There’s A Better Way Forward

25 March 2024
There’s A Better Way Forward - Featured image

Aboriginal people realise the best way out of poverty is through employment, argues businessman and Bundjalung