After 116 years of Parliament and thousands and thousands of Parliamentarians (150 MHRs up for election every three years = lots), Australia has elected its first Indigenous woman to the House of Representatives.
Her name is Linda Burney, and she grew up in small-town NSW.
On the textline: “I find it sad that we’re celebrating the first lower house female Aboriginal politician and its 2016 – this should have happened years ago.”
Burney is a former NSW deputy Labor leader and a former shadow minister for education and Aboriginal affairs. In March, she won pre-selection in the southern Sydney seat of Barton – a seat held by the Liberals, but which had been redrawn and was now considered a marginal Labor seat.
She won easily on Saturday night.
A Wiradjuri woman who started out teaching at a public school in Western Sydney, she has now followed in the footsteps of Ken Wyatt (the first Indigenous man elected to the House of Representatives, in 2010) and Neville Bonner (first Indigenous Senator, appointed in 1971).
She’ll be one of three Indigenous Parliamentarians in the Labor caucus – along with WA Senator Pat Dodson and NT Senator Malarndirri McCarthy.
What unique perspective do you think you’ll bring to Federal parliament?
“My Indigenousness obviously, but I have enormous experience not just as a very senior politician from NSW but also as who’s someone worked in the community sector, in Government, and I’ve done work at the United Nations.
“I’m a schoolteacher by trade. I really understand what representation means. What I saw on election day and through the pre-poll which was three weeks with young people was very very concerning.”
Has there been enough Indigenous representation in Parliament?
“No, of course there hasn’t been.
“To say there’s been adequate representation over the years is not correct – what major political parties need to do is pre-select Aboriginal people into winnable seats. That’s the trick of getting Aboriginal people into the House of Representatives.”
Did you have to fight really hard to get yourself up in a safer seat?
“I took a big risk to leave State Parliament and move into the federal scene. I was in an incredibly safe Labor seat called Canterbury, in inner-western NSW.
“I was deputy leader of Labor party and had held many senior positions and done just about everything – the time had come for me to move on.
“The opportunity was presented to me with option of Barton. It was no easy walk in the park – it was held by the Liberals. Redistribution of boundaries helped, but it was not without enormous effort. We worked our guts out for eight weeks.”
What difference will you be able to make in Federal Parliament? Will you be able to help Indigenous Australians?
“It’s going to be amazing when the Parliament returns. We will have three Aboriginal people in Labor caucus – myself, Pat Dodson and Malarndirri McCarthy from the Northern Territory.
“They’re all astounding wonderful people and the contribution will be enormous – it will mean Indigenous issues will be front and centre for my party. I’m not saying they haven’t been but you can’t ignore it when you have Aboriginal people sitting in the room.”
There’s been talk of a treaty. Should a treaty include a mandatory Indigenous representation in Parliament? Should there be some sort of quota?
“I am increasingly frustrated this notion somehow or other constitutional recognition or treaty – and you can either have one or the other.
“Of course, that’s nonsense.
“Recognition in the Constitution is about that document telling the truth and reflecting the extraordinary inheritance we all have as Australians with the length of time humanity has been in this country. It’s about removing the race powers out of the Constitution – those powers are not just about Aboriginal people. “The Australian Constitution actually allows the Australian Government to make laws that could be detrimental to a particular race or people.
“This issue will be front and centre for me, along with education.”