Proud Irish Aboriginal Senator gives Maiden Speech

A News Feature about Malarndirri MacCarthy

by Frances Devlin-Glass

Just after Pauline Hanson’s much-reported divisive maiden speech came another maiden speech which did not make the headlines. It hit very different and much more harmonious inclusive notes, and was delivered  by Malarndirri Barbara McCarthy, the new Irish/Australian/Aboriginal senator for the Northern Territory.


Malarndirri McCarthy delivering her maiden speech. Photo from NITV site.

Greeting the parliament in the Yanyuwa language, she takes her place among a very distinguished and impressive group of new senators who proudly and proactively affirm their Indigeneity – Linda Birney and the remarkable Pat Dodson. Watch her moving speech here:

Malarndirri McCarthy’s Powerful Maiden Speech 15/09/2016

In her speech, Malarndirri paid tribute to her father who was in the gallery. His family arrived several generations ago in 1842 from Ireland aboard The Palestine as a free man with wife and children, becoming a magistrate in northern New South Wales.  Malarndirri’s father was a remarkable man. A school teacher from Sydney, he taught at the school at Borroloola and married a local Yanyuwa woman, Maisie Charlie. What makes him admirable is that he supported his child to become truly bicultural, arranging for her to travel from boarding schools in Alice Springs and Sydney to spend their school holidays with her mother and her people in Borroloola.  Malarndirri thus became immersed in the Yanyuwa/Garawa culture that was her birthright. It is still not easy or cheap to get to Borroloola and it was much harder in the 1980s when this yoyo movement between the cities and the remote Gulf of Carpentaria town of Borroloola (about 1000 kilometres by road from Darwin) was happening, so it was a hugely respectful act of love, both for the mother who could not live away from Country and the child who would go on to become someone who moved easily between the two worlds.

malarndirri-mccarthy-photo_websiiteHer career as a bicultural person has been stellar: she was head-girl at Sydney’s St. Scholastica‘s in 1988, clearly marked out early for her abilities, and in her speech she mentioned by name another young Aboriginal woman who this year occupies the same role. She is woman who has broken many glass ceilings, including becoming an ABC radio cadet in 1989. She would eventually become its anchor newsreader in Darwin (a fact I often saw celebrated in Borroloola: if Barb was the newsreader, the whole town had to be in front of a tv, and they always knew which nights it was that were compulsory viewing).

That career would climax with important awards, a Deadly in 2013, Journalist of the Year in the Multicultural and Indigenous Media Awards in 2014,  and  Walkley nominations in 2013 and 2014, and as Executive Producer of NITV News for the Indigenous tv channel, NITV. She has trained media personnel in her home town and set up the local community radio, 102.9 FM, The Voice of the Gulf. In her time there in 1995-8, she also produced a number of films which are a source of great pride for the ways they helped to consolidate cultural identity for the Yanyuwa, Garrawa, Mara and Gudanji people who live there. Since its establishment in the 1880s in response to lawlessness, Borroloola has always been an open town (not a protectorate or reservation) and life there is hard for the Aboriginal population, so attempts to raise the morale and contribute positively to cultural identity, especially when this was being undertaken with their own and by one of their own, and a supremely talented one, were historically very significant community-building activities.

And that was not her only career: her journalistic career was interrupted for a long stint as the Member for Arnhem in the Northern Territory Labor Government between 2005-2012, where she held a great number of ministerial portfolios, including Indigenous Development, Families and Children and Assistant to the Chief Minister in Multicultural Affairs. She is a strong advocate for Statehood for the NT. And now, she is one of the new breed of senators in Canberra, where I predict she will be a force for good.

Her speech to the Senate on 14 September 2016 was remarkable for its insights into what it is to have dual and indeed multiple identities, and she subtly conveyed the multiculturalism of her own people by adverting to their trading activities with Sulawesi, Indonesia and New Guinea (these international trading routes were closed in 1910 by law), as well by underlining her own family’s Irish heritage. Her broad vision was important coming after Pauline Hanson’s speech who had just minutes before advocated excluding Muslims.

borroloola_location_map_in_northern_territoryShe was also strong on the costs of Land Rights activities for her own people, and spoke feelingly of being interrogated about her dual roles as Yanyuwa woman and a woman educated to the top levels of white Australian society in Land Rights courts. Yanyuwa people were the first to seek and win Land Rights in a series of actions that began in 1996, but it was 40 long years for the land to be given in trust to them.

She also made a plea to abandon the Gay Marriage Plebiscite, citing the vulnerability of a young 23-Yanyuwa woman who had recently suicided.

This is a woman to watch, one who proudly owns both her Irish and Aboriginal cultural heritages. We can be proud of the father who made the commitment to give his daughter the best of both worlds. It’s a highly unusual narrative.


Frances is a member of the Tintean editorial collective. She is kin ‘Yanyuwa way’ to Malarndirri McCarthy, having worked with the community on a Yanyuwa cultural website, Diwurruwurru, now archived on Pandora at the State Library of Victoria.  (press the Yanyuwa button to see active part of the site).