millions of tax dollars, to write Aborigines into the Australian constitution. Elders across the country see this as yet another fraud and attempt to quash Aboriginal demands for land and other rights.


"I think it is time, absolutely time that this country recognises the truth, and Aboriginal people should be recognised in the Constitution," she told indigenous television NITV in March. She also wants to review a section of the Constitution that gives states power to exclude people from voting on the basis of their race. "The capacity for racism to be part of our Constitution has to go." In an interview offered to about 400 volunteer community radios across Australia she also stressed that her pursuit of Aboriginal inclusion in the constitution is “absolutely crucial”.


I quote again from the social media post sent to me from Melbourne: “There are no mainstream articles to discredit Linda Burney because she supports 'Recognition' and there is a total 'blackout' on anything that does not demonstrate strong support for 'Recognition' - even funding applications for 'all' Aboriginal organisations have to vow their support for 'Recognition' and demonstrate what they are doing to promote it. This policy was strongly criticized by the key health organisation in Western Sydney recently, but mainstream media wouldn't pick up the media release. Mainstream media always follow the trail of 'Recognition' and government-legislated abuses so you only get this type of info from grassroots people on Facebook - even Twitter is mainly used by 'educated Blacks' who more often than not take the government’s side because most of them are on the gravy train, one way or another."


One hopes that with her newly gained parliamentary clout Burney can learn and turn to join the grassroots elders of many tribes in this drive for sovereignty and equality. From the social media post: “Not everyone is impressed with Linda Burney as she has already promised to push 'Recognise' for the government. She has a known track record for damage to grassroots people and their aspirations, all done to impress her colonial government.”


Many now rejoicing at Burney’s ‘breakthrough’ will not know or want to know her track record as they fete her winning the key inner-Sydney seat of Barton, which lies along Botany Bay and the Cooks River, ousting a man belonging to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s right-of-centre, misnamed ‘Liberal’ Party.


The hurting and angry ones will scoff at her post-election assurance “to fight for the First Peoples of this country. I will not let you down”.


A former teacher, Burney has long been a darling of the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party, now in opposition in that state and in the national parliament. She was Director General of the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs, minister of several portfolios, the state's first indigenous Member of Parliament, Deputy Leader of the Party in the state, now the first indigenous woman in the Federal House of Representatives, the main lawmaking chamber of the Australian parliament.


From the message from Melbourne: “There is massive support for her and pride by most Aboriginal people because of her being the first female politician in the lower house, but they are unaware of her history and swallow the rhetoric. There is a backlash against people trying to explain her poor record, with people saying give her a chance to prove herself etc.”


Loud Aboriginal feminist Celeste Liddle, condemning the Australian political system as “stale, male and pale for too long” cites Burney as one of “the Indigenous women giving me cause to hope”.


"Aboriginal men's voices have often been preferenced by the mainstream over the voices of Aboriginal women due to the patriarchy, and this dynamic looks set to be challenged in Parliament House….At the very least, the Senate will contain two Aboriginal women with potential for three more. Considering that prior to Nova Peris there had only been two Aboriginal men in the Senate in Neville Bonner and Aden Ridgeway, this is a welcome advance….My entire life watching politics has been tainted by seeing non-Indigenous politicians make a bunch of decisions about Indigenous people without any consultation. It has mainly been to our detriment. While it is a big ask of any Indigenous politician to carry the torch and successfully influence the state of play, there will at least be more Indigenous people at the table and involved in the discussions. Provided they are not merely expected to toe party lines, this greater representation can only be a good thing.


“For decades, Australian political parties have been lax in ensuring that the candidates they preselect represent the diversity of this country. When it comes to Indigenous representation, this has been a gaping chasm. This has probably been a major contributing factor to the low Indigenous voter turnout at elections, for how can Indigenous people identify with a system which does not represent them?….In a parliament that lacks both the voices of women and the voices of Indigenous people, an increase in the number of Indigenous women on the floor would be cause to celebrate.”

“The election of Linda Burney is welcome, but the real celebrations can only begin when Labor and the Coalition [of the two governing Liberal and National parties] make significant changes to their Indigenous affairs policies. Until there is support for a strong and independent First Nations representative body, that’s unlikely to happen,” commented prominent Aboriginal journalist, Amy McQuire.


“The election of Linda Burney was celebrated across the country, by blackfellas and whitefellas alike, and while it’s great to see more black faces in Parliament, especially in the form of a politician who has honed her skills for years in state parliament, it shouldn’t let the Labor Party off the hook in relation to Aboriginal affairs. Having an Aboriginal member in Parliament, and likely two in the Senate, doesn’t mean Labor have the best wishes of mob at heart. It means that whenever they try and pass legislation to the detriment of mob, they can do it with first prefacing that they were the first party to have an Aboriginal woman in the lower house and the senate. It gives them a false legitimacy on Aboriginal affairs, a badge they can wear that they haven’t earned.”


Labor appear to be mystified as to why Aborigines in general just don’t trust them, though the reason should be staring them in the face: one of the worst modern-day crimes perpetrated on Aborigines in the Northern Territory, where many still live traditional style. It’s the so-called “Intervention”, started on the basis of a pack of lies about alleged sexual abuse of children in 2007 by the then Liberal government and extended to 2022 by Labor, rebranded “Stronger Futures”. It stripped and still strips Aborigines of their rights, controls the way they spend their welfare benefits, has taken away control of their lands and traditional governance, forces children to learn English. Go here and here for more detail. I can’t figure out whether Labor’s blockheadedness is due to them simply not knowing enough about Aboriginal people, or bloodyminded pandering to a large portion of the general voting public who are outright racists or simply know practically nothing about Aborigines, the vast majority never even having met one. In any case, Aborigines allege the massive interference with their lives and rights is to make it easier for mining corporations to access their country.


Nayuka Gorrie, a youth worker descended from four tribes, and who writes about black politics and feminism, comments that Aborigines “not voting shouldn’t be confused with apathy”. “For many black people, not voting is a political act in itself….Like many people, some Indigenous people don’t vote out of disillusionment. Politically we are not a priority. We are around 3% of the population, which means we rely almost entirely on the goodwill of the Australian voter to find our issues compelling enough to generate political will….I think it’s fair to say that our issues don’t get politicians elected and an election will never hinge on black affairs….Like much of our greatest failures as a nation, a lot of black issues on a federal level have bipartisan [Labor and Liberal] support. Whether it was the Northern Territory Intervention or constitutional recognition, both major parties take a bipartisan approach, which makes it [difficult] for us to differentiate between the two. This forces us to ask ourselves: why vote in a system that generates the same outcome?...This is also a system that lacks representation of black people. In the new Parliament, we will have a total of five black-identifying politicians at one time; the most there have ever been. Obviously elected politicians represent their electorate, but when you look at a sea of mostly white faces representing the country, it is hard as a black person not to shut down and think that maybe it isn’t for you….In addition, for those of us who identify as sovereign, not voting is resistance. If we accept that at no moment in our history did we negotiate the arrival of white people and also accept because we have not been wiped out, nor did we cede our sovereignty, then we are still sovereign peoples. If we are sovereign, forcing us to participate in the election of a state that we haven’t agreed to be a part of is a little bit weird.”


Prominent Tasmanian Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell says he hasn’t voted for decades, and was taken to court for this by the federal government. His reason for not voting is that he believes that he is not entitled to vote because he is “not Australian”, but a “member of the Aboriginal nation.” 


Several past and present Labor grandees made cameo appearances at Burney campaigning events. Her election followed national Labor leader Bill Shorten’s much-publicised promise to get more Aboriginal faces into Parliament. “The ALP, at least, was trying to stick to that promise, with the selection of Pat Dodson for the outgoing Joe Bullock’s senate seat, and the likely election of Malarndirri McCarthy in the Northern Territory following the resignation of Nova Peris.”


Luck in the form of major boundary changes of the 40-square-kilometre electorate of Barton for the 2 July election, helped Burney’s electoral prospects. The new boundaries radically altered the political complexion of Barton, removing some of the strongest Liberal voting booths from the former Barton and replacing them by solidly Labor voting areas.


