How Linda Burney found strength after overcoming unimaginable tragedy

By Susan Horsburgh

Linda Burney wears Lee Mathews“Clyde” dress. Dinosaur Designsearrings.Credit:Hugh Stewart

Linda Burney’s historic first speech to federal parliament in 2016 was a powerful introduction to the new MP – who she is and what she stands for – but it also seemed like a celebration of sisterhood. Her best friend of 40 years, academic Lynette Riley, made the kangaroo-skin cloak Burney wore that day, and sang her into the chamber in their traditional Wiradjuri language.

As the first Indigenous woman elected to the House of Representatives, Burney paid tribute to the women who had helped get her there. Many of them had travelled to be in the gallery that day, and Burney made special mention of her oldest friend, Barbara Smith, whose single mother had welcomed teenage Linda into their home after she had lost the white relatives who’d raised her: “Friendships over one’s whole life,” the new member for Barton told parliament, “are rare things indeed.”

For Burney, who has weathered more heartache in her 65 years than almost seems survivable, close female friends have been a constant. Together, they have given her a “foundation” she doesn’t take for granted. “They mean everything,” she tells Sunday Life. “If it had not been for the women in my life, I would not be standing up today.”

That treasured collection of long-time friends – both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, none of them in politics – held her up in her darkest days, after the deaths of her husband in 2006 and her son in 2017. They brought food, stayed with her overnight and checked in every day.

“They just coalesced around me,” says Burney. “They metaphorically and physically put their arms around me and helped me get through some very, very sad and difficult times.”

These days, as Burney campaigns across the country for a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to Parliament, she’s only disappointed she can’t connect with them more often.

“One of my regrets at the moment is that I’m working so hard pursuing a successful referendum, I feel like I’m not seeing them very much,” she says. “I hope they don’t feel I’m ignoring them, because I think of them all the time.”

As the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Burney’s schedule might be “busy and energising” but it’s also relentless; when Sunday Life finally catches up with her on a Thursday evening last month, she’s mid-air after a parliamentary sitting day in Canberra, on her way to Alice Springs in the midst of the town’s community safety crisis.

Linda Burney wears Maticevski “ArtistRuffle” top.Credit:Hugh Stewart

Improving the plight of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is Burney’s life purpose. She was an architect of the historic Walk for Reconciliation in 2000, when about 250,000 people crossed Sydney Harbour Bridge in solidarity, and she predicts the referendum on the Voice later this year will be a “unifying moment” for the nation.

“It’s about Australia standing tall and finally recognising [First Nations] people in the Constitution,” she says. “It’s also making sure that First Nations voices are at the table when matters are being discussed or legislation’s being pursued that affect the lives of First Nations people.”

Given her modest beginnings, Burney has marvelled at her position in the highest echelons of Australian political power, but there’s no imposter syndrome here; she seems utterly sure of her place in the world. By the time she entered politics – initially at the state level, where she became NSW’s first Indigenous MP in 2003 and eventually deputy leader of the opposition – she was 45, with an impressive public service career behind her. As an activist, she’d already worked in the complex world of Aboriginal politics, an ideal training ground for the mainstream arena, and saw her Aboriginality as an enormous advantage. “I knew who I was,” says Burney. “My identity was firm.”

Rather than mimicking men, she advises other professional women to own their histories and be themselves. “We’re almost taught not to value our own stories,” she says. “But be proud of your story, know what you stand for, and understand what drives you.”

Burney’s story begins in the small NSW country town of Whitton, where her unmarried white mother became pregnant to an Aboriginal man. She left town and abandoned her child, but great-aunt Nina and great-uncle Billy, a drover and stock hand, took in the newborn. A brother and sister of Scottish heritage in their 60s, the pair risked ostracism to save baby Linda from an institutional upbringing and to raise her in a loving home.

“Be proud of your story, know what you stand for, and understand what drives you.”

A self-described “freshwater kid from the Riverina”, Burney grew up riding horses and swimming in irrigation channels, but she was also a target of racism. She still remembers the shame of sitting in class in year 7, her teacher telling the students how Aboriginal people were the closest living things to Stone Age people, without science or culture.

By the time Burney was a teenager, she was nursing an ailing Billy and Nina in a weatherboard cottage without running water, until they died within 18 months of each other. At 15, she was taken in by Barbara’s single white mother, Coral, a school cleaner.

“Desperately sad”, Burney later moved to Sydney for her final years of high school and lived with her mother for the first time, but the pair couldn’t get past their painful history. (Burney’s mother, whom she has never named, died of a burst appendix at 49.)

Linda Burney wears Max Mara blazer,Paul McCann gown. Roger Vivier shoes.Credit:Hugh Stewart

Her family had kept her father’s identity a secret, but as a young woman Burney embarked on a five-year search. She finally met him just before her 28th birthday, when she was eight months pregnant with her son, Binni.

