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Thousands of protesters took to the streets chanting “Black Lives Matter” last June, exasperated at high incarceration rates and deaths in custody. But this was thousands of kilometers from New York, Washington and Los Angeles, on the other side of the globe — in Australia.

While conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison claimed the protests Down Under showed there was a risk of “importing the things that are happening overseas,” for Linda Burney, the first Indigenous woman elected to the nation’s lower house, the anger was justifiable.

Mirroring the U.S., where the Black imprisonment rate is more than five times than that of whites, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up just 2% of the population but 29% of all prison inmates in Australia.

“The Black Lives Matter movement very seriously resonated here because Australia has had such a denial of its history,” Burney, 63, said in an interview. “It clicked because of the extraordinary large numbers of Aboriginal people incarcerated and the hundreds of deaths in custody.”

Now helming the Labor opposition’s Indigenous affairs portfolio, Burney was 13 and the only Indigenous student at a tiny school in Australia’s Riverina agricultural belt when her teacher told the class her ancestors were the world’s closest relations to Stone Age people.

“I was very conscious from an early age about difference, but it put some steel in my back,” she said. “Even as a small child, I hated injustice and bullying.”

History repeating

Burney sees the pattern of discrimination that’s blighted the lives of her people for centuries repeating through the policies of the current conservative government, even though she says most lawmakers across the political spectrum generally are trying to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians.

Compared with other Australians, Indigenous people are less likely to attend or complete school, almost half as likely to own their own home, and on average they die about eight years earlier. More than 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody in the last three decades, according to research by the Guardian.

Burney has been critical of the government’s failure to reach targets set under the Closing the Gap strategy, which was designed to erase the wide margins between Indigenous and other Australians in key health, education and employment indicators. Schemes like the controversial cashless welfare card trial, a mandatory income-management program that was extended in December for a further two years, are “completely dis-empowering,” she said.

A demonstrator in Sydney on July 28, 2020 | REUTERS
A demonstrator in Sydney on July 28, 2020 | REUTERS

As well as vowing to abolish the welfare card, Burney is pushing Morrison’s government to commit to a hard timeline to hold a nationwide referendum to change the constitution so it will finally recognize First Australians.

“What’s really not understood by a lot of people overseas is the abject poverty some Indigenous people live in,” she said. “You go to some communities and there’s no clean water, no reliable power source, no access to fresh healthy food.”

Morrison has acknowledged the Closing the Gap strategy had fallen short of its targets because “our efforts were based more of telling rather than listening,” with the government now redesigning the program to include more input from peak Indigenous organizations.

Meanwhile, his social services minister Anne Rushton has described the cashless welfare card — instigated to restrict the ability to purchase alcohol, drugs and pornography — as a “financial literacy tool.”

Troubled past

Discrimination against the First Australians was seeded by the continent’s British colonizers who called the continent “terra nullis” — Latin for “nobody’s land.”

It was formalized shortly after Australia became independent in 1901 in one of its first pieces of legislation that created the White Australia policy, an overtly racist doctrine designed to halt non-Caucasian immigration and which encouraged marginalization and dehumanization of the continent’s Indigenous population.

While phased out in the 1960s and 1970s as the nation began an immigration program that today has resulted in every second Australian being born overseas or having a parent who was, its end didn’t address the endemic discrimination entrenched against the First People.

Protesters take part in a demonstration in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter rallies in the United States in Sydney on July 5, 2020. | REUTERS
Protesters take part in a demonstration in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter rallies in the United States in Sydney on July 5, 2020. | REUTERS

There have been some attempts at redress. Since 1984, voting in elections has been compulsory for Indigenous Australians, in line with the rules for the rest of the nation. The government passed native title legislation in 1993 that helped return some ancestral land back into the hands of the original inhabitants, while in 2008 an official apology in parliament was delivered for misdeeds, including forcibly removing Indigenous children from parents in the name of assimilation.

Still, recent examples of mistreatment against First Australians abound. Last year, mining giant Rio Tinto Group destroyed a 40,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage site to pave way for an iron ore mine. And just months after the nation’s intelligence service said it was increasing investigations into extreme right-wing groups, a Perth man with a swastika branded on his forehead was charged in February after allegedly trying to set an Indigenous woman and her child alight.

Such cases give drive to Burney, who began her life in public service as a teacher and spent 13 years in New South Wales parliament before entering federal politics in 2016, representing center-left Labor. She is also the party’s shadow minister for families and social services.

As well as her portfolio duties, she has responsibility for her electorate in Sydney’s southwestern suburbs that’s one of the nation’s most multicultural. She sees the irony that the seat is named after Edmund Barton — Australia’s first prime minster and an architect of the White Australia policy.

Although the next election may not be until the first half of 2022, offering her party to power to enact wholesale change if it wins, Burney is optimistic.

“Being Indigenous helped me in some ways because I understand difference,” she said. “People want a representative they can trust and a hard-worker. It’s just natural for me. You have to have the capacity, no matter what your cultural background, to represent everybody.”

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