Warren Mundine: a life in black and white

warren-mundine-in-black-and-whiteWarren Mundine has lived an adventurous and complicated life. The former ALP president is now a Liberal candidate in the next election for the seat of Gilmore on the New South Wales south coast, parachuted in by prime minister Scott Morrison over local objections. A proud Bundjalung-Gumbaynggirr man from Grafton, Mundine has never been afraid of controversy. His autobiography Warren Mundine: in Black and White was written in 2017 before he stood for election as Liberal but after his departure from Labor and charts his political journey and his Aboriginal heritage. The book is also painfully honest about his personal life and his relationship with three wives and his wider family.

Mundine was born in 1956 in a separate wing of Grafton Hospital for Aboriginal mothers and babies. Segregation was commonplace in regional Australia before 1967 and Mundine begins with how his ancestors went from being masters of their country to slaves in under a century. When their land was stolen survivors were removed to reservations and missions, and their lives were controlled by police and Protection and Welfare Boards who removed children to institutions and white families.

Mundine carried Irish heritage on his mother’s side through Corkman William Donovan who married Yuin woman Catherine Marshall and moved to Kempsey in 1870. The Mundines called the Donovans the Black Irish as they too lost their land to the British. The Donovans left another characteristic, they were Catholic, a trait passed down to Warren’s mother Dolly who married father Roy in Bowraville Catholic Church. Roy laboured at Naryugil near an asbestos mine which employed – and later killed from mesothelioma – Warren’s uncles.

With union help Roy got equal wages with whites and the family bought a house in Grafton where they raised 11 children. Roy had the infamous “dog tag”, a certificate of exemption which allowed him assimilate in white society, but Dolly scratched out the photo, believing her husband shouldn’t need the tag to do what others took for granted. The couple passed on this determination not to be treated like second-class citizens to their children though Warren darkly remembers being with his father when two policemen strip-searched him beside his car for no apparent reason. “You might own a house, but to us you’re still an abo,” they told Roy.

When older siblings got scholarships to Sydney, the family moved there in 1963. Warren was seven. They lived in Auburn which he called “an exemplar of multiculturalism – long before any politician dreamed up the name”. Racism was rife against all minorities but they were no longer under the stultifying control of the welfare boards. Warren was introduced to football and players would not believe he came from Grafton until he told them of his Bundjalung heritage. “Ah! So you’re a real Aussie, an original!” they replied.

Through his older sisters, Warren became politically aware and watched the 1967 referendum at home on television. They cheered each result and Warren was proud of his siblings working in the campaign. Despite his own growing interest, Warren’s grades were poor and he ended up in a trade not in university like his sisters. He became an apprentice fitter and turner and studied at TAFE. When cycling home one day he was hit by a truck and suffered a spinal injury which laid him off work for a year. In that time Warren moved into a rental house and discovered drugs and women.

Aged 19 he met Jenny Ross, 17 and she fell pregnant after a couple of months. They married, Jenny gave birth to “Little Warren” and Nicole was born three years later. Warren was a labourer with the Water Board, more focused on his future as a dad. He completed his HSC, sat the public service exams and got a job at the tax office. The couple bought a house in St Mary’s and Warren took a second job bartending at Bankstown town hall. With two sisters he returned to Baryulgil on weekends and joined a board that managed Aboriginal land rights in the region.

The tax office offered Warren a university scholarship in Adelaide and with his parents’ support who offered to look after the children, he left alone and the marriage disintegrated. At SAIT in 1982 Warren became politically active, describing himself as “radical and left wing”. He was also exposed to the free market ideas of Milton Friedman, though he still believed solutions should be driven by communities and governments not individuals. He was helped by Don Dunstan’s programs to train Aboriginal students and studied everything from leadership to negotiation. In 1982 he was part of the Aboriginal protests against the Brisbane Commonwealth Games and met other emerging leaders from Aboriginal communities, Marcia Langton, Gary Foley, Charlie Perkins and Michael Mansell.

