The Empty Coolomon
August 31, 2016 — House of Representatives, Parliament of Australia, Sydney, Australia
Mr. Speaker, it was in this chamber I experienced one of the most remarkable moments of my life. I was in that gallery just up there. It feels like it was just yesterday. But I will tell you that story of truth-telling and generosity in a moment.
Ballumb Ambul Ngunawhal Ngambri yindamarra. Ngadu bang marang Ngadhu Ngu-nha winhanga nha nulabang nguwandang. Ngadhu biyap yuganha. Birrang a ngawaal. Ngadhu, yand yaman gid yal. Yindyamarra. Mandaang. Ngarind-ja.
I have just said, in the language of Wiradjuri, my people: ‘I pay respect to the ancient Ngunawhal and Ngambri. I say this: good day. I am giving my first speech and I am deeply moved. I have journeyed to another place — a powerful place. I am one person. I wish in this House to honour, to be respectful, to be gentle and to be polite. I am thankful, happy. I could weep.’ However, I say to my elders and to you, Mr Speaker, that that last bit may not always apply in question time!
I mention respectfully the traditional owners of the seat of Barton — three clans of the Eora, the Bidjigal, the Gweagal and the Badigal, custodians of the land from the Cooks River to the shores of Brighton-Le-Sands and out to the Georges River. It is strong country. And to the traditional owners of all the lands from which members of this chamber and the other place come: these lands are, always were and always will be Aboriginal land—sovereignty never ceded.
So, what was that remarkable moment? Many of you were here. It was the first sitting of the new Labor government, on 13 February 2008. Kevin Rudd was the new Prime Minister, Jenny Macklin the minister for Indigenous affairs, and Brendan Nelson the opposition leader.
Our nation had been holding its breath for a long time, waiting for three words: ‘We are sorry.’ There was the stubborn refusal of the previous Prime Minister to apologise for policies which had ripped many thousands of Aboriginal children from their family, culture and country — the devastating effects still felt today. But around the perimeter of this chamber sat some of those children, now old people, still wearing the scars of forced removal on their faces. They were joined by all surviving prime ministers bar one.
Finally, as the words rang out across this chamber, across this land and around the world, ‘For this we are sorry,’ the country cried and began to breathe again.
As the speeches concluded, two women stood and handed the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and minister an empty coolamon — and I beg the indulgence of the House in carrying a coolamon in here today. It was the most gracious and generous thing I had ever seen. It was profound, a gesture that made us all better people. Friends, a coolamon is what we carried our babies in, which is what made it such an amazing, generous thing to do.
I carry this empty coolamon into this place today as a reminder of that moment, of the power we exercise in this building today, and that it must be for the good of all. It must be gracious. But it has not always been so. But it can be. That day the truth was told in this place, and the power of generosity was writ large. So, Mr Speaker, the significance of coming down from that gallery up there to the floor of this chamber is not lost on me.
Members, in this term of parliament all I want is to be able to stand in this place knowing that the document on which it was founded finally tells the truth. Recognition of the First People in our nation’s constitution is the next step on the path we are walking towards a country that can look itself in the eye knowing that we have come of age. Fundamentally, reconciliation is about three things: it is about reciprocity; it is about restitution; and it is about truth telling. One of the bravest statements I ever heard was in the opening ceremony of the 1997 Reconciliation Convention in Melbourne. The 10-point plan in the winding back of the native title debate was raging, and the chair of the council at that time is now Senator Patrick Dodson. I was on the executive committee — I am not sure if Patrick liked it or did not — but I think I did okay and I think he did like it. He was an amazing chair. But Senator Dodson said at the opening of that convention, in the presence of the world media, ‘There can never be reconciliation without social justice.’
Nor is the significance of a first speech lost on me. It is defining; it sets out what has made you, what you believe in and what you stand for. It talks about the seat and the people whose hopes, hurts, aspirations and loves you carry into this place. It talks of the deep affection you have for those people. Because of the significance, I carry into this chamber this cloak. This cloak was made by my Wiradjuri sister, Lynette Riley, who will sing us into this place now.