Barton used to be a classic swinging seat, changing hands in 1969, 1975 and 1983 before sticking on the Labor side of the electoral pendulum until 2013. In the 1970s and 1980s, the politics of Barton was heavily influenced by debate over noise from Sydney airport. The issue played a part in the decline of middle class enclaves and post-war immigration also saw the area became more ethnically mixed.


The changing demography and electoral boundaries slowly strengthened Labor's grip, until the enormous swings at the last two elections that delivered victory to Liberal Nick Varvaris, the man Burney has now ousted.


In the interview for the volunteer stations she emphasised “the huge multicultural community here in Barton; it’s absolutely spectacular and education is fundamental to many of the families that have come here from other countries recently and not so recently. Development and infrastructure are really big issues here in Barton, as is green space, there’s not a lot of it, it’s a very densely populated area.


“The social justice outcomes for Aboriginal people, particularly incarceration and violence, are two things that I want to have a role in determining policy and direction. My passion has been education all my life so hopefully I’ll have some sort of involvement in policy development there.”


Of the six candidates contesting Barton, Burney was the only woman and has the only Anglo name. She beat a 1983 immigrant from Germany, another of German heritage, two men of Greek heritage and an immigrant Indonesian.


In Australia’s insane electoral system you can’t just vote for one person on the ballot, for your vote to be valid you have to number all of them by your order of preference. If for argument’s sake Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and Kim Jong-un had been on this ballot paper with Burney, you’d have to number them as well to vote for Burney. This insanity made me tear up my postal vote ballot, forfeiting my vote. Theoretically I could be fined for that because voting is compulsory for Australians.


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Background on treaties with Australia's indigenous nations

Labor Opposition leader Bill Shorten 'up for' treaty with indigenous Australians   -  Shorten indicates treaty possibility   -  Shorten raises prospect of treaty  -  Shorten grilled on major TV show   -   Prime Minister Turnbull attacks Shorten on treaty, contradicts government’s own ‘Recognise’ campaign   -    Prime Minister talks 'invasion' and closes door on treaty   -   Odds Shorten on another broken Labor promise for treaty   -   Treaty long overdue   -   Recognising the truth about treaty through a storm of constitutional spin   -   500 black leaders unanimously oppose constitutional recognition   -  Unbeknown to most Australians there is indigenous backlash against the recognition project   -   Victorian government's treaty talks a first for Australia   -   Indigenous leaders praise Victorian talks   -   Ten key moments from Victoria’s historic treaty talks   -   Graphic illustrations about Victoria’s historic treaty talks   -   Treaty framework achievable within next few years   -   ANTaR - national advocacy organisation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Rights   -   Labor policy   -   Yolngu Nations Assembly (Yolnguw Makarr Dhuni)   -   Supporting Yingiya Mark Guyula & Yolŋu Nations Assembly, with an update on the Victorian context   -   Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney   -    Sydney Public Forum on the Need for Treaty   -  First Nations leaders   -   Sydney Public Forum   -   A sovereign treaty is the only constitutional reform with the potential of justice for Aboriginal nations and peoples   -    Credible dialogue to treaties   -   Aboriginal sovereignty: justice, the law and land: (includes draft treaty)   -   The value of historical insights   -   Impact of Indigenous activism   -   Treaty a recognition of ongoing lawful relations   -   Restating our need for self-determination   -   Without a treaty and constitutional recognition, no Australian is truly free   -  Treaty talk is only one problem for Indigenous recognition referendum   -  Treaty would not harm recognition   -   Principles for a treaty based on fundamental human equality   -   Our humanity can only be fully acknowledged through a treaty   -    A fair go for the First Nations: Australia needs a treaty   -   Treaties are agreements between equals   -   The time to push for a treaty is right now   -   Constitutional change is key to a strong treaty   -   What has treaty got to do with Christians?   Uniting Church in Australia: To treaty and beyond   -   Indigenous leaders “sick of being experimented on”   -   Can a treaty shift the racist ideology that plagues indigenous affairs?   -   Another way forward for first nations self-rule   -   First Nations treaties, sovereignty and an Australian republic   -   Unfinished business of the nation   -   Aboriginal independent candidate for Northern Territory seat wants treaty   -   Aboriginal women on why Australia needs a treaty


More WGAR Aboriginal news archived here since 15/10/2013.

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