He also met Kevin Cook who headed up Tranby Aboriginal College in Sydney. Cook taught him business and enterprise in a cooperative model was the key to moving people out of poverty. Warren learned about the worldwide movement of indigenous and black activism and worked with Cook on land rights. He was influenced by New Caledonian Kanak independence leader Jean-Marie Tijbaou who wanted to embrace the best of the modern world. Modernisation was not a threat to independence and culture but essential to its survival.

Mundine’s second wife Lynette Riley was a friend of his sister Olive who was working on an Aboriginal teachers’ program with NSW Education. They met again at an education conference and it developed into a relationship. They worked together at Tranby and travelled the state promoting land rights and the Aboriginal Land Rights Act passed by NSW’s Labor government in 1983. They got married and had children of their own and moved to Armidale where she worked for the university and he for the land council. His political vision crystallised about the need for commerce, private ownership, jobs and education to improve the lot of poor people. “I realised government could only do so much,” he said.

Back in regional NSW he saw segregation was gone but Aboriginal kids were not going to school and people were surviving on handouts. Welfare dependency and “sit down money” had replaced low-wage jobs and land rights alone would not solve the problem. Inexperienced land councillors were not up to running businesses and managing land as an economic resource. Mundine felt activists were no help blaming problems on the past and looking to governments for assistance.

In Canberra, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were enacting economic and structural reforms which “resonated” with Mundine. He ran unsuccessfully as an independent for Armidale City Council in 1991 but was elected as an independent in 1995. He called council a “hothouse learning in the art of politics” and learned the importance of authenticity and “speaking with the right people through the media”.

He ran for the 1998 state election in Dubbo, a notionally safe Nationals seat. But Mundine polled high for Labor, and independent mayor Tony McGrane won the seat by 14 votes in a three-way split. Mundine’s strong performance brought the attention of party bosses like Karl Bitar and Mark Arbib. Mundine was named number three on the Labor Senate ticket for New South Wales for the 2001 federal election.

Labor usually won three seats in a half-Senate election but this was not a normal election. After the Tampa crisis and the events of 9/11 Prime Minister Howard increased his majority, the Labor vote collapsed in NSW and they only won two seats in the Senate. Mundine looked elsewhere for a career and returned to Aboriginal roots.

For him “Mabo changed everything”. The High Court judgement handed down in 1992 eventually led to PM Keating’s native title legislation a year later. Ten years later Mundine moved to Sydney to take a job as NSW Native Title Services Ltd’s CEO representing holders and claimants across the state. He was also selected as the Labor right candidate for national president and finished third which meant he served two years as vice president and became national president in 2006.

His term as president brought him a national profile, notably with his interview with ABC’s Kerry O’Brien where he spoke out against party disunity memorably peppered with several uses of the word “bloody”. By this time the tide was finally turning against Howard and Labor looked likely to win in 2007.

Mundine’s career took a new turn under the influence of Bob Carr’s advisor Walt Secord. Secord grew up on a Canadian reservation and believed Aboriginal land should become economic assets. Mundine developed the idea to move away from communal land ownership and non-profit community businesses and take up home ownership, economic land development and profiting businesses. It was an incendiary idea and it made him “one of the most loathed people in Indigenous Affairs, a puppet of white establishment and a conservative government, wanting to stop land rights”.

Mundine said he didn’t believe land rights or native title should be abandoned but could be leased out with the head title staying with traditional owners. He saw this as a way of removing dependency on handouts and becoming “full participants in all that Australian society had to offer.” That was not music to the ears of the National Native Title Conference in 2005 where he was heckled and booed. But the Howard government was interested in his ideas of individual rights and home ownership.

