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Book review: Warren Mundine, In Black and White

Monday, 29 January 2018  | Ian Hore-Lacy




In Black and White – race, politics and changing Australia

Warren Mundine (Sydney: Pantera Press, 2017)


This substantial autobiography gives fascinating insight into people, persistent enterprise and politics from an Aboriginal perspective. It comments helpfully on why Aboriginal disadvantage persists and what might be done about it. It provides a warts-and-all portrait of a most impressive leader.

Warren grew up in a fine family in Grafton, then Sydney, with parents who did not accept that their race should be a disadvantage, never ‘accepting anything as being out of reach’. His father’s example in particular made its mark on Warren and his ten siblings, many of them distinguished. Their self-discipline and down-to-earth determination contrast with today’s stereotypes of Aboriginal poverty and chronic welfare dependency.

The main part of the book has anecdotes and commentary on almost every aspect of Aboriginal Australia. From sleeping three to a bed with siblings through the awful racial disparagement through to Warren becoming National President of the Labor Party, there is a rich array of insights and hard-earned wisdom. His comments on why he let his membership of the Party lapse are timely.

Along with his working and political life he documents his series of marriages and relationships, being very frank about lapses and indiscretions, but also showing how faithful character largely transcended those. His commitment to his many children (I think ten) stood out, so that they all are ‘resilient and independent … they work’. He strongly affirms his Aboriginal heritage while also giving account of his Irish Donovan ancestry about three generations back.

The chatty chapter titles and lack of index make it hard to go back and find particular commentary that makes to book so valuable. But his well-founded views on the 1967 referendum, stolen generation reports, Howard’s Northern Territory Intervention (mostly with bipartisan support), Aurukun grog, Wave Hill, home ownership on Aboriginal land, various senior government bodies related to Aboriginal affairs (notably ATSIC and Howard’s NIC which he served on while president of the ALP) and the recent Uluru Statement are illuminating. On the latter, he points out that treaties with a lot of indigenous first nations do not require any referendum.

Mundine’s views on individuals are also interesting – Julia Gillard as warm and friendly and a good indigenous affairs minister followed by scathing assessment of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government, Peta Credlin who made him a birthday cake at Aurukun, Tony Abbott who in 2013 appointed him chair of the Indigenous Affairs Council (IAC) but then undermined him with clumsy rhetoric (a chapter on that!), John Howard who ‘genuinely and deeply wanted to make a difference for Aboriginal people but was also caught up in his Anglophile pride’ which got in the way of making the apology that was left to Rudd, and Nigel Scullion who compensates for Turnbull’s indifference.


Mundine (rightly, I think) labours the point that, despite ‘an almost complete transformation in the attitude of Australian society’ towards Aboriginals, Aboriginal welfare programs have achieved virtually nothing. This he attributes to them being structured around ongoing inputs of money and public service effort without any incentive to really get anything done. ‘There are departments where people have permanent jobs with indefinite terms. The result is whole teams of people charged with fixing a problem, whose long-term employment is tethered to the problem continuing to exist. … Countless Aboriginal programs … operating for years at huge expense. And yet the problems of Aboriginal disadvantage have persisted, and in some cases got worse, over forty years.’ He points to the Closing the Gap initiative kicked off in 2008, unusually with some specific targets, none of which have been achieved and most of which have registered no change.

Mundine is a student of history, learning how nations and cultures have lifted themselves out of poverty and various kinds of oppression. In particular, ‘studying [Japan’s] Meiji Restoration [to 1912] was one of the greatest influences on my thinking and vision for Aboriginal people’. ‘The Jews are another group of people I have drawn inspiration from’ – a people who have gone from huge suffering to thriving and success. ‘I see similarities between Jewish identity and how Aboriginal people identify with their mobs.’ They are ‘a large group of people with common descent, history, culture, language and traditional lands’. Mundine is sanguine about the whole history of Australia from the first fleet or invasion – ‘history is incontrovertible; it can’t be changed or undone. It just is’. And Australian history needs to be taught in full. So we should not ignore the anger and sorrow about the past wrongdoings, but we ‘also can’t be weighed down by it’. In commenting on reconciliation he turns to ‘my Catholic religion’ – being sorry and forgiveness, but discussion tends to be all about the sorry and ‘little if anything about the forgiveness part’.

