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Australian Politics

A long way: Aboriginal woman Linda Burney goes from ‘non-citizen’ to Australian parliament

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 September, 2016, 3:07pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 September, 2016, 10:45pm

Wearing a cloak decorated with the goanna lizard, the first Aboriginal woman elected to Australia’s lower house took her seat in parliament this week, saying that as a child she was a “non-citizen”.

Former teacher Linda Burney made history in July when she was voted into the House of Representatives, joining only a handful of other indigenous lawmakers in Australia’s national parliament.

In her maiden speech, she said that her kangaroo skin cloak “tells my story”, as another Wiradjuri woman sang to her in traditional language from the public gallery.

“It charts my life, on it is my clan totem the goanna and my personal totem the white cockatoo,” she told parliament on Wednesday.

The Aboriginal part of my story is important, it is the core of who I am. But I will not be stereotyped and I will not be pigeon-holed
Linda Burney

Burney said she would bring the “fighting Wiradjuri spirit” to the capital in Canberra, as she described how far she had come from her childhood in New South Wales.

“I was born at a time when the Australian government knew how many sheep there were but not how many Aboriginal people,” Burney, a former New South Wales state government minister, said.

“I was 10 years old before the ‘67 referendum fixed that. The first decade of my life was spent as a non-citizen,” the 59-year-old lawmaker added.

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The 1967 referendum changed Australia’s constitution to allow Aboriginal people to be counted in the national census.

But indigenous Australians still suffer disproportionate levels of disadvantage and imprisonment and have a much lower life expectancy.

They are also dealing with the legacy of policies under which indigenous children were taken from their mothers to be raised by white families or in institutions.

Burney, who is with the opposition Labor Party, joins the ruling conservative Liberal Party’s first Aboriginal MP, Ken Wyatt, who was elected in 2010, and follows in the footsteps of former senator and Olympian Nova Peris, who was the first indigenous woman in the upper house.

“The Aboriginal part of my story is important, it is the core of who I am,” Burney said.

“But I will not be stereotyped and I will not be pigeon-holed.”