Around this time he had an affair and his marriage to Lynette broke up. Professionally things went awry as his hopes of being preselected for the Sydney seat of Fowler for the 2007 election fell apart without explanation gradually leading to his falling out with Labor. Howard had already appointed him on the National Indigenous Council and while Mundine was critical of his handling of the Apology he supported Howard’s policies to remove disadvantage and poverty. Mundine said for true reconciliation Aboriginal people also needed to forgive, draw a line in history and “feel a part of Australia as a nation, in addition to their own first nations”.

Mundine supported Howard’s Intervention in the Northern Territory. He thought it would enable people to own homes and Aboriginal communities could operate like towns with small businesses and commercial activities. He also supported the needs of Aboriginal women and children victims of violence and the objective of getting Aboriginal children back to school. The reason the intervention failed, said Mundine, was it was an “invasion of bureaucrats”.

Mundine was initially excited about Kevin Rudd coming to power in 2007 and worked well with his Indigenous Affairs minister Jenny Macklin. He supported the 2008 Closing The Gap initiative as a scorecard to show if programs were working. Though he believed the way to close the gap was through economic participation and “governments don’t create jobs”.

He supported the Rudd-Gillard era work to shift Indigenous mindsets from welfare dependency to jobs and education. But on other matters he was disappointed in Labor. He said the carbon tax, the mining tax and increased workplace regulation put the brakes on growth and productivity. He made one final attempt to secure a Labor seat in 2012 when Mark Arbib left the Senate but the casual vacancy went to Bob Carr instead despite numerous denials, further damaging his trust in the Labor machine. He resigned his Labor membership that year.

Mundine’s drift to the right continued when he met Elizabeth Henderson at an event organised by the Sydney Institute – run by Elizabeth’s parents, Gerard and Anne Henderson. They worked together and developed a relationship. Mundine also developed a professional relationship with opposition leader Tony Abbott and his chief of staff Peta Credlin accompanying them on a three-day working bee to renovate Aurukun’s library. Aurukun was a tough community with 120 times more murders than the Queensland average. Mundine saw a communal-run town with no commerce, agriculture or tourism and a community “locked in some kind of social and cultural museum”.

In 2012 Mundine had major heart surgery, a “brush with death” the media painted as leading to his departure from Labor. Mundine used his new platform of CEO of Generation One, an Indigenous jobs finding organisation funded by Twiggy Forrest, to frame arguments on home ownership and Aboriginal land. When Abbott was elected in 2013 Mundine chaired a new Indigenous advisory group and pushed his ideas that special governance was only needed for use of traditional lands, native title rights. community assets and heritage but not for regular municipal services.

Mundine spoke weekly with Abbott and they were both focused on practical outcomes in schooling, jobs, business and community safety. An early initiative was Remote School Attendance Strategy which employed attendance officers to work with families to reach the crucial 90% attendance threshold for effective education. But Mundine was frustrated state governments would not provide the information. Mundine also supported cashless welfare. He called encouraging people via welfare payments into long-term poverty “cruel” and authorities needed to stop payments if people refused to participate in job programs.

Abbott went the way of the two previous prime ministers and Mundine found it harder to connect with his replacement Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull was uninterested in Indigenous affairs. When Turnbull called a Royal Commission into the Don Dale detention centre following an ABC report but did nothing over the 75,000 cases of domestic violence in the NT in three years, Mundine said whichever “dickhead” came up with the idea was wasting taxpayers money. Turnbull warned him to back off. Mundine offered his resignation from the Indigenous Advisory Committee, which Turnbull accepted.

Mundine’s book came out before Turnbull went the way of Abbott, Gillard and Rudd. But Mundine’s ideas were increasingly in tune with the Liberals despite his lack of rapport with Turnbull. Scott Morrison did not merit a mention in the book but it is not hard to believe they saw eye to eye on economic development. It’s also not hard to believe Morrison liked the cut of Mundine’s jib. “I like to talk in a way people understand, say sensible things and inject common sensse into a political debate that has become too focused on vested interests and not focused enough on regular people,” he wrote. The people of Gilmore will now have a chance to judge for themselves.