Linda Burney on love, loss, racism and hope

Speaker Key:

LB              Linda Burney

AL              Andrew Leigh


LB               It’s the humble acts of individuals that change things, not the big sweeping changes of parliaments and big statements from famous people. It’s what you can do that makes a difference.

AL               My name’s Andrew Leigh, and welcome to The Good Life, a podcast about living a happy, healthy, and ethical life. Although I’m a politician and an economist, this isn’t a podcast about politics or economics. It’s about living a good life, which is an idea that goes back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle. What Aristotle meant by a good life was the life that one would like to live, a life with pleasure, meaning, and richness of spirit, a life that most of us were trying to live until everything else got in the way.

                   In this podcast, I’ll seek out guests not because they’re smart, but because they’re wise. I’ll speak with writers, athletes, and social justice campaigners, with people who’ve been lucky, and those who’ve experienced hard times. I’ve found their stories fascinating, and I hope you do too. In over 20 episodes of The Good Life podcast I haven’t yet had a serving politician on the show. To be clear, I don’t have a bias against them. Some of my best friends are politicians, but this is a podcast about living a good life, not a policy cast.

                   So, today is a first, but my guest is pretty used to being number one. She was the first Indigenous graduate of Mitchell CAE, the first Indigenous person to serve in the New South Wales parliament, and the first Indigenous woman in the Federal House of Representatives. Linda is a Wiradjuri woman who worked as a teacher at Lethbridge Public School before entering the public service, ending her public service career as director general of the New South Wales Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

                   If you did the Reconciliation Walk across the Sidney Harbour Bridge in 2000, you have Linda to thank. In 2003, Linda entered the New South Wales Parliament, where she rose to become deputy opposition leader. Last year, she shifted to federal politics and is now the shadow minister for Human Services. The best thing about this is that I get to sit next to her in question time. From this vantage point, I can attest that she is often witty, sometimes acerbic, and always impeccably dressed. Linda, thanks for being on the podcast today.

LB               Thank you, Andrew. That’s a beautiful introduction, and very accurate, I have to say.

AL               Let’s start at the very beginning. You grew up in the country town of Whitton, and the circumstances of your birth were challenging. Your father wasn’t around, and your mum left the hospital shortly after you were born. How were you brought up from there?

LB               I was raised by my great aunt and uncle. They were brother and sister, and what was amazing is that they were in their mid to late 60s when they took me on as a very small baby. And when I reflect on that, Andrew, I think it was an extraordinarily brave thing to do, remembering that they’re people born in the late 1890s, believe it or not. They’re in their 60s when they take me on, in 1957, as a baby.

                   They’re spinsters. Neither of them had ever married. They were brother and sister living together. And I suspect that they experienced a lot of social prejudice because as non-Aboriginal people, the aunt and uncle of my mother, taking on a baby that was Aboriginal and born out of wedlock in a small country town in 1957 is pretty extraordinary.

AL               So you were raised by people who were born before Federation?

LB               I was. They were born in the, as I said, the late 1890s, and they saw a lot of life. I mean, two world wars, a depression, and I think the depression really impacted on my life as a very small child. And people of that era listening to this will remember that if you were raised by people that came through the depression, we didn’t waste a thing. We made our own soap. We had a cow, which I was able to milk. I was very good at milking a cow.

                   I remember, as a kid growing up, you had, in the middle of the table, a tin that the lard from cooking went into, and you used that to spread on your toast. Tasted horrible, but I’ll never forget that. But also, you didn’t waste electricity. I never had a light left on, and you actually went to bed once it got dark. And that was not because people wanted to go to bed early. It was just ingrained that you didn’t waste electricity. It was quite incredible.

                   But they raised me, Andrew, with the most extraordinary values that… A time immemorial. Values of decency, values of honesty, values of loyalty, values about how you want to be treated and how you treat other people.

                   And also with some things that have just stuck with me, that you never put your back to anyone when you were speaking. And I often find that very difficult in a room where it’s hard not to do that. You didn’t speak when other people were speaking. I think I’ve overcome that. But also, you never swept after dark. You never looked at the moon. And they were of Scottish descent, and those old wives’ tales come from that part of their heritage.

AL               Do you still not look at the moon?

LB               I don’t look at the moon very much. I did notice last night in Canberra, as we were going home from the parliament, the most beautiful crescent moon, but when the moon’s full I don’t look at it. We never were allowed to whistle after dark because that pulled up bad spirits. I still don’t whistle. I don’t whistle very well at all, but I’ve never whistled after dark, and I certainly am very careful when I sweep. I sweep when the sun gets up. I don’t sweep at night. And it’s just those old-fashioned things that come from somewhere that I still cast my life by.

AL               Had they been parents before? You said they were…

LB               No.

AL               For the first time, they’re in their 60s, they’re playing this role of parenting, but they’re brother and sister.

LB               Yes.

AL               And they’ve got an Aboriginal baby that they’re raising.

LB               Who was born out of wedlock. Now, in 57, can you imagine what the local gossip was? And the idea that they would raise me as their daughter, really. I knew who my mother was, and she would visit occasionally. Never knew who my father was. That was never discussed. But whilst they gave me this extraordinarily, quite strict life, they were Scottish protestants, there was never any discussion of my Aboriginality or the Aboriginal side of my life.

                   And I think that was probably a lot do to with, A, it was Aboriginal, but, B, more of an influence is that I was born, as the terrible word was used back then, as illegitimate. And I suspect that’s why my mother left the town and wasn’t able to raise me. And the sad thing is, Andrew, I never developed a relationship with my mother, really. I mean, I knew who she was. I lived with her and my stepdad for the final two years of high school, but we never became close. And I think that was more to do with my youth than my mother’s actions.

AL               When did you first realise you were Aboriginal?

LB               I think it was probably… The actual real realisation came when I was about 11 or 12. And I’ll tell you that story in a moment, but I do know that growing up, even as a small child, I realised I was very different to the other kids around me. We were in a tiny, three-teacher school. I was very often the only Aboriginal child in the school, although there were families that moved in and out of the town.

                   And I just have some recollections of being very young, probably Kinder, first class, and somewhere in the back of my mind, a teacher saying, well, not having high expectations about me because of my Aboriginality. But I was a very bright student. I was a very… I love school. I love school so much that I used to force my friends and cousins to play schools, I was always the teacher, during school holidays.

                   I think where the real realisation came, and I’ll show you the photograph one day, is that back in those days, of course, not many people, particularly poor people, had cameras. And in the country, there would be travelling photographers that would knock on your door and do family portraits. And I have one of these family portraits.

                   Because next-door to where I grew up was my mother’s sister, my auntie, and her children, and they were blonde hair, blue eyed. And there was a photograph of my four cousins and me, and it was clearly taken in summertime because I became incredibly dark skinned during the summer.

                   And there’s these four blonde-haired, blue-eyed kids and this laughing, little, very dark Aboriginal girl on the end. Of course, that was me. Beautiful photograph, but I looked at that and remembered when I was very young, thinking, well, I don’t really look like my cousins.

AL               Did you experience a great deal of racism, growing up in Whitton?

LB               I did. I experienced two things, which were horrible at the time, but I think those childhood experiences have served me really well. I experienced racism, but I also experienced a lot of bullying and name calling, and it was half to do with the fact that I was Aboriginal. But as much as that, in the era of the early 60s right through to the early 70s, really, but the early 60s or the 60s in particular was jibes like, you don’t have a father.

                   That really hurt me because I had no idea who my father was. It was a taboo topic in the household I grew up in. Not that I ever really pushed the boundaries until I was a little bit older, but I knew it was taboo. And those jibes included things like calling me stinky and smelly and blacky, and they were the three or four things that I got a lot of from other children.

AL               The cruelty of children in the playground is… It can still sometimes take your breath away.

LB               It can take your breath away, but I had some, in particular, one friend, Barbara Smith, who became a very important person and her family in my life. Because she was from absolutely the wrong side of the tracks. Her family moved to Whitton and lived in a tent on the railway line when we were in… When I was in about second or third grade. They were itinerant workers. There was a lot of that where I grew up.

                   And Barbara and I became firm friends, and we are still very firm friends. And when my great aunt and uncle died, they died very close together, within 12 months of each other or 14 months of each other. And I was at the beginning of Year 10 or fourth Form back then, and it was Barbara’s family who took me in. And so I could finish Year 10 or fourth Form at Leeton before going off to Penrith to live with my mum and my stepdad.

                   And they’re still… Barbara’s still my oldest friend. But back in the playground, I, in primary school, experienced that. But because I was a very good student, and I’d also, had this resilience from somewhere, where instead of that pulling me down, I always had this view that there are always children that are worse off than you.

                   And there was a family in Whitton who were very poor and had some… Some of the kids had some intellectual disabilities. And what it instilled in me, because I saw the way those children were treated, was a absolute sense of what’s just and what’s right, and a particular distaste for bullying and for people that were bullies. And that has stayed with me, and I think it served me really well.

AL               So there you are in Year 10. You don’t know who your father is. You haven’t got a strong relationship with your mother, and then suddenly, over quite a short period of time, you’ve lost the two people who’ve been effectively raising you. What did that do to you at the time?

LB               Well, death came early to me. I think I was about six or seven when my grandmother died, so that was my natural mother’s mother and my great aunt and uncle, Nina and Billy Laing’s sister. Her name was Millie, and I remember my grandmother very well. And I experienced death very early. And then losing my great aunt and uncle, Nina and Billy, what it did to me is a really good question.

                   One thing it did do to me is that I was quite a devout Christian. I was a very regular churchgoer. And this will surprise you, I was even a Sunday school teacher. And I was raised in an era, and I suppose it still happens, where I remember one of the priests that was in the town used to teach us scripture when we were in primary school.

                   And it was all that fire and brimstone stuff, so I was terrified about purgatory, and I was terrified about hell and so forth. But I do remember that when my aunt died and I attended her funeral service, it effectively ended my connection to the church. And whether it was rational or not, or whether it was my youth, I don’t know, but I just remember the priest saying that it’s good that Leticia, Nina, my auntie, had died.

                   She was in heaven now. She was a better place, in a better place. We should rejoice her death. And I couldn’t do that because I was so devastated. And I thought, how can you say that she’s in a better place when I’ve lost her? So, it was a very visceral reaction as a young person, but I’d lost a lot. And I went to church after her funeral only once, and I have not been back.

                   But the wonderful thing about being a member of parliament is that has… That experience of me and the church as a very young person has been sorted out very much by me by being a member of parliament. Because I was the member for Canterbury in the New South Wales Parliament for 13 years and had the extraordinary experience of going to many church services for many religions, many faiths, including the Bahá’í, including going to the mosque, going to the Uniting Church.

                   And just having the most wonderful experiences and understanding that what has really formed me are very much the values that you would find in Christianity, but also the values that exist in all religions, of decency and honesty and treating people well. So, I think I’ve sorted that part of my life out.

AL               That ability to go along to a religious service, so I almost always take at least one of my kids along, is one of the things I really enjoy most about our job.

LB               It is. It’s a wonderful thing, and there is such joy in it. And I remember my friends, girlfriends and I, a few years ago went for a holiday, one of my rare holidays, to Tonga. And we particularly went to church services because of the passion, but also the beautiful singing of those services in Tonga.

AL               One of my favourite experiences of living in the United States is going to a classic gospel service in the Deep South, just an amazing experience. After you’d lost Billy and Leticia, were there role models who helped to shape your path from there?

LB               There were. I’m not sure if I would use the term role models. And no, that’s got nothing to do with you using it. It’s got to do with the way that I perceive it. And I think back over my life, and I do a lot of reflecting, Andrew. I think that’s a very important thing for us as humans to do, particularly for those of us that are in public life and have such responsibility. There were many people in my life who, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, who have been touchstones.

                   I spoke about my friend Barbara Smith. Well, her mother, Coral. I think about the mother, Mary Foley, who was the mother of my boyfriend when I was in Year 11 and 12. And she was a school principal, and I think that really, she was the person that gave me the thought that maybe I could be a schoolteacher.

                   The school principal of Leeton High School played an enormous role in my life. His name is Jim Evans. I’ve never spoken to him or seen him since, but at the age of about 15, I’d taken it into my head at the end of Year 9, I was going to leave school. I’d had enough. I couldn’t see the point. I was getting into a bit of trouble. But that was after my great aunt and uncle had passed away, and I think that was…

                   And I remember him calling me into his principal’s office and just scaring the daylights out of me, being very cross at me, and making me promise that I wouldn’t leave school. Now, I was very angry with him then, but looking back on it, it was probably the best Academy Award performance he’d ever done. And it was about keeping me at school because he knew I had the potential to succeed. So there are people moving forward, people my…

                   The school principal at my teaching appointment, who was a very wise man, and I was full of… I’m Aboriginal and therefore, I want to teach out in Bourke or Boorowa or somewhere. And this was at Lethbridge Park Public, which was in the middle of Mount Druitt, and I submitted my resignation on day two of teaching. Or, well, a transfer because, oh well, I thought I should have been out where there was high Aboriginal populations. And what a naïve stupid thing for me to think.

