The launch of Warren Mundine In Black and White, was held in Sydney on 8 November 2017. Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO delivered the following speech at the launch.
Thank you all for coming tonight to the launch of my memoirs Warren Mundine – In Black and White.
Special thanks to Sheila McGregor and Gilbert + Tobin for hosting this event.
We’re here tonight on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people. The Gadigal clan are one of at least 29 clan groups from the Greater Sydney area. The site we’re on was named after Barangaroo who was from another of those clans – the Cammeraygal people. The written accounts of her by the early colonists show Barangaroo was very much her own woman - independent, determined and persuasive and a hunter and provider for her people.
Her second husband was Bennelong, from the Wangal clan, who is of course one of the most well-known Aboriginal men of the early Sydney colony who even travelled to England and had an audience with King George III.
I had hoped my cousin Chicka Madden could do a Welcome to Country tonight but he’s gallivanting around overseas. Taking after his forbear Bennelong I suppose.
So I recognise and pay my respect to Gadigal elders past and present, including Chicka. I also want to acknowledge my own Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and Yuin ancestors and elders. And of course my Irish ancestors.
* * *
This book has been a long time in the making.
The idea for the book itself was seeded in my mind in 2012 when, my friend - and now publisher - John Green suggested I should write my memoirs. At the time he said something about George W. Bush and hamburger moments. I didn’t quite understand what he was getting at. Still don’t to be honest. But I did put something in the book about eating echidnas so I hope it hit the spot.
The idea might have stayed on the pile of great ideas that people like myself think up but don’t find the time to execute. Except that I went home and told Elizabeth. She thought it was an excellent idea. I’m a good Aussie male so I said “Yes Boss”. A few years later I finally got down on paper an outline of what I wanted to say, I took it back to John. And we went from there.
It was a lot harder than I thought to extract my thoughts and experiences from deep within me onto the pages of this book. But I did it and now, 5 years later, here we are tonight with a real, proper book. It’s on sale here at a very reasonable price before Christmas.
In truth my memoir has had a far longer gestation. It’s a story about what made me who I am today – the people, the ideas, the experiences that all came together to make me who I am. So it’s been six decades in the making. But even longer than that.
The book itself reaches all the way back to the ancient influences of Bundjalung and Gumbaynggirr kinship systems, through to the first contact between my ancestors and the first Europeans to make their way to northern New South Wales, through to my family’s experience during the near century of segregation under the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Act, through my early years in country NSW and then Western Sydney and my decades working in community, in business and then in politics, through to today where someone like me – who spent the first 13 years of my life living under segregation – advises Prime Ministers and represents Australia at the UN and OECD.
My Dad was a Mundine and my Mum was a Donovan. The Mundine and Donovan families modelled courage and pride in everything they did. Both my parents and me and all my brothers and sisters were born into segregation. We were second class citizens regulated under the Aborigines Protection Act.
Mum and Dad had to fight battles just to do normal things that others took for granted. Like sending their kids to school and buying a home. Dad was once arrested coming home late from work because Aboriginal people weren’t allowed to out after 5pm.
But my parents had the courage to face the reality around them. As it was. Not how they wished it to be. And they had pride in themselves and in their kin to believe they could achieve. They believed Aboriginal people could do anything if given the chance. And their children and grandchildren have proved them right.
My book covers a lot of history. It reflects my understanding, from what I experienced myself, from what my family has talked to me about and from research and study. Some of that research surprised me. I learned a lot about my family history that I didn’t know before, as well as about Australian history and politics. There will be a few surprises in there for the readers. It wouldn’t be my book if I didn’t slay some sacred cows. This is my memoir – it reflects my perspective and my understanding of the way things have been. And by understanding that, you will come to understand me.
Stan Grant has written a beautiful foreword to the book. In it he describes this book as my song. That word has particular meaning for Aboriginal people which I talk about in the book. Songlines were for traditional Aboriginal societies what books are for our society. They were everything from stories, histories, entertainment and advice. And that is what this memoir is. It sets out all the experiences and learning that has shaped me, my outlook on life, my vision for Aboriginal people and also my vision for Australia.
