Long Game We have to Win

By Linda Burney

The following is a speech given by the Aboriginal leader and MP at a Recognise Campaign event in Bourke, NSW, Australia, on May 27, 2015

I want to tell you a bit about myself so that, in the Aboriginal way, you can place me. For us, place is the most important thing: where our feet stand on our ground, where we're from, who we are related to and where we fit in the Aboriginal world.

My people are from the Murrumbidgee end of Wiradjuri territory in NSW. They hold asignificant part in the story of this nation.

The Wiradjuri people were the first inland nation that took the brunt of British colonisation. In 1823, Governor Brisbane – thank heavens, he didn't stay here too long, got the city renamed after him but didn't do much for our people - because of the resistance led by Winradyne, that great Wiradjuri warrior, declared martial law in Bathurst; the only time in colonial history. And over those four months, 1,000 men and children of the Wiradjuri were murdered. And this was where the art of poisoning waterholes and flour began as part of the story of colonisation.

But Wiradjuri people, like you out here, stand firm in who we are and what we believe in. I have many shoulders that I rest on as a Wiradjuri person.

A few months ago in Sydney, Faith Bandler died. She was an amazing woman. Faith was not Aboriginal as many people thought. Her father was black birded (coercion of people through trickery and kidnapping to work as labourers) from the island of Ambon in Vanuatu when he was 13. He was brought as a slave to work on the sugar fields up in Queensland. Faith's part of the story is that she was one of the people who worked towards ensuring a successful outcome to the 1967 referendum (to have the First Peoples counted as people rather than as Flora and Fauna). At her funeral I talked about Faith understanding what the long game was. And that's what you're participating in today, wherever you're from.

This walk, this march, this relay towards “recognition” is like that referendum. Already people have marched from town to town through Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia across to Queensland and are now visiting places in NSW. It's the big, long race. We will not get recognition in the Constitution at the referendum unless we are all part of that long game – both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.

Referendums are hard to carry. You've got to get a “Yes” vote from the majority of people in the majority of the six States. That is why what Recognise is doing is important: building the case, the understanding and the recognition that we can no longer have a Constitution that is not a truthful document.

A lot of you know me. You know what I've done in my life. You know I don't like to take a backwards step.

But this step requires many things. It requires the heart and soul of Australia, bravery and, above all, people standing up and explaining why we can no longer as a nation have a Constitution that has racial implications in it. We can no longer have a Constitution that does not tell the truth.

One of the planks of reconciliation is the capacity for the nation to own its truth, to tell the truth. We are limited by our Constitution because it doesn't tell the truth. That's why Recognise and the referendum that will come have to be carried – because we won't get another chance for a very long time.

It takes a long time for referendums to come along. This has to be our time. I've spent my entire adult career and life in the pursuit of truth, justice and equity – particularly for our kids in schools.

But I've also spent my entire life making sure that we as a nation understand our truth, that what happens in our schools is truth-telling. And I'll finish my story - why this is so important to me personally.

I remember as a 13-year-old, I was the only Koori (Aboriginal) kid in the A class at Leeton High School. We were doing social studies. The new topic that day was the exotic people of the world. We did the Bedouin, the Eskimos (which, of course, is the wrong name) and the Aborigines. I was taught that we were the closest example of stone-age man on earth today. I was taught that we were savages. I was taught that we had no culture. I wanted to turn the piece of paper over and go through the crack in the floor of that school classroom.

I am so happy I had that experience because it spurred me on to do the sort of things that I hope I have done okay in education.

We are an amazing nation. The turnout here in Bourke is a testament to that. But we can be more amazing if we have a Constitution that reflects one of the most joyous things that we can celebrate together - the oldest surviving culture on this blue planet.

It gives you goose bumps when you say it: the oldest surviving culture on this blue planet. And wouldn't that be a wonderful thing to have in the document that is the foundation for how our society and government work.

Linda Burney became the first Aboriginal person to be elected to the NSW Parliament when she won the seat of Canterbury in Sydney for Labor in 2003. She is now Deputy Opposition Leader and Shadow Aboriginal Affairs Minister in the state. The former teacher and high-level public servant has a son, Binni, and daughter, Willuri.

Make a comment on this article (Please name article in your comment)

Back to Table of Contents