[Lynette Riley sang in the Wiradjuri language]
Thank you, Lynette.
This cloak tells my story. It charts my life. On it is my clan totem, the goanna, and my personal totem, the white cockatoo — a messenger bird and very noisy.
Let me share with you a little of what has made me. In 2010 I returned to the little town I grew up in. It is called Whitton — I am a freshwater kid from the Riverina. I learnt to swim in irrigation channels, and we shared that water with yabbies, freshwater mussels, leeches, red bellied blacks and I suspect considerable amounts of chemicals, which explains the constant boils and hives I had as a child.
It was the 150th anniversary of the Whitton public school; I was a cabinet minister at the time and I thought I looked pretty flash. A man a little older than me — I guess he would have been one of the big kids when I was at school — said to me, ‘You know, Linda, the day you were born was one of the darkest days this town has ever seen.’ I was so shocked I could not respond. You see, Mr Speaker, despite being more than 50 years on, 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.
The first decade of my life was spent as a noncitizen. I was raised by two very brave people who no doubt were made to pay for the bravery and generosity they displayed — my great aunt Letitia Laing, Nina, and her brother Billy. They were of Scottish heritage and in the latter part of their life. I have wondered often had they not stepped up to raise me where my life would be now.
I loved them very much and experienced their passing and grief early in life. I was taken in after their death by Coral Smith and her family. Coral’s daughter Barbara is my oldest friend on earth, 51 years! I spoke to her on the weekend. Friendships over one’s whole life are rare things, indeed.
I didn’t meet my Wiradjuri father until I was in 28 — his first words to me were, ‘I hope I don’t disappoint you.’ His name was Nonni Ingram, Lawrence Ingram, of the great Wiradjuri Ingram clan. Nonni and his wonderful wife Launa had 10 children. Ten brothers and sisters I didn’t know existed! We grew up 40 minutes apart. The power of racism and exclusion were not things you could see, but you certainly felt them.
I had two sets of brothers and sisters — my mother married a man, a wonderful man, called Fred Stracke. They had four children, two brothers gone now, but my sister Kim is here today. I’m so thrilled you are here, Kim; it means a lot. Fred spent his life serving in the Air Force and served in World War II.
I would ask all of those listening this afternoon to imagine what it was like for a 13-year-old Aboriginal girl in a school classroom, being taught that her ancestors were the closest thing to stone age man on earth and struggling with your identity.
Being in this chamber today feels a long way from that time. And from the man in the schoolyard at the anniversary — well, here’s to you mate.
In many ways these experiences have been the catalyst for my subsequent life as an advocate for education and social justice. 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 pigeonholed.
Let me tell you a little of the Wiradjuri story. In Wiradjuri lore Biami is the creation spirit. He is the source of both our physical and moral landscape. The story of invasion and conquest for the Wiradjuri is a brutal one. The deadly art of poisoning waterholes and flour began in Wiradjuri country. Massacre sites are dotted all over my lands. The scars are evident for all of us to see. In 1823 martial law was declared in Bathurst after Windradyne and his warriors waged a fierce war of resistance. Four months later over 1,00 Wiradjuri were dead by sanctioned murder. In 1842, during the second Wiradjuri wars, one horror saw all but one young boy slaughtered when settlers opened fire on a group taking shelter on an island amongst the reeds in the creek of the Murrumbidgee River. That creek is now known as Poisoned Waterhole Creek, and their sheltering place is called Murdering Island. On Saturday I drove over that bridge and that creek. I stopped the car, I got out and my blood ran cold. You see, Mr Speaker, I am of the Murrumbidya Wiradjuri.
In Barton, from the beach in Brighton-Le-Sands you can stand and look towards Botany Bay where the First Fleet in 1788 first entered these shores. Settlement or invasion is a matter of perspective — of whether you were on the shore or on the boats in the middle of the bay. I spoke earlier of truth-telling. Perhaps another great act of honesty and healing would be a permanent remembering of those frontier wars, just down the road at our national war memorial.