I am proud to be a Bundjalung man. I’m proud of my Gumbaynggirr, Yuin – and Irish – heritage. I’m also proud to be Australian. And I’m proud of Australia. I say that in my book. And I acknowledge that some people will hear those two sentences and wince. They’ll wonder how an Aboriginal man could be proud to be Australian and proud of Australia when he, his family and his ancestors were treated so badly in its history.
I’m very honest about those bad experiences in the book too. I lay it all out there. Ray Hadley read the manuscript and provided a review which is on the book’s cover. After he read it he called me and he said he found the first part of the book very hard to read. But he pushed on – and I urge you to as well. It gets better. Otherwise we wouldn’t be standing here today.
No nation in the world has been founded on purity. Even those nations that are the great models of liberty, justice and enlightenment have bloody and brutal histories. Human history is a record … of humans: the brutality of which humans are capable and also the incredible capacity of humans to advance, to learn from wrongdoing, to build better societies and to improve the quality of all life.
I don’t judge a nation by the worst of its history but by how it overcomes the worst of its history and by its vision for the future. And on that measure I judge Australia well.
* * *
There was a second inspiration for this book - my frustration, sometimes despair, at the state of Australian political leadership. In 2014 I read Colin Powell’s book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership. I came across a passage that hit me like a bolt of lightning:
“No good idea succeeds simply because it is a good idea. Good ideas must have champions – people willing to believe in them, push for them, fight for them, gain adherents and other champions, and press until they succeed … Bad ideas don’t die simply because they are intrinsically bad. You need people who will stand up and fight them, put themselves at risk, point out the weaknesses, and drive stakes through their hearts.”
To me, these words summarise Australia’s crisis of political leadership.
Political leaders today lack courage and they lack determination. They don’t have the courage or determination to champion what they know is needed to fix Australia’s problems and secure Australia’s future success. They are not championing good ideas and pressing them until they succeed. And they don’t fight the damaging, and sometimes downright stupid, policies and practices that are beginning to take hold. They are not driving a stake through the heart of bad ideas.
Great political leaders have a clear vision of what they want for their country and where the country fits within the world. Great political leaders articulate the destination and why it’s important to reach it. They say, “This is where I’m going to take you and this is how I’m going to take you there.”
For over a decade now, we’ve seen political leaders paralyzed and afraid. Afraid to upset some noisy interest group. Afraid to make some part of the community unhappy. Afraid to take anything away, regardless of whether it’s affordable or actually achieving anything. Afraid to make people do things they might not want to do. Afraid to make a “gaff” that will linger on social media. Afraid the media will ask, “Can you guarantee no one is worse off?” Because you never can.
Australia’s political leaders are telling people what they want to hear instead of what they need to know. And what people need to know is that Australia is in need of economic and political reform.
Political leaders tell us the government can keep borrowing money, even to pay for regular, everyday government expenses like pensions. Political leaders tell us Australians can enjoy the same standard of living indefinitely and our system of social support isn’t under threat, even as more and more Australians collect more in benefits than they pay in tax, which will only balloon as the population gets older. Political leaders tell us they can introduce big-spending initiatives and figure out how to pay for them later, burying the costs in the never-never. These are lies.
Another big lie is more government spending means better outcomes. This narrative is straight from the Indigenous Affairs playbook. For decades, governments have spent money to remedy Aboriginal disadvantage with little to show for it. Now it’s happening in other areas. In education, for example, there’s been a measurable decline in Australian education performance despite massive education funding increases. Funding and education performance in Australia have, in fact, been negatively correlated. Political parties jockey to spend the most and therefore be seen as the best. It’s one of the reasons Australia has massive debt in the first place.
You can only lie for so long before the truth catches up with you. We’ve seen this with Australia’s energy crisis. Because political leaders have been telling us that Australia can switch to or adopt 50 per cent, even 100 per cent wind and solar energy without suffering in our standard of living and without damaging our economy. This is another lie.