                   And he smiled and took my application for transfer, and then a few weeks later said, well, I’ve still got that application. And by then, I’d realised that there were 60 Aboriginal kids in the very large Mount Druitt school that I taught in, and I had an awful lot to learn. So that sort of wiseness and generosity.

                   But moving forward, there have always been people in my life, people like Judge Bob Bellear, who’s no longer with us. But his wife and his family, Kaye, and her family, have been incredibly important and have given me the great lesson that when you talk about Aboriginal affairs, just remember there’s a lot of non-Aboriginal people that are fellow travellers that are married to Aboriginal people who’ve trod the journey with you.

                   I look at great role models in my political career, people that you and I work with, that are just extraordinary. I think of people like Anthony Albanese, and I think Tanya Plibersek. Great, great leaders. But people like Jenny Macklin, who’s been a constant in my life for a very long time.

                   I’ll tell you who else had a big influence on me, was the late Joan Kirner who I remember when I was first getting involved in the labour party. And I remember we were at Sidney Convention Centre or somewhere, and Joan was sitting quietly, and she just looked at me. And she said, what are you going to do with yourself? And I didn’t know her. I knew who she was. And she has just been the most… Both in death and in life, she was just so encouraging and so supportive and would send me small gifts.

                   And of course, my late husband, Rick Farley, was an extraordinary influence in my life. And he was hilarious in the sense that he’d come through the National Farmers’ Federation and saw the cynical side of politics. And of course, I was full of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and very idealistic. And just in life and love, Rick has been a constant, and he still is.

                   So they are just a few examples. Patrick Dodson and I go back many, many years. Patrick was the chairperson of the National Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, and I was appointed by Robert Tickner to that council in 1997. I think people look at my relationship with Patrick and think, gosh, how can you boss him around like that? Well, that’s because I go back a long way with him.

                   But he was a great influence in my life, and his leadership got me to understand something incredibly important, is up until then I’d never seen myself as part of the franchise of Australia. I’d always seen myself as an outsider, as an Aboriginal person. And being a member of the Council for Reconciliation, I recognise that I had the problem, and of course, if I chose, and I did, to step up and take my place as an Australian.

AL               I want to come back to talk about Rick in a moment, but I’m interested first in your search for your biological father, which was quite a journey, I understand.

LB               It was. It took about five years. So, it began when I was studying teaching, as you said in the introduction, at the old Mitchell College of Advanced Education. For those much younger listening to this, that’s now Charles Sturt University. I went to the Bathurst campus, and I do a course on Aboriginal Studies.

                   It was probably one of the very early courses, and it really woke me up to a whole range of things about Aboriginal Australia that I wasn’t aware of. I’d always felt, even from a very early age, and I know this sounds twee, but I felt like I was a jigsaw puzzle.

                   I think in pictures, I felt like my life was a jigsaw puzzle, and there was a very large and important piece missing, is that I could never say where my country was because I wasn’t sure that I was Wiradjuri. I grew up on Wiradjuri country, but I didn’t know. And the Aboriginal part of my life was missing, and I felt that very, very deeply. And I also think that any child that grows up not with their biological parents has a right and a desire and an inherent need to know where they come from.

                   And I experienced all of those things. So, over the course of five years, from that time at teacher’s training, well, more than five years actually, I began the search for my father. And some of it was very painful. Certainly, the people around me didn’t want to talk about it. I’d written to the doctor that delivered me who was, remarkably, still the doctor. And he and the nurse that delivered me was still around, and they remembered me being born. Out of the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of babies they probably delivered, they remembered me very well.

                   I also knew that a woman called Mary Thompson, the late Mary Thompson, I was very good friends with her kids. And Bruce Thompson was the same age as me, so I knew that his mum and my mum would have been in the hospital at the same time. And they were, and I wrote to her. And she was a good woman, and she wrote back, saying, you’re doing well. You don’t need to know this stuff.

                   And that was a really instructive letter to me in the sense of, well, even people that know don’t want to talk to me because they thought I was better off not knowing. And one thing led to another, and of course, the [unclear] grapevine is one of the best communication tools around. It could rival Google, really.

