Friday, November 18, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Australian MP Linda Burney's maiden speech

Linda Burney is the first indigenous woman to be elected to Australia's House of Representatives, and, as in many parliamentary governments, gave her first or "maiden" speech before the house.

But there were other firsts to this speech, including the new member of Parliament speaking in Wiradjuri, the language of her aboriginal tribe; being sung to in her language as part of the speech; and carrying a traditional cloak into the chamber with symbols from her tradition. To introduce the cloak and the song, Burney first spoke about how they connected with the concept of a first speech:
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.
 After the song, she went on to connect her story to the significance of the day:
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....The power of racism and exclusion were not things you could see, but you certainly felt them....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.
What can you learn from this famous speech?

  • If your language isn't our language, share and translate: One of the most effective things you can do in a multilingual world is to share how you'd say something in your language and then translate for us. That way, you can be true to yourself, express yourself as eloquently as your own language lets you be, and still teach the audience something.
  • Use powerful images and metaphors: From the symbol of the "noisy messenger bird"--perhaps a signal of what the other members of Parliament can expect from her?--to the image of the man in the schoolyard, Burney's speech is peppered with indelible images and metaphors. The cloak adds visual focus to her words, underscoring the message and its ancient meaning.
  • When your story is powerful, it doesn't need much embellishment: Most of this speech is a straightforward telling of Burney's own story. The facts of her life do the telling without the need for over-emphasis. Whenever your story is this powerful, keep it simple and let the power of the facts do the work.

You can read the full transcript and watch the video here, and below: