Bill Shorten and Linda Burney

While much of the attention has been on Nova Peris’ decision not to recontest the election after just one term serving as Parliament’s first Aboriginal woman, history could be made again in the House of Representatives this election, with former NSW Labor state minister Linda Burney vying for the Liberal-held seat of Barton to become the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the lower house.

Burney announced in March that she would be stepping down as deputy leader of the NSW Labor Party and as the state member for Canterbury to contest the federal seat of Barton. Burney has served as an executive member of the National Council for Aboriginal Recognition, on the board of SBS and as the director-general of the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs. In her 13 years in NSW Parliament, Burney served as the minister for community services and the minister for youth.

Barton is currently held by Liberal MP Nick Varvaris, who won at the last election with a margin of just 0.3%. A redistribution of his seat — taking in much more progressive parts of the state, much to Varvaris’ parents’ chagrin — means the seat is now a notionally Labor seat, with a 4.4% margin. Burney told Crikey that Varvaris appeared to be a “reluctant candidate”, noting he had taken his time in renominating for the seat. Sportsbet has Burney at $1.05 to win the seat against $8.50 for Varvaris.

Despite the good odds, Burney is not taking the seat as a given. When she speaks to Crikey it is from a “large and cavernous” former video store where her campaign office has been set up. She has four volunteers working in the office and has been out on the hustings in the lead-up to the July 2 poll.

“I’m not too enamoured with a winter campaign … but I’m a very experienced politician. This will be my fourth campaign that I’ve contested. I had a very real expectation of what a campaign entails, what is involved, and the level of effort. It’s really and truly humbling that people come out and volunteer for you, turn up to be with you at 6.30am on a railway station,” she said.

“I’m running on my experience and the fact that I understand absolutely what representation means, what it involves. I understand the gravity that is placed on your shoulders when you carry the aspirations of tens of thousands of people into the chamber, and you have to be true to those people.”

There is a lot more ground to cover in a federal election, Burney says. “I believe, and I tell you what is going on, a lot of people on railway stations are already saying they’ve made up their mind. I’m taking that as a good sign,” she said.

If she is successful, Burney will likely be one of three indigenous members of Parliament on the Labor side after the election, with Pat Dodson up for a Senate slot in Western Australia, and former Labor NT government minister and SBS reporter Malarndirri McCarthy chosen this week to take the place of NT Senator Nova Peris on the Labor ticket.

Burney says she was thrilled this week McCarthy was chosen to replace Peris.

“It was absolutely appropriate that an Aboriginal woman be selected to replace Nova. I congratulate Nova on her role in the Senate and as a friend wish her well into the future,” she said. “Malarndirri has a proven track record. She is a long-term member of the Labor Party, and I think she will be a wonderful representative for the Territory, both for the Aboriginal community and the broader community, which is absolutely critical. She has a very good standing in the community and is respected on all sides of politics.”

The next term of Parliament will likely set in place a referendum for recognition of Aboriginal people in the Australian constitution. Burney says having more indigenous members will be helpful, but Parliament will need to move quickly to figure out the exact question that would be asked in the referendum. Burney has recently completed an ABC documentary with none other than Andrew Bolt on the subject of indigenous recognition.

“I think it is very important we find out what the question is going to be as quickly as possible. The idea that there would be, and there will be, people who mount a case against recognition is an anathema to me. I mean, how can we continue to be the only First World nation with a colonial history whose constitutional arrangements don’t recognise first peoples and don’t tell the truth?” she said. “Those are absolutely fundamental to who I am and my belief in recognition.”

Burney says the ideal time to have the referendum would be in May next year to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum removing discrimination against Aboriginal people from Australia’s constitution, but she says it is important to get the question right first.

“The issue is what the question is going to be. I think if the question is ‘should Aboriginal people be acknowledged in the constitution?’ you would have a resounding yes, but it is going to take a much more nuanced dialogue and discussion with the Australian community about removing the race powers [in Section 51 of the constitution] and those two things in my mind go hand in hand.”

Burney acknowledged that with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull planning to hold a plebiscite on same-sex marriage in 2016 if re-elected, it might be difficult to hold a referendum in the same year.

“I think the more important thing is not when the date is but it is held when we know it is going to be a successful referendum.”

Peter Fray

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