Content warning: This article contains reference to sexual assault. Please refer to the services at the bottom of this article for support.
On International Women’s Day National Indigenous Times is spotlighting the stories of strong, powerful Blak women across the country.
Two women who embody strong and authentic leadership in politics are telling young women it’s their time to be courageous.
Both Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney and Northern Territory Senator Malarndirri McCarthy have reputations that precede them. They have spent the majority of their lives dedicated to giving back to the Australian people.
Ms Burney began her political career at 45-years-old. After two decades, what motivated her entry into Parliament remains.
“I didn’t think there were enough Aboriginal people in the Parliament in this country, there certainly weren’t enough women!” she said.
“I had always stood for inclusion and truth-telling.
“I had seen the political process and system up close through the various positions I had held, there was no mystery. I just knew what it was about and thought I could do a good job.”
With a strong love for Labor, both women say there was really no other choice when it came to a party.
“I was raised with the values that the Labor Party had, it was just natural and there was never any question about any other party, I can assure you,” said Ms Burney.
Senator McCarthy came to politics after 15 years in media. She stepped into the seat of Arnhem with a vision to give back to her community.
Senator McCarthy’s love for Labor was spurred by her family’s fight for land rights.
“The Yanyuwa were the first people under the Northern Territory Land Rights Act 1976 (NT) to claim land. I was about five-years-of-age, I remember seeing my family prepare for that court case,” she said.
“It took four decades to win that land back and in that time I realised that it was the strength of Labor’s policies in supporting First Nations peoples … we had always been fighting for our land and this was the party that fought with us that whole way.”
With a strong support system, Senator McCarthy found her way into Federal Parliament.
“Politics is such a brutal place in terms of what we have to navigate through, but it is also the place you can do so much good,” she said.
“What attracts you is the fact you can do good. Leadership requires stepping into the places where at times others fear to tread.”
Senator McCarthy notes the strong sisterhood that exists within the Labor Party.
“Female members of the party are incredibly supportive, it is about women helping women,” she said.
“We know that if we can do that within the party, we have a better chance to do more things for all women across Australia should we be successful in getting into Government.”
The past month has unveiled the realities for women working in Parliament and the deeply rooted patriarchy that exists in Australian society.
Ms Burney, who has identified as a feminist her entire life, describes the circumstances as a “wake-up call”.
“There is no doubt that Parliament has had a major wake-up call. I think that young women, and young women in particular who are staffers, are the women that need support. They need to have a voice,” she said.
“It has been a very poor reflection on all of us, I think that the Prime Minister has not taken the responsibility that perhaps he should have.
“Unless this not only changes the culture but changes the structure within the Federal Parliament, then we are missing an opportunity. It just has to happen.”
Senator McCarthy echoed Ms Burney’s sentiments.
“This has exposed some really dark behaviour which is not exclusive to Parliament House,” she said.
“It is something we fight against right around the country and the world in terms of treatment towards women and the importance of women feeling safe, whether at home or work.
“We have a massive challenge in front of us in terms of changing the culture in the Australian Parliament workplace and more broadly across our country.”
Both women commended the bravery of former staffer Brittany Higgins in coming forward and speaking out about her sexual assault.
“I would say to young women across Australia, look at the courageousness of the women that have come forward,” Senator McCarthy said.
“You are the ones who are going to reap the benefits of the courage of the women who have spoken out.”
“If you want to step into politics, if you want to be a leader in your family, your community, local government level, State Government level or Federal level — you go for it. Don’t let anything stop you.”
As strong female leaders, both Ms Burney and Senator McCarthy will leave a legacy in Australian politics. One that they hope will inspire more women, and more First Nations women to pursue politics.
“Representation is a serious business; it has to be taken seriously. I also see very much that there is more to being involved in the political realm than being a member of Parliament. Staff members are probably the most valuable thing,” Ms Burney said.
“I want to see more and more First Nations people, especially our women, everywhere,” added Senator McCarthy.
“In Parliament, as CEOs in corporations, in the private sector, the business sector — we can do it. We have been here for thousands of years and we’re going to be here for thousands more.”
If this article has raised any issues for you, please call or visit the resources below:
- 1800 RESPECT – 1800 737 732, https://www.1800respect.org.au/
- Sexual assault helplines for your State or Territory – https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/sexual-assault-and-abuse-helplines
By Rachael Knowles