“I hope I don’t disappoint you,” said Lawrence “Noni” Ingram, a folk singer who had worked as a fruit picker and council worker. Burney suspects the “emotional shock” of that meeting prompted an early labour, because Binni arrived 26 hours later. Through her father, Burney discovered she had 10 siblings, and a place was made for her in her Aboriginal family.

Burney had studied teaching after high school and worked for two years in a western Sydney classroom, before helping to establish the NSW government’s Aboriginal Education Unit, where she changed the curriculum to include Aboriginal perspectives.

She had a series of top jobs, including director-general of the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs, before she entered politics. But even in the early days of her career, Burney says she never struggled to be taken seriously by male colleagues, probably because of her unshakable self-belief – something she puts down to taking on huge responsibility at a young age. “I also knew what I was talking about,” she says.

While her professional life has been a string of successes, her personal life has been marked by trauma and sadness. She has spoken about the domestic violence she suffered at the hands of a long-term partner when her two children, Binni and daughter Willurai, were young.

She finally fled the family home with the kids and one small bag, after he’d broken her nose and eye socket. Fortunately, she was financially secure and had a strong network of friends and relatives to help with the kids. Like every working mother, she stitched it together. Of course, she found it tricky. “If anyone says they don’t, it means they had an au pair,” she says, laughing.

Exhausted, she once left 12-year-old Willurai at school after a parent-teacher night. “It was after a long day at the office and I just couldn’t wait to get out of there,” recalls Burney. “I got halfway home to realise she was not in the car with me.”

Burney eventually found the love of her life, land rights activist and former National Farmers’ Federation chief Rick Farley, in the mid-’90s, but in 2006 he died when his wheelchair overturned outside Sydney’s Balmain Hospital, five months after he’d suffered a brain aneurysm. Not long afterwards, Burney had an epiphany at the kitchen sink, and vowed she wouldn’t be diminished by the tragedy. “Certainly, what I learnt from my husband’s death,” says Burney, “was the importance of compassion.”

Within months of that loss, Willurai – now a 36-year-old multimedia artist – was reportedly diagnosed with a rare neurological condition and almost died. “My daughter has had to climb mountains and she inspires me,” says Burney. “She has disability and is just a remarkable young woman.”

“Certainly, what I learnt from my husband’s death was the importance of compassion.”

In 2017, Burney’s 33-year-old son was found dead in the family home after struggling with mental illness and addiction. Four years later, in a Living Black television interview, Burney spoke of her “gentle, beautiful, sensitive” Binni. “This world is a tough place for some people, and [for] some people it’s too tough,” she said. “It was too tough for my son.”

Grief is a capricious companion and possibly even harder to wrangle under the pressure of such a high-profile job, but Burney is philosophical about the pain of the past few years. “The way you deal with grief,” she says, “is that you respect the decision that people have made, you don’t beat yourself up about what you did and did not do, [and] you look for lessons from death.”

Linda Burney wears Carla Zampatti“Butter Wave” blouse and gown. Dinosaur Designs earrings. Roger Vivier “FlowerStrass” pumps. Professor LynetteRiley “Wiradjuri” kangaroo-skincloak, Linda’s own.Credit:Hugh Stewart

Asked if she ever falls into despair, Burney replies, “No, I do not.” She can’t explain where her resilience comes from, but perhaps mental discipline is part of it: “I have a capacity to compartmentalise things and I’m not sure that’s terrific all the time, but it does help,” says Burney, who lives alone.

“I also practise a lot of self-care. I go to bed very early, for example, and I know there are times in your life when outside support really does help, whether it’s a grief counsellor or [someone] you can talk things through with, [someone who’s] not intimately involved with you.”

To relax, Burney likes to take to her garden of ferns, frangipanis and hibiscus early in the morning. She also walks and decorates, and occasionally will even “veg out watching a Netflix series for half a day” (she nominates Sheldon and Call the Midwife among her favourites).

“A bit of a clothes horse”, Burney is also known for her sense of style and enjoys planning her outfits from a wardrobe that features labels such as Carla Zampatti, Oroton, Alpha60 and Sydney designer Natalija Rushidi. “I’m a feminist,” she says, “and I enjoy being a woman.”

Over the past two decades, Burney has observed women politicians in many guises. “I’ve watched women emulate what blokes do, I’ve seen women carve their own path, and I’ve also seen a wonderful collegiality between women,” she says, noting that the federal Labor caucus is now more than 50 per cent female. “I think women are really good at building consensus as much as possible.”

As Burney traverses the country this year, she’ll need to harness all her consensus-building abilities. Not all Australians support the Voice, but there’s no doubting the strength of Burney’s conviction. A proud Wiradjuri woman armed with hard-won wisdom and empathy, Burney has always envisioned a better future for First Nations people and refused to be bound by bigotry, whether racism or sexism.

As she said in that electrifying first speech in federal parliament, “Never let anyone tell you you are limited by anything.”

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