                   And there was Aboriginal families that lived for times during my life as a child in this small country town. And eventually through that network, I’m not quite sure how it all happened, but it became clear that there were two men, brothers, I think they were brothers, who were potentially my dad. And I’d actually met my father’s brother and met some of my cousins because I knew what my family name was.

                   And it was my first cousin’s wife who came around to my place, I was literally eight months pregnant with my first child, who said, and it was the evening, I remember what I was wearing, I remember what it felt like, I remember what I did, she said, come on. I’ve got someone for you to meet. Her name was Maureen. She’s passed on too now.

                   And we got in the car. I had a blue dress on. I was very pregnant. I put some white shoes on, and we drove to somewhere in Sydney. I’m not quite sure where it was. And my father was in Sydney at the time, undertaking a workshop or a course.

                   I remember this Aboriginal man coming across. He had a cowboy hat on. He was very handsome, and he got into the car. And I had a photograph of my mother at the age of 20, 22 at the time he would have known her, and I said, I think you’re my father. I said, do you remember a woman called Rita Burney? This is her photograph. And he said, no, I don’t. And my heart just fell. It felt like it hit the ground.

                   And then he looked at the photograph for what seemed an eternity. It was probably about 40 seconds. And he just leant over, and he put his arms around me, and he said, I hope I don’t disappoint you. And that day I learnt I had ten brothers and sisters I didn’t know existed.

AL               Ten?

LB               Ten. And the shocking thing, really, is that I grew up knowing many of my cousins because we went to the same high school, and my father and my brothers and sisters were in a town that was about 35, 40 minutes’ drive from me for my entire life. So yes.

AL               So that moment of loss at age 14, 15, you could have had them to reach out to, if you’d known the connection.

LB               If we’d known. Yes. But I didn’t, and you can’t put those years back together. I was very loved and very accepted by my father and his extraordinary wife, Lorna, who’s still alive. I was his oldest child, and a place was made for me in that family. But it’s very difficult to put that all back together.

                   But what’s extraordinary about Aboriginal culture, because so many children have for whatever reason, whether it’s stolen generations or people like me, it’s one of the great tools of survival for Aboriginal people and the Aboriginal story, is that those children that are missing, that come back, find a place.

AL               How did your relationship develop with your father, Nonny? Did you have a long time to engage with him?

LB               No. He passed away about ten or 11 years ago, maybe a little bit longer, so we had a few years, and I would visit regularly. And I didn’t feel like I could push myself onto that family, and I never did. And I was always very respectful, and I think that was very much appreciated. But that piece of the jigsaw was sorted. At his funeral, I sat as one of his children in the church. And my children met him a couple of times, and that was really important. And certainly Wiradjuri.

AL               Yes. And so you’re at this stage, and new mum. You then had a daughter, and you’ve spoken recently about your experiences following that in a relationship which turned violent. What was that like from…? What have your drawn from that?

LB               Yes. My children’s dad, we separated when my son was about four years old and my daughter was two, but that wasn’t the violent relationship. The violent relationship came after the separation from the children’s father. And it was quite a… It was a very physically violent relationship.

                   I mean, domestic violence comes in many forms, as we know. It can be financial subjugation. It can be isolation. It can be physical violence. It can be sexual. It can be psychological, and very often, it can be all of those things. The relationship lasted for five years, which just sounds remarkable to people.

                   And what it has done for me, I think, Andrew, is it’s given me a very deep understanding of what domestic violence is. It’s taken me a long time to talk about it publicly. And it’s given me an enormous understanding of how complex those relationships can be. And I get very annoyed with people that go, well, why doesn’t she just leave him? How hard can it be? Well, that is an incredibly naïve and unhelpful way to view violent relationships.

                   But what really was the trigger for me in the end was obviously quite a violent and jealous rage that did some real damage to me physically, not to mention psychologically. But I realised that this idea, and this is what I say to women very often, is if you are staying in a violent relationship because you think it’s best for your children, then think again.

                   Because it is not the best thing for your children to understand that they are living in a home where they might not see the violence, but they hear it. They feel it. They see the results of it the next morning, be it busted lips or black eyes, or mum not being able to get out of bed or not being able to get you off to school or take you to school that day.

                   And it’s not the best thing for your children. It’s probably the worst thing because you are imbuing in them all the unhealthy relationship stuff around a violent relationship. So, I really left that relationship motivated more by that than what was actually happening to me. And the stitches and the scars have faded, but they’re still there very much for me, and the broken bones, and so forth.

                   But the thing that I was incredibly… Lucky is the wrong word. I don’t know what the word is, but the thing that gave me part of the capacity to leave that relationship is what not many women have in a violent relationship, and that is that I was economically independent. I had a good job that paid reasonably well, and I also never, for some reason, linked my bank accounts up with his. I still had my own. Our finances were quite separate.

                   And because I had that, I was able to establish myself economically, and a lot of women don’t have that. If you are in a small country town in particular where there is a lack of housing, a lack of support services, and you are not economically independent, tell me how you get out of that relationship.

                   And just because a relationship is violent doesn’t mean that there isn’t feelings. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a type of love and a sorriness or a sadness about the fact that the relationship’s not working. And it requires enormous courage to leave a relationship. I was lucky to be able to ring a friend and say, he’s not here. Come and get me now.

                   I walked out of that house with a small suitcase between the three of us. A change of clothes for each of us, and my kids’ school uniform, that’s what I left with. Yes, and I had a very good friend that took me and my children in, and I never went back. And a lot of women, for lots of different reasons, they don’t want necessarily that man to go to jail. They want the violence to stop. And they want to believe the apologies and the, it’ll never happen again. I can understand why women go back.

AL               And then sometime later, you had your greatest relationship. You’ve talked about Rick Farley as being remarkable, as being a great love. I know Rick will just sometimes come up when we’re chatting in the chamber during question time. Tell me about Rick and how that relationship developed.

LB               You’re going to make me cry. Where I have a flat in Canberra is in the suburb of Barton, and I went for a walk on Sunday evening and walked past the National Farmers’ Federation building. And I was with my son. He said, mum, look, that’s where Rick worked. And it really brought back a lot of feelings. And although he has been gone now for over a decade, there isn’t a day go by where he’s not part of my life.            And I just count myself so fortunate that I had a great love.

                   There are people that go through their whole lives, I suspect, that don’t have that great love. And I’m not saying it was any better or any worse than anyone else. I’m just saying it was a great love. And there was a great deal of sacrifice, I think more from Rick’s side than mine. I was single at the time that I met him. Our relationship started after he and his then-wife had separated. He had two young children, and it was tough.

                   They lived in Queensland. I lived in Sydney. He moved to Sydney, and I think that he never quite was able to reconcile the fact that he wasn’t with his children. But we just survived everything because we loved each other so much. And I think that he learnt as much from me as I learnt from him. And the connection was a really serious intellectual connection, and that was the best part of our relationship.

                   I think he is the smartest person I have ever met, and I don’t say that because we were in love. I just really think he was the smartest person. And of course, when you look at Rick’s career and background, we were the most unlikely of lovers. I’ve often said this, that he got more out of reconciliation than most people because we were on the Reconciliation Council together. That’s where we met.

                   But when you think about particularly his role with something that we’re dealing with now within the parliament and the passage of the Native Title Legislation. He was head of the NFF and was able to bring farmers along back in the early 90s to support that legislation. I know that one of the greatest gifts I also got from him was the importance and the power and the way in which you negotiate, and that has served me so well. But he was a complex, wonderful man that I miss every single day.

AL               And his death was so sudden.

LB               It was awful.

AL               The aneurysm and then the accident.

LB               It was at 10:35 on 26th December 2005. We’d had a wonderful Christmas day, and we’d had 12, 14 people for Christmas lunch. And the last, well, the second last thing that Rick said to me ever was at 10:35 when he said, we’ve got some oysters and prawns left over. What should I do with them? And I said to him, throw the oysters out, but we’ll keep the prawns. And then he had the aneurysm.

                   He lost the power of speech and movement. He was very, very, very damaged. And that day was in many ways very defined but also a blur. And of course, he died on Mother’s Day 2006, not from the aneurysm but from a fall in the repatriation…

AL               Rehabilitation?

LB               Rehabilitation hospital in Balmain. Ironically, the fall happened in a lane next to the hospital called Sorry Lane. And I remember that day so clearly because I was at a function in Campsie. I had a call from my friend saying, get to the hospital. And she’d been over at the Balmain Hospital coincidentally, and I’m not sure whether she travelled to the Royal Prince Alfred with Rick, but that’s where they transported him to.

                   And effectively, his life was over because the fall was so catastrophic. He’d hit his head on the curb. And I walked into the emergency ward at Royal Prince Alfred and saw him. He was being kept alive at that point. He was brain dead. And I just fell into his surgeon’s arms. I remember his surgeon saying to me, this is so unfair. Because he’d put up such a fight. He’d been months and months and months in the ICU.