Political leaders around the world don’t have a policy to de-carbonise energy without de-industrialising and de-technologising the economy. They may not admit it but that’s the logical extension of their policies. This will make us all poorer. Energy abundance, economic growth and innovation are bound up together.
Finally, listening to Australia’s political leaders you’d think the reforms of the Hawke–Keating and Howard governments were a one-off that set Australia up indefinitely for the future. That’s another lie.
The need for change and reform never goes away. Every government needs a reform agenda. There’s no plateau where governments can take a rest, where the need for reform ends. The world is always changing and today it’s changing at a much faster pace than before. The policies and operations of government need to constantly adapt to these changes.
Political leaders are being led by the noise from the crowd, not leading the crowd where it needs to go. This is driven by politicians concerned about their popularity. Yet political leaders have never been so unpopular in all the time I can remember. And that’s because people believe our political leaders are driven by self-interest rather than a vision for Australia's prosperity.
The debacle over section 44 of the constitution only reinforces that belief. It's one thing that some politicians may have unwittingly found themselves to be dual citizens. The bigger concern is the major parties have been ducking and weaving to avoid accountability, steadfastly resisting an audit of all MPs' and senators' eligibility to represent us.
Rather than uphold the fabric of Australia's system of government, they've been hoping to get away with willful blindness.
Last week our Prime Minister said:
"What is an audit? Does that mean somebody is going to undertake extensive genealogical research on every member of parliament and senator? Undertake extensive research into foreign laws?"
Yes, Prime Minister. If that's what's required.
Native title claimants are subject to extensive genealogical research to prove they are descended from the original owners of land. If it’s good enough for the blackfellas, why not the politicians. And the Australian government only has to ask and foreign embassies will help ensure a speedy confirmation of foreign citizenship status. It's not that hard. And even if it is, Australia's constitution and the integrity of our parliament is worth it.
But no. Months have passed with the major parties expecting us to rely on politicians speaking up if they might be in breach of the constitution.
Last week the Prime Minister only dug in harder saying:
"The constitution is very clear, every member and every senator has an obligation to comply with it, … The High Court has clarified the meaning of Section 44 and it is up to senators and members to satisfy themselves they are in compliance."
He said the burden is on accusers to prove ineligibility. And parliamentarians should challenge anyone they believe is ineligible and convince the parliament to refer the case to the High Court.
When it comes to the rest of us, self-regulation works on a "trust and verify" basis. We're trusted to do the right thing but authorities routinely check if we have. If problems emerge, we know to expect a full audit. That's how government treats us in regards to tax and welfare. We expect no different of politicians in regards to the constitution.
The Prime Minister’s supposed solution announced on Monday and delivered under pressure, frankly doesn’t fix this problem. A vast amount of legalese embedded in a convoluted process which basically amounts to parliamentarians making declarations (which they’ve effectively already made) to the best of their knowledge (which the High Court has said is irrelevant).
I mean, what are we to make of a requirement that parliamentarians declare the place and date of their birth “so far as they are aware”? Is there a single parliamentarian who doesn’t know where and when they were born?
This so-called solution will deliver continued instability for months with a daily doses of accusations feeding mounting community distrust and contempt.
The arrogance of politicians in this sorry affair is palpable. The Prime Minister believes politicians are only answerable to themselves. And if anyone doubts their judgment or veracity they can go and prove it in the High Court.
Yet the Stephen Parry debacle shows us they can’t be trusted to speak up – about themselves or anyone else – and that their knowledge and awareness doesn’t give us any comfort that the constitution is being complied with.
Then when media challenges individual cases, they are accused of a witch hunt. That’s just an “up yours” to the Australian people. Witches don’t exist. There are none to be found. But we know there are ineligible parliamentarians. We’ve found 6 of them so far. And counting.
