Linda Burney

First Aboriginal woman to be elected into Australian House of Representatives – Barton (ALP) 2016 to present.

First Aboriginal person to be elected a Member of the NSW Legislative Assembly – Canterbury (ALP) 2003 to 2016.

Linda Burney was born in 1957 in the small town of Whitton in the Riverina. Separated from her mother as a baby, she was raised by her loving non Indigenous great aunt and uncle. Burney has said if it wasn’t for these caring relatives, she would have been placed in institutional care.

Her life story is compelling; her extraordinary fighting spirit led her, as a young adult, to discover her Aboriginal identity and rich heritage. A proud Wiradjuri woman, she has become inextricably linked with the Aboriginal movement across Australia.

In her first speech in the House of Representatives in 2016, Burney said “I was born at a time when a white woman having an Aboriginal baby was shocking – and doubly so if that woman was not married. I was born at a time when the Australian government knew how many sheep there were but not how many Aboriginal people. I was 10 years old before the ‘67 referendum fixed that.”

Holding a kangaroo cloak, Burney proudly said: “This cloak tells my story. It charts my life. On it is my totem, the goanna, and my personal totem, the white cockatoo – a message bird and very noisy. I intend to bring the fighting Wiradjuri to this place”.

Burney’s life experiences, threaded with great personal loss and tragedy, have led her to advocate for education, health services and social justice. They have spurred her on to champion the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders and fight for her people’s representation in discussions and decision-making processes.

Wiradjuri woman, mother, teacher, activist, politician

Education is not a silver bullet but it is the closest thing we have for dealing with our social ills. But our parliament must commit to more specific goals, too, with things like lifting the birth weight of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island children.

Linda Burney speaks to journalist Bronwyn Ridgway of her education and teachers, as well as her life’s pathway to teaching, then unexpectedly, to state and federal politics.

“I turned five years old in kindergarten at Whitton Primary School then went on to secondary school at Leeton High School. For the two final years of secondary school, I attended Penrith High School.

“I was quite a bright student, something my teachers didn’t expect of me. I loved school so much, that as a young child, I would play ‘schools’ in the holidays with my cousins at home on the front verandah. I had many positive experiences which made school very enjoyable for me.

“Remembering my teachers is easy. There are a number of instances where teachers influenced the direction of my life. For example, I was going to leave school in Year 9 and the principal at the time, Tim Evans, called me into his office and actually roared at me about my plan to leave. I recognised it was his way of saying I was bright and should complete school. He made me promise not to leave, a promise I obviously kept. The career guidance councillor also said I had the capacity to be a barrister, at the time I had no idea what she meant. In that tiny little town of Whitton, we had no lawyer let alone a barrister, but I recognised it was an encouraging statement.

“But it was in Year 7 that I had the horrific experience of learning in class about ‘the Aborigines’. The way it was taught and what people actually thought of Aboriginal people, their history and way of life, made me embarrassed and so ashamed. The teaching of the subject reflected how Aboriginal people were regarded at that time – ‘related to Stone Age man, no culture, a nation that wandered aimlessly around.’

“Later it made me recognise that the education system was not what it should be and led me to be a teacher and work in education for many years changing the curriculum and what was being taught in schools.

“Another person who influenced me in my late school years was in fact my then boyfriend’s mother, Mary Frawley, who was the principal at the school. She was a role model, she cared and took time to talk with me. She had a great influence on my pursuing a career in teaching.

“I had some great school teachers though, who encouraged a love of learning. I particularly enjoyed geography, English and the humanities. What was so impressive to me was that they were quite young and radical, engaged well and were very close to us country kids.

“One of the wonderful things for me was that I’d learnt to read really early, encouraged by my great aunt and uncle. They put a lot of thought into my reading and the books that I had available. I read all the classic children’s books and read every night – I still do. In those days you went to bed early, not to waste electricity, so I read by candle or torch light for hours and hours. I had good literacy skills at such a young age and I appreciate the encouragement my great aunt and uncle gave me as it has shaped the rest of my life.

“In relation to what makes a great teacher, I think it’s really important that teachers can show or communicate that they really care about the students. Further that teachers are real people who command respect.

“There were a number of lecturers who took a personal interest in me, and had a great influence on me in terms of informing my ideas about politics and the world, and the influence that teaching can have on a child’s life. Charles Sturt University did demonstrate that they were particularly proud of me and conferred an Honorary Doctorate on me in 2008. I was the first openly identifying Aboriginal person to graduate from that university.

“As for my political career, there was no way of knowing that this was to become a pathway for me. Coming from a tiny country town I didn’t really know what ‘politics’ was and would never have envisaged such a pathway to have opened up. What did trigger my political involvement was that I took up a role as president of the Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG), it opened up a world of self-determination and connection with Aboriginal people. Once a month we’d meet with the Minister and discuss our findings. During this process I recognised that politicians were just regular people who took up a particular role. One day during one of these consultation meetings, I thought ‘I could do this!’

“My great uncle was a drover and his politics influenced me. I joined the ALP and found people who thought as I did. Then followed a remarkable set of circumstances that used my experiences, compassion, empathy and communication skills plus a large dollop of pragmatism. There are too many mentors and people along that political pathway to mention, but people showed that they cared and I was encouraged by many, each part of the way. Part of Aboriginal culture is ‘reciprocity’, where we rest on each others’ shoulders, many shoulders – it’s the way we live and go forwards. I reflect on this everyday.

“Teachers probably never truly know or realise the positive influence they have or have had on their students. Teachers’ power and influence I believe is immeasurable. I think everyone would have a story about a great teacher in their life, who positively helped or influenced them. Teachers may never know the goodness they have done or to what degree.

“What is so important is that, wherever teachers and support staff are, those places of learning are welcoming, respectful places where people care about learning, the students and their communities. There needs to be an excitement about learning too.

“There has been so much that has changed in relation to Aboriginal communities and schools. The curriculum has radically changed, schools celebrate NAIDOC Week and National Reconciliation Week. Assemblies and school events are opened with an Acknowledgement of Country and students are involved in this process and celebration.

“I was at a preschool centre yesterday and there was an Acknowledgement of Country – it was wonderful, heart warming, remarkable. This all has a huge influence on whether the Aboriginal community feels welcome at school and that influences attendance and participation. But there is still such a long, long way to go. Universities have a lot to do in preparing young teachers for their role and teaching them to be inclusive, warm and welcoming to all people. So much has changed – but there’s so much more to do.”


Department of School Education (NSW) Director General’s Award for Outstanding Service to Public Schools, 1993

Honorary Doctorate, Charles Sturt University, 2002

Centenary Medal, 2003

Meritorious Service to ‘Public Education and Training’ Award, 2010

NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award, 2014.