Warren Mundine in Black + White

‘Race Politics and Changing Australia.’

In this book, Nyunggai Warren Mundine sets out to tell a story. It’s a story about his own life, about his family and about Australian politics. It’s also about the process and progress of change, about history, and some of the barriers to success.

As I read the book, I was reminded that until 1967 that aspects of life for many Aboriginal people were controlled by the state or territory in which they lived. I was reminded (again) of the harm such control can do. How do people learn to take responsibility, to manage their affairs when they have no autonomy?

Mr Mundine writes:

‘After the 1967 referendum, Aboriginal people started to receive equal pay across the board through a combination of changes to laws and industrial decisions over about a decade. For some regional industries, like the pastoral industry, this meant a huge jump in expenses. Most Aboriginal people in those industries had never actually received equal wages. Instead of getting a pay increase, they lost their jobs and were kicked off their lands. The pastoralists lost a cheap source of labour and weren’t willing or able to pay them full wages.

At the same time, Aboriginal people gained rights to government benefits, which previously they weren’t entitled to. So those who lost their jobs became full-time welfare recipients .’

I wasn’t aware of this. In 1967, I was a school child living in regional Tasmania. I’d been taught that we no longer had any Tasmanian Aborigines. But in the early 1970s I saw a massive growth in unemployment in Tasmania. Consequently, some of those who became welfare recipients have never been employed since, and this unemployment is now in the third generation for some. Yes, I can see the issue. The longer people are unemployed, the harder it becomes to get employment.

‘Ultimately, the key to tackling long-term unemployment among Aboriginal people is the same as for anyone else. You have to address long-term welfare dependency .’

Some people lose motivation, others try harder. Mr Mundine draws on his own experience of recovering from injury to demonstrate this.

I was particularly interested in what Mr Mundine had to say about Aboriginal incarceration rates. If what he says is true, then surely, we need to focus more on addressing the causes (violence) rather than the consequences (incarceration).

‘High incarceration rates and the epidemic of violence and abuse are two sides of the same coin.
The disparity in Aboriginal incarceration rates overwhelmingly comes down to two things – violence and reoffending. Most Aboriginal prisoners are incarcerated for violent offences and, contrary to myth, only a tiny proportion for traffic and public order offences. Aboriginal people are grossly overrepresented among those incarcerated for violent offences. They are also disproportionately victims of those offences .’

Other issues Mr Mundine raises includes the influence of Green groups in preventing the traditional owners on Cape York from building a real economy . I’m not across the details, but it strikes me as ironic that Green groups would think that traditional owners couldn’t be trusted to manage the land they were custodians of for thousands of years.

There’s much more to Nyunggai Warren Mundine’s story than I can touch on here. It’s a personal story by a great Australian, it’s inspiring and thoughtful. His story touches on successes and failures, and challenges some of what I thought I knew to be fact. Finally, and importantly, it’s a tribute to his parents and their lives.

As Mr Mundine writes:

‘We must not tolerate a narrative that says failure is “cultural” and achievement is “white”.’

I recommend this book to every Australian.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith