Linda Burney’s voice is stretched and a little unsteady. When she speaks, her face opens, as if waiting to see she has been understood. She calls in the people at the back of the room. Before all this, she was a schoolteacher.
“We are so close,” she says. “Our destination is on the horizon. We are just a few short months away from realising the promise of the Uluru Statement, that historic First Nations consensus on the way forward … Later this year, Australians will be asked a simple question: Do you support a change to the constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?”
At the National Press Club on Wednesday, Burney delivered one of the clearest calls yet made for the Voice. It was a speech of pain and hope. She spoke of the preventable deaths, of the people lost to treatable illnesses. She spoke of the need for proper housing and clean water. She spoke of the rates at which young Indigenous people are locked up or taken from their families.
She spoke of Michael Riley, the late photographer. He died of renal failure at 44. His pictures burn and flutter the way her voice does. “I was very close to him,” she said. “I visited him every day in hospital. I watched him go blind in one eye. His Aboriginality condemned him to an early death, a preventable death. I remember being at his bedside with his cousin Lynette when he passed. I remember the injustice of it. And it’s what still motivates me to this day. It’s what motivates me every day to put one foot in front of the other. To do better by Indigenous Australians. To do better for future generations. We can and must do better.”
Burney offered perhaps the best description of the Voice. She called it a mechanism for the government and parliament to listen. She said it would be practical and independent. It would join local knowledge with policymakers. “Doctors get better outcomes when they listen to patients,” she said. “Bosses get better outcomes when they listen to workers.”
Burney said the priorities of the Voice would be health, education, jobs and housing. This is what she would ask of it as minister. “The Voice will be tasked with taking the long view. Unlike government, it won’t be distracted by the three-year election cycles. It will plan for the next generation, not the next term.”
To end her speech, Burney quoted again from the Uluru Statement from the Heart: “These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness. We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.”
Slowly, the room stood and clapped, one person and then another. In her words was a seam of fracturing truth. This is how change is built. “Friends, it is time. Ngali Yarhagi barrranjrra, Manwunbul. Let’s get this done together.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2023 as "The fracturing truth".
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