A sad part of the book is Mundine’s disillusion with the Labor Party resulting in him parting company with it in 2012. ‘I was a Labor man because the Labor Party reflected my values and aspirations’. He came from its traditional base, ‘raised in a working-class family in the country and later western Sydney. Everyone I knew lived in poverty or just above it, were members of a union and voted Labor. These were people with working-class values centred on God, family, work and community’. He describes the defining characteristics of that traditional base as hard work and aspiration. Those people aspired to better lives and they moved ahead, but the Party did not move with them and became disconnected. And union officials have little idea of any real workplace. But over 2007 to 2013 the ‘government attacked the very opportunities and aspirations that the Labor heartland had embraced’, notably the mining and energy industries. Impediments to business success and job creation, coupled with resistance to welfare reform (‘Labor was the workers’ party, not the non-workers’ party’), led him to the conclusion that Labor ‘no longer had a coherent vision for Australia or the political will to see through the reforms necessary to achieve it’. Later he comments is on ‘the Green-left stifling economic opportunities and development’.

After heart surgery in 2012, this impatience about needed reforms intensified and he worked on communicating about Aboriginal issues more effectively. His ‘manifesto’ delivered to the 2013 Garma festival was a landmark. This led to his role as chair of the IAC and insistence that ‘economic participation [should] be the number-one priority in Indigenous Affairs policy’. This meant ‘participating in the real economy by working in a real job or owning and operating a business’, and getting kids to school. Other chronic problems could then be addressed more effectively. He points to his own experience and that in other countries to support his view, and insists on a focus on assessing outcomes to allocate funding.

Commenting ‘that forty years ago, socially progressive governments (both Labor and Liberal) transitioned Aboriginal people – and many other Australians - from work to welfare’, he discusses the problems in reversing that, which he sees as the only way forward for Aboriginal people. Education is a fundamental requirement – he quotes the Forrest Review showing that for those who have completed year 12 there is no disparity in employment levels. It also shows that if a child’s school attendance falls below 90 percent their education is at risk, but that, despite Commonwealth efforts, state governments – notably NSW - have not addressed this. ‘If Aboriginal children don’t attend school, governments might as well stop funding all the other programs and give up trying to close the gap and eliminate disadvantage.’ Abbott agreed with this priority, and in indigenous affairs he ‘left a great legacy’ because of heartfelt conviction. Turnbull then lost the plot, leaving Mundine ‘beyond furious’, and only Nigel Scullion redeems the situation.

Mundine says that ‘I’ve seen a change over the past decade – a complete shift in focus, a bipartisan one – to economic participation. The foundation stones of that were land rights and native title’. He catalogues the many changes and advances for Aboriginal people since his youth, with its institutionalised racism, but laments the rise of identity politics which consolidates a sense of paralysing victimhood for a few. To those ‘I just want to say: “Get a life!”’

The book includes some remarks on Mundine’s Nyungga Black Group, which encourages Aboriginal enterprise contrasted with how ‘the political objectives of Green activists brought about the greatest threat to Aboriginal self-determination in a very long time’. This is particularly through lawfare against Woodside’s proposed James Price gas hub project in WA, pushing the Wild Rivers legislation on Cape York and opposing the Adani coal mine. ‘They are the new colonial oppressors, supported by European and American funders’, denying opportunity for Aboriginal groups to use ‘native title to gain economic benefits that would generate jobs and business opportunities and development’.

Mundine concludes with reflections on the political leadership of Australia over the last ten years and the inexorable rise in national debt since 2009. ‘Our political leaders today lack courage and they lack determination’, which won’t be news to any reader. However, it provides a context for his specifically Aboriginal commentary. ‘You can only lie for so long before the truth catches up with you. We’ve seen this with Australia’s energy crisis’, which is costing jobs in the face of political denial. ‘We are told to listen to the science on climate change but ignore it on nuclear [power].’ Truth matters, and ‘what I loathe most about the current state of political leadership is the lack of honesty’ and the failure ‘to craft a vision and positive narrative around the difficult reform that has to happen’. Meanwhile ‘the foundations that have made Australia a great nation are under threat’, down to the level of families, as state programs with ‘their Orwellian names’ usurp those values. Strong families with responsible parents need to be fought for, and Mundine’s own Aboriginal experience leads him to conclude on that note.

Ian Hore-Lacy is a founding Zadok board member (1978-98), author of Responsible Dominion - a Christian approach to sustainable development, and now Senior Advisor for the World Nuclear Association. He is co-author of Down to Earth Discipleship, a pastoral ‘book’ on the web: www.downtoearthdiscipleship.com.


Comments

Jill England
July 21, 2018, 8:42AM
A great article - thank you. Will buy the book!

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