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Bigger citizens and smaller governments: Warren Mundine’s great Australian autobiography

By Sean Jacobs - posted Monday, 15 January 2018

"The first time I was called an 'uptown nigger', writes Warren Mundine, "was thirty years ago when I wore a suit and tie, and attended university." As a former Australian Labor Party president and advisor to conservative prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott, Mundine is not known for pulling his punches.

And it is for two reasons that his candid reflection In Black and White is one of the great Australian autobiographies. First, Mundine does not invite guilt for past decisions regarding black Australia but, in a breath of fresh air, focuses on actually bringing Australians together and finding real, non-government ways for black Australians to prosper and improve. In this respect, he also examines the positive aspects of black advancement prior to the civil rights agenda of the 1960s – a proud history rarely evoked or even known by many Australians.

Second, Mundine's book illustrates the wider and more disastrous effects of being the relentless focus of government attention. Such focus has evolved from policies of excessive segregation and control to affirmative action, identity politics and, most recently, green tape protectionism and a policy obsession with 'activities' rather than outcomes.


Indeed, in reading Mundine's historical account of black-white relations, one cannot help but think of Ronald Reagan's famous statement that "The mostterrifying wordsin the English languageare: I'm from the government and I'm here to help." Reagan's words have become a playful jeer but reflect a heartbreaking reality when looked at through the 'government first' approach directed by successive Australian politicians, policy advisors and non-government groups toward Aboriginal Australia. Here, for example, is Mundine writing about the harmful effects of the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Act

After the Act was passed in 1909, the Board clawed back the independence that many Aboriginal people of New South Wales had obtained in the late 1800s. From the 1880s through to 1919, there were Aboriginal families all across the state who'd set up their own independent farms on reserve land and were beginning to prosper.

Legislative actions like these did not only harm commerce and independence but had a clear impact on jobs. "Today we talk about the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous employment," writes Mundine. "But, until the 1970s, there wasn't really a gap at all in employment participation. Most Aboriginal people worked, many in primary industries in remote regions."

"Poverty wasn't the real harm for Aboriginal people in the centre of state and territory protection regimes," Mundine laments. "The real harm was the suffocating control."

The opposite to government control is, of course, liberty and individual enterprise – two factors that have been indispensable to Australia's success from very humble beginnings. But, as Mundine observes, the insistence on government programming and control endures, even among some of Australia's top business brains who occasionally spend time in remote Aboriginal communities. As he observes

These seasoned, hard-head executives who, in their day jobs, chase profit, expect a return on investment, rely on private-sector capital and decry government over-regulation, stepped into an Aboriginal community and suddenly started talking about the need for government funding and regulation, and advocating for centrally controlled economies.


Liberty in Western democracies carries with it property rights – another factor that has been a cornerstone of Western success. Home ownership, for example, illustrates stewardship of an economic asset. "But, if you are an Aboriginal person whose nation has obtained land rights or native title over your traditional homelands," writes Mundine, "you don't own land. The land is communally owned and your right is to vote at the meetings of whatever statutory body administers the land on behalf of everyone who belongs to that nation." There would be clear uproar if such arrangements were transplanted into the suburbs of mainstream Australia.

And such double-standards, which counter universal impulses of human liberty, have actually long been called out by black Australia. In multiple parts of the book, for example, Mundine references the activists Jack Patten and Bill Ferguson's 1938 manifesto Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights!. "Give us the same chances as yourselves," they both pleaded, "and we will prove ourselves to be just as good, if not better, Australians, than you! Keep your charity! We only want justice." Likewise, they didn't ask for special privilege, or legislative or symbolic change, but only a chance to acquire hard skills and participate in mainstream Australia. "We ask you to teach our people to live in the Modern Age as modern citizens," they write with currency. "Our people are very good and quick learners. Why do you deliberately keep us backward? Is it merely to give yourselves the pleasure of feeling superior? Give our children the same chances as your own, and they will do as well as your children."

Unfortunately, Patten and Ferguson's calls have been buried under more than half a century of sustained thinking that government knows best, which has morphed into a belief that a legislative agenda is the only way to achieve concepts of 'justice' and 'equality'. I know many bright young Australians who, like the business leaders Mundine observes, commit to this same thinking.

One wonders how differently things may have turned out for black Australians without the stunting effects of government action. In addition to prospering farms in the late 1800s, and near full employment, there are so many stories of black advancement that have not been taught or simply avoided to not upset the wayward legacy of the civil rights agenda.

Mundine finishes his reflections on a tough but fortunate life by noting that good ideas by themselves are not enough. They require constant championing. And Mundine has done a service by telling not only a great story but transmitting his ideas. While some of them are uncomfortable they should be heard by more Australians.

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This is a review of In Black and White, by Warren Mundine (Pantera Press, Neutral Bay, 2017)

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About the Author

Sean Jacobs is a former public servant, political adviser and international aid worker. He currently lives in Brisbane.

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