                   But in many ways, Andrew, and I’ve not said this very often, but maybe in some ways it was a bit of a blessing. Because he was so incapacitated. He couldn’t write. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t move without machines moving him, and that was not Rick Farley.

AL               Yes. You said before that the second last thing he said to you was the comment about the oysters and the prawns.

LB               Yes. The last thing he said to me was about a week before the accident, and he was so proud of himself. He actually had managed to start writing again, but not writing in the way that we think writing, writing like a first grader, the alphabet. But he managed to get out that, I love you. And that was the last thing he said to me.

AL               Now you’re going to make me cry.

LB               Come on, no crying.

AL               When I talk to you about your life, it feels a bit like reading Angela’s Ashes. Your mum left the hospital when you were born. The people who brought you up died when you were 14 or 15. Your biological father passed away not long after you met him, and you lost the great love of your life. And yet, you’re one of the most upbeat, positive people I know. How do you manage to maintain that approach to life without compartmentalising the loss? Because the loss seems very much part of you. It’s not something that you wall off. How do you do it?

LB               I think it’s through very deliberate decisions. And what I mean by that is, for example, after Rick passed away, I remember standing at my kitchen window. It probably was about five or maybe six or seven weeks after he died. And looking out into my garden, which is so much a part of me, and thinking to myself, I have to make a very deliberate decision that I can allow this loss to be wasted and I can be sad and angry and all of those things, which I had been, of course.

AL               Yes.

LB               Or I can use the loss of this great love, understanding it’s just not my loss. The loss of Rick Farley was a loss to many people on an individual level, but a loss to the country. I mean, he’s such a remarkable person. And I can also use this loss, and Rick would want this, to make me a more compassionate, kind person. And it’s a pretty easy decision to make. There was only one decision there, and of course that was the one I’ve just described. And that’s what I did.

AL               What advice would you give to your teenage self?

LB               Oh, are these the hard questions? I would give the advice to my teenage self to just believe in who you are and be who you are because that is the most powerful thing you can do. And that’s what I do. I don’t try and be someone else. I’d be me.

AL               What’s something that you used to believe but no longer do?

LB               I don’t know whether I can answer that question. I think part of it is I used to think that there are such big problems in the world that me as an individual can’t make a difference, whether it was world poverty or famine. But of course, individual actions and what you can do can make an enormous difference. And it’s the humble acts of individuals that change things, not the big, sweeping changes of parliaments and big statements from famous people. It’s what you can do that makes a difference.

AL               When are you most happy?

LB               I am most happy at about 6 AM in the morning, just as the light’s coming up, the birds are singing, and I’m gardening.

AL               You take early to bed, early to rise pretty seriously, don’t you?

LB               I certainly do.

AL               What’s your normal bedtime?

LB               Oh, it’s about 8:30.

AL               And then when are you up in the morning?

LB               I usually wake up about quarter to five, and I spend 15 minutes with myself, religiously, getting myself centred. It’s almost a meditation. Being clear about what the day holds, working out how I feel, what I need to consider with how I’m feeling, and then I’m usually out of bed about five, ten past five.

AL               Are there other things you do to stay mentally and physically healthy?

LB               I eat very well, and I wish I was as good as you at exercising. You are an inspiration in that area. But I do try and get, if not a deliberate piece of exercise, then certainly some incidental exercise in every day.

AL               Do you have any guilty pleasures?

LB               Oh, I do like a glass of gin and tonic of an evening. Maybe that’s an essential. I don’t know, but yes. But no, I don’t have lots of guilty pleasures. I have to say that I developed a very horrid allergy in my late 30s which means I can no longer have chocolate or coffee. And I do miss coffee, I must admit.

AL               Oh yes. I’d find that one tough. Finally, which person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

LB               I probably would have to say my experiences as a young child, being raised by people who were from a very different generation. And that is really, when you look at the Linda Burney underneath, that’s where I come from.

AL               Linda Burney, thank you for taking the time to speak on The Good Life podcast today.

LB               Thank you very much.

AL               Thanks for joining me on The Good Life podcast this week. If you enjoyed this episode, would you mind taking a moment just to let your friends know? Maybe through Facebook, Twitter, or some other way of spreading the word of The Good Life. Next week, I’ll be back with another guest to discuss living a healthier, happier, and more ethical life.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.