Linda Burney portrait unveiled: not just another painting of a suit

For Labor MP Linda Burney, there was never a question about what colour she would wear in her official portrait as the first Aboriginal woman elected to the House of Representatives.

The portrait, unveiled at Parliament House last Wednesday, February 13, depicts a proud, determined Burney wearing a fabulous red ensemble by Australian designer Carla Zampatti.

"I didn’t want it to be another portrait of someone in a suit," the Labor frontbencher says of the painting, which will be displayed in a gallery dominated by white, male former prime ministers and presiding officers.

For the Kograh based MP, red is "the most powerful of all colours".

"I think when you wear red, you just feel taller and it really is a very active colour."

It is also the colour of Burney’s beloved Labor Party.  

Before she was elected as the member for  Barton  in 2016, she had already had a 13-year career in state politics. 

She was the first Indigneous person to be elected to NSW parliament, rising to Minister for Community Services and then deputy leader of the opposition under Luke Foley.

When Parliament House officials invited her to have her portait done, Burney toured the National Portrait Gallery looking for inspiration. 

As part of her careful consideration about the symbolism of her portrait, she chose Sydney artist Jude Rae, who has also painted portraits of former speaker, Anna Burke and first female Chief Justice Susan Kiefel.

"I was very keen to have a woman do my portrait", she says.

She was inspired to wear a wide, silver ring in the portrait in an echo of the shining blue ring worn by Neville Bonner in a portrait of the first Indigenous Australian to be elected to federal parliament. In a further touch, Rae painted the Aboriginal flag onto Burney’s ring.

Linda Burney with her official portrait which was unveiled at Parliament House in Canberra last week. Picture: Dominic Lorrimer

Linda Burney with her official portrait which was unveiled at Parliament House in Canberra last week. Picture: Dominic Lorrimer

"That’s my little shout out about my identity and my heritage," Burney, a Wiradjuri woman, says.

In her Canberra office ahead of the unveiling, Burney’s voice cracks when she explains the significance of the earnings she wears in the portrait, which acknowledge her son, Binni, who died in 2017.

"The earings I chose were a special gift from a dear friend when my son passed away," she says.

"So that was the connection there."

While Burney insists she does not like being the centre of attention, she is keenly aware of her power as a role model.

"I am constantly overwhelmed and truly touched by the many people that approach me at events, at functions, in the street, on the train, in the supermakret, to say ’thank you so much for the work that you do, you are an inspiration to me.’"

Burney, who is poised to become Minister for Families and Social Services and Minister for Preventing Family Violence should Labor win the upcoming federal election, says she is guided by the "the notion of reciprocity" in her work and life.

"What Aboriginal life is based on, what Aboriginal culture is based on ... is the notion of reciprocity. What you give, you get back."

She expresses frustration at Scott Morrison’s recent announcement he would spend $6.7 million on a replica of Captain James Cook’s Endeavour, which the Prime Minister says will bring Australians together.

"The idea that a circumnavigation of Australian in a replica of the Endeavour is going to bring people together is just nuts. It’s insulting, it’s misdirected."