Burke was first elected to public office in 2003 as a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council. In October 2004, Burke moved from state to Federal parliament when he was elected to the division of Watson.
Burke was raised in a Roman Catholic family of Irish descent. He attended Catholic schools, Regina Coeli (Beverly Hills, NSW) and St Patrick's College (Strathfield, NSW), where he was Vice-Captain. He attended the University of Sydney where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws. He was also awarded the Martin Sorensen Trophy for Best Speaker at the 1994 Australasian Intervarsity Debating Championships.
After university, Burke co-founded an advocacy and training business named after the iconic fictional character Atticus Finch from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. He left the company in 1997 to work for the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association.
From 1997 until 2003, Burke worked as an organiser for the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association in and around the area he currently represents in Federal Parliament. In 2003 Burke left the SDA to run for the New South Wales Legislative Council.
On 22 March 2003, Burke was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Council. He chaired the NSW State Development Committee, conducting inquiries into ports infrastructure and science commercialisation. A view formed that Burke's talents were wasted in the NSW Legislative Council and he resigned from state parliament on 24 June 2004 to campaign for the New South Wales division of Watson. He won the seat at the 2004 federal election.
Burke is one of two serving MPs to begin their career on the frontbench. Upon being elected to Federal Parliament in 2004 Burke was appointed as Shadow Minister for Small Business and was promoted to Shadow Minister for Immigration in June 2005. After the Australian Labor Party leadership spill, 2006, Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd expanded Burke’s portfolio to Immigration, Integration and Citizenship.
While in opposition, Burke led an unsuccessful bipartisan appeal for clemency to the Singapore High Commissioner to stop the execution of convicted Australian drug smuggler, Van Tuong Nguyen. Seven years after Nguyen was executed Burke spoke at the launch of the SBS Better Man miniseries about Nguyen’s case. At the launch, Burke referred to the meeting with the Singapore High Commissioner as “the worst day” of his political career and “potentially the most troubling day” of his life.
After the 2007 federal election, Burke was appointed by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to serve as Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. He was sworn in by the Governor-General on 3 December 2007. As Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Burke oversaw the abolition of the Australian bulk wheat export monopoly after the AWB oil-for-wheat scandal. He oversaw the eradication of the horse flu in Australia after the 2007 equine influenza outbreak.
On 2 April 2010, Kevin Rudd appointed Burke as Minister for Population. The appointment came after Rudd stated he was in favour of a "big Australia" in response to demographic projections in the Government's Intergenerational Report showing the population of Australia would increase from 22 million in 2010 to 35 million in 2050. Burke’s responsibilities included planning for the growth in Australia’s population and coordinating the provision of services accordingly.
Following the 2010 federal election, Burke was appointed Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. In March 2012, following the ALP leadership spill, Burke was also appointed Vice-President of the Executive Council.
As Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Burke established the Commonwealth Marine Reserve Network, the largest network of marine protected areas anywhere in the World and the world’s second largest conservation determination after the preservation of Antarctica.
Burke acted as a mediator in the long-running dispute between environmental groups and the Tasmanian forestry industry, culminating in the signing of the historic Tasmanian Forests Intergovernmental Agreement in 2011.
Burke often cites Labor’s environmental credentials and the campaign to protect the Daintree Rainforest as the reason he got involved in politics. In government, Burke pushed to protect large areas of the Tasmanian Wilderness and the Ningaloo Reef by having them listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In 2014, the Abbott Government’s application to undo Burke’s Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage listing was rejected by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. The Portuguese delegation called the delisting attempt “feeble”.
In early 2011, Burke gave approval for the 100 per cent plantation timber Bell Bay Pulp Mill in the Tamar Valley after imposing stricter environmental conditions on the applicant Gunns Limited. Burke said many of the demands made by environmental groups opposed to the development had been addressed.
On 22 November 2012, Burke signed off on the Murray Darling Basin Plan, a process more than 100 years in the making, after extensive consultation with irrigators, environmental groups and state governments.
On 25 March 2013, Burke was appointed Minister for the Arts in the Second Gillard Ministry, in addition to his existing responsibilities. Burke took over the implementation of the Gillard Government’s Creative Australia policy after the former Minister for the Arts, Simon Crean, was sacked for his involvement in a failed attempt to return Kevin Rudd.
Following the June 2013 Labor leadership spill, Burke’s offer to resign from the ministry was rejected by returned Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Burke, a supporter of Julia Gillard, had been critical of Rudd's performance during his previous tenure as Prime Minister. Rudd appointed Burke as Minister for Immigration, Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship in the Second Rudd Ministry. He remained Minister for the Arts and Vice-President of the Executive Council.
Following Labor’s 2013 election loss, Burke was appointed Shadow Finance Minister and Manager of Opposition Business. From opposition Burke has been a vocal opponent of the Liberal National Government’s fiscal and economic policies, and its attempts to repeal protections against racist hate speech in Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. In May 2014, Burke held a march against the changes to Section 18C in the Sydney suburb of Lakemba. The event was attended by more than 1,000 people protesting against the changes, which were subsequently dropped by the Abbott Government.
After the 2016 Federal Election Burke was appointed Shadow Minister for Environment and Water, Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Australia, Shadow Minister for the Arts and Manager of Opposition Business.