Even more astonishing is the suggestion last week that parliamentarians will not be required to repay their salaries – even for any periods they knew they weren’t eligible but stayed on anyway. No welfare recipient gets out of repaying – even if they made a genuine mistake.
It’s beholden upon the parliamentarians – all of them – to give the Australian people confidence that our constitution is being upheld.
Both Labor and the Coalition have been pathetic on this issue. But the Prime Minister leads the government and it’s up to him to show leadership in this area. Not hide behind legal niceties and hope that the issue will go away. It won’t.
Make no mistake. This is the Turnbull Government having its Mike Baird greyhounds moment.
The Constitution is the foundation of Australia's identity. Australians are subject to the constitution, not the other way around. You might not like section 44 but it's not an optional requirement.
There’s another thing most political leaders don’t like to talk about. And that is that the foundations that have made Australia a great nation are under threat. At their core, the Western principles that underpin Australia are ideas. Good ideas. And they need champions. They won’t survive simply because they are good.
There are many threats to those principles. There are people who want to undermine and displace them. There are competing and inconsistent ideas that cannot be reconciled with Western principles, and at some point we may have to make a choice.
When I see intellectuals and commentators, educated people, question democracy because they don’t like the candidate who was elected, for example. Or when I see university students, at institutions I’ve always revered, violently protesting against free speech because they don’t like what someone has to say. Or when I see Christians being fired from their jobs or pushed out of office or made to leave a pub because they don’t support certain changes to marriage laws. Or when I see a politician flirt with the idea of making blasphemy illegal.
These are examples of threats to the principles and institutions that make Australia great. These threats are examples of bad ideas that won’t die simply because they are intrinsically bad.
Just as the principles and institutions on which Australia was founded will not prevail simply because they are good.
Australians and Australian political leaders must stand up and fight for the principles and institutions that make Australia a great nation. This includes giving us the confidence that section 44 of our constitution is being upheld. And they must drive a stake through the heart of those threats.
I have more faith in Australians than the average political leader does today. I believe if people understand why something is important, they’ll tolerate governments doing what needs to be done, even with some pain along the way.
And I know that most Australians believe strongly in the good Western principles on which Australia has been founded. Political leaders should have no fear in standing up for them.
Remember, no good idea succeeds simply because it is a good idea. Good ideas must have champions – people willing to believe in them, push for them, fight for them, gain adherents and other champions, and press until they succeed.
It takes courage, but Australia’s future depends on it. And I hope my book inspires some of that courage.
* * *
At the end of the book is a long Acknowledgments section. There are many people who deserve thanks and credit for making this memoir a reality and they are mentioned there. So don’t put the book down until you’ve read that part of it.
Tonight I want to call out for special mention a few people.
Firstly, my wife Elizabeth. Without her this book would not have been written. The way I describe it is that if this book was a movie, Elizabeth would be its producer. As always, she drove me mad with her questions but it’s good she did or the book would be a lot shorter. And, despite all of this, and thanks to therapy, we are still married.
Secondly to my publisher Pantera Press and its extended team especially the Green family – John, Ali, Martin and Jenny. And also a big thank you to Maddy Konstantinidis from Pantera who has organised and coordinated all of my media and publicity and put tonight’s great event together.
I spoke to some other publishers too before deciding to go with Pantera. And the reason I went with Pantera is they understood I didn’t just want to write a political memoir with juicy gossip for political insiders. I wanted to tell a story. A story about Australia, a story about my family and particularly my incredible parents, Roy Mundine and Olive Donovan.
Mum and Dad are the two people who deserve the greatest acknowledgement in inspiring this book. They were just ordinary people with ordinary aspirations. But, really, they were extraordinary.
And I’ve dedicated the book to them.
ngunya Bithungir whuthungu
ngulla gumbu wullani Babadani ngadja Bugilwernbi
Which in English means:
To my parents.
Their Catholic faith in God and family carried me throughout my life.
Warren Mundine In Black and White is published by Pantera Press, rrp $45, available in all good bookstores and online.
Warren Mundine - In Black and White
8 November 2017