The chamber I have come from in New South Wales proudly hangs the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags. Symbolism is important. I know that symmetry is important in this place, but perhaps we could think that once we get constitutional recognition we could add another two flags to this chamber, coloured red, gold and black, and white, green and blue — the colours and the flags of the two first peoples of this nation.
I will say that I intend to bring the fighting Wiradjuri spirit into this place. This mob behind me knows what that is about. I will bring that spirit into this place for the people of Barton, for the first peoples and for those great Labor values of social justice and equality for all people.
I enter this place as a representative of the people of Barton, a community I have been proud to live in for almost 20 years. If there is a god of demography, it is one of his greatest ironies that the seat named after the architect of the White Australia policy has become one of the most multicultural in the country! Over half of the people in Barton were born overseas. Almost 10 per cent were born in China. We have a well-establish post-World War II Greek and European community, a thriving Arabic-speaking community, a rapidly-growing Nepalese community, a Macedonian community, an Indian community — you name it. We have people from every corner of the globe. Barton is a kaleidoscope of languages, ethnicities and cultures. I am not sure what Sir Edmund would think of the ethnic wonderland being represented in this place today by, of all people, me — and a Koori woman to boot!
From Campsie to Kyeemagh and from Beverley Hills to Brighton, this electorate could not be a more shining example of what our modern Australia looks like. For the benefit of those in this House and in the other place who doubt it, I want to place here on record that we are a stronger community because of this diversity. We are better for our differences and we are richer for all the broader cultural experience that it affords us. It is the underpinning of small business in the Barton electorate by the people I refer to.
We all have fantastic stories from election day, but let me share one with the House. It is Hurstville Public School at 5.45. It is dark and it is cold. The booth is being packed up and a car pulls up. There is a very old woman in that car. She needs help to walk. It is a long way across that cold, dark playground. Her daughter says, ‘Mum, don’t worry, we can just pay the fine.’ This old woman says, ‘No, I’m voting. This is history.’ Friends, it is history indeed. That, my friends, is Barton, and we made history together.
Barton is the endless generosity of Khalil and his family at Ibrahim’s Pastry in Rockdale and the tireless advocacy of James Zhou, Lily and little Chloe for their Chinese Australian community. It is the enthusiasm of Harry Danalis and Nia Kateris for their Greek Orthodox community across the region and the passion of families like Joe Awada and our proud Arabic community. Those are just some of the stories; there are so many more.
In fact, for my money there is only one division that counts for anything in our electorate. It is the one between the Canterbury Bulldogs and the St George Dragons. My office and I are already preparing a public response should both teams play in the grand final next year. I have already told my grim-faced media advisor that I will remain a Doggies fan, but a true friend of the Red Vs. Truly though, both teams have a long and proud history in Barton. And like all good local sporting clubs, of which there are many, they are not just something to barrack behind. There are teams like Denis Loether’s City Suns in Rockdale and Nick’s Cooks River Titans. These are the clubs that glue a community together.
And Barton, after a brief flirt with the Liberals, is firmly back in the Labor fold by 8.3 per cent because people in our community know that the invisible hand of the market cares little for the needs of the most disadvantaged. They recognise that a government’s job is to ensure services are provided, whether they are education, health care or social assistance. Government cannot simply outsource its responsibility. Rhetoric about the evils of government intervention mean nothing to a mother in Campsie escaping domestic violence and searching for a bed that night. As a school teacher, as a member of the Anti-Discrimination Board of New South Wales, as a director-general, as a representative in the United Nations of the first peoples, as a local member, as a minister responsible for children at risk, as a minister responsible for women, I have seen why government intervention is necessary. We cannot sit on our hands in places like these hoping that it will be so.
Government has a role to serve and to lead. Throughout my political career, and before, I have been consistent. Much work of government is important but nothing more so than education. 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. An increase of 191 grams could change lives. Reducing the rate of juvenile incarceration must be a priority, because we cannot be satisfied that this is a fair country while so many of our young people, many of them Aboriginal, are locked up. The royal commission has been announced, but I suspect it will be difficult to restrict it to the Northern Territory. I think we are already seeing that. There is no justification for the incarceration of children as young as 10, not when we know that getting kids to school and intervening early work so much more effectively and they are better economics.
The challenge of domestic violence in our communities is a national crisis. Strong rhetoric must be matched with strong action and leadership. We should take seriously our custodianship of land, and I know that we do. We cannot leave this task somehow to the never-never with our children. Landcare groups in Barton like the Mudcrabs and the Cooks River Valley Association know this all too well.
On issues of political debate and policy the message from those in our electorate, and outside it, has been clear. People have decried what they see as a lack of sincerity and a lack of good faith in our political conversation. They see it when some members of this parliament rally behind their right to hate speech but say nothing of the effect this will have on our most marginalised communities. Too often these calls to amend the Racial Discrimination Act come from those for whom this kind of discrimination it totally alien. I can tell them that it is hurtful. To me and to many people here today in the galleries in this chamber it is not alien. People do not ask for much from us. They want to be heard and they want to be treated with respect and with empathy. These are Labor values, and ones I will be proud to carry into this place.
So, Mr Speaker, why Labor? Well, my story speaks for itself. I was raised by a boundary rider, a drover and a field hand, shaped by a combination of love and adversity, politically blooded in the Aboriginal rights movement, and embraced by the strength of Labor and the labour movement. There was never a question of being anything else!
Now to some final reflections and thankyous. I have been in public life for some time, but I have to admit that with the frenetic pace of a local campaign I did not contemplate the response that the election of the first Aboriginal woman to the House of Representatives would get. I have been overwhelmed. I have received countless letters, emails and calls, all heartfelt and generous, some of which contained very flattering words about me as a role model. If this is true, it is possible thanks only to the role models who guided me and allowed me to come into this place, resting on their shoulders. In truth, I come to this place not only through my own labour. I have travelled paths blazed by those before me, resting on the shoulders of so many around me.
So to the impossible task of recognising those shoulders I have leaned on and to thank those who have come on this journey with me. In my valedictory speech I named some very close personal friends. Many of them are in the gallery today. To those trusted friends — you know who you are — many of you have travelled from interstate to be here, including Charmaine and Rhonda. You have stuck by me and held me up through the best and the worst of times. Each of you has been a gift and I hope my love for you in return has been the same. I am touched by a number of my former colleagues from the New South Wales parliament who have joined me here this afternoon and others who have sent their good wishes, including our local representatives Chris Minns, his wife Anna, Steve Kamper and his wife Magda, as well as Sophie Cotsis and her family, whom I see in the gallery today—they are the best little young campaigners you have ever seen — and, of course, Shaoquette Moselmane and the people Shaoquette works with so closely in the Arabic community. There are other state MPs whose support has been invaluable. I see Meredith Burgmann in the gallery — a true set of shoulders I have leaned on — and Guy Zangari, Tania Mihailuk, Lynda Voltz, Ernest Wong, Jihad Dib, Anna Watson and Jo Haylen, whom I think is here today, as well. I am sorry if I missed somebody — you can throw something at me later! I have tried to do my best but I cannot mention everyone. But if you have not been mentioned as a former colleague, you know what you mean to me.
I note, of course, Greg Warren, the member for Campbelltown, is here in the gallery with us this afternoon. Thank you for coming, Greg, and for representing Luke Foley. There are the fantastic people from local government in our area, like Bill Saravinovski, Nick Katris, Andrew Tsounis, Joe Awada, Dominic Sin and Tarek Ibrahim. To the local Aboriginal community and leaders from many different organisations from Canberra and from further afield, whom I can see in the gallery, thank you so much for rallying and being here today, led, of course, by the queen, Anne Martin. To the state party leaders and premiers I have had the pleasure of serving with — Bob Carr, Morris Iemma, my good friend Nathan Rees, Kristina Keneally, who I see around the place, John Robertson and our future Premier, Luke Foley — I say thank you.
The support and encouragement from my federal colleagues was remarkable throughout the campaign. To our leader, Bill Shorten, and to Tanya Plibersek: it has been difficult to put into words the confidence and inspiration you provided in the campaign. The campaign you ran with everyone else was about people, and that is why it was so successful. To Tony Burke, my neighbour, Jenny Macklin, my old friend, Jenny McAllister, for braving the Hurstville prepoll — and, trust me, that is braving a prepoll — and to the many people who called, like Stephen Jones and so many others in the federal team: thank you so much for welcoming me and making me feel part of who you are. I make a very special mention of Anthony Albanese and Carmel Tebbutt, whose belief in me goes back a long time — political mentors and close friends, both.
Throughout the campaign there was support and lots of cheering from the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party, by way of the unstoppable Kaila Murnain, Rose Jackson, John Graham and Pat Garcia, who are here today, and from the union movement, by way of Mel Gatfield, Mark Boyd and Erin Watt at United Voice, as well as Michael Tull and Sarah Hunt from the CPSU. My campaign team was led by a young man I now call a friend, Ed McDougal. People put their lives on hold, as everyone did in all of our campaigns — people like Leon Pun; Di Ford, Cheryl Han, Rheuben Freelander, Louay Moustafa, Kalista Kaval, Mark Buttigieg and his wonderful wife, Kirsten Andrews, Ross Bennett and the ever present Maria Pasten, Mitch Wilson, Irene Macbeth and the others.
To the great members of the Australian Labor Party: your devotion to our cause, to social justice and to equity continues to energise me. To the branch members of Barton: what an amazing group of people you are—people like Daryl and David, the Barton campaign’s own ‘odd couple’. Irene, Di, Luna, Jannice, Binna, Chris, Lewis, David, Sue, Ron, Alice, Esta, David, Robin, George, and Fran Rees—there are too many on the list to mention. There are people like Robin, Ron, Lewis, Kallista, Alice and many local leaders of organisations.
In conclusion, to the incredible Young Labor team — Lewis, Chris, Shannon, Oliver, Luke, James, Zac, Isabella, Ella and 300 additional people who worked on the campaign: thank you. To the supporters in our community like Peter and Elizabeth Antonopoulos and Bill Mougios, I thank you. The fact is that I cannot name everyone. But to all of you: your help, the early mornings — and let there never be another winter campaign — and your hard work were appreciated.
To my children, Binni and Willuari: my pride and love for you is more than all the stars in the sky. To my partner in life, the late Rick Farley: I do not know, Rick, what you think about me sitting in this place, but I do know that our country is a poorer place for having lost you.
To the people of Barton: you have put your faith in me, and I will not let you down. When I entered state politics all those years ago I made two promises to those who had elected me — that I would always work hard and that I would always do my best. Today, in this chamber, I make those same promises again to the people of Barton, to my party, to my colleagues in this place and to the people of Australia.
I spoke earlier of what it was like to be a young Aboriginal girl in the 1960s, sitting in a classroom and being told that my capacity was limited by my race and that my potential was capped by expectation. Thanks to voters in Barton I hope that there are young people who sit in classrooms — like Chloe Noak from my home town of Leeton, who is here today — whose imaginations are not so limited. If I can stand in this place, so can they. Never let anyone tell you that you are limited by anything.
In 1927 a Wiradjuri man named Jimmy Clements, or Nangar, and his friend John Noble walked for a week over the mountains to Canberra from Brungle Mission — that mission is where my father comes from. They had decided that they wanted to attend the opening of the provisional parliament. When the local police saw their attire they were asked to move on, but the crowd in front of Old Parliament House would not hear of it. They stood up for Nangar and John, and eventually they stayed.
I would like to think of the electorate today as a bit like that crowd. Thanks to them, there are more Aboriginal voices in this place than ever before: Bonner, Ridgeway, Wyatt, Lindgren, Lambie, Dodson, McCarthy — and, thanks to the good people of Barton, Burney.
Source: Hansard, Commonwealth of Australia Parliamentary Debates, Wednesday, 31 August 2016, Forty-Fifth Parliament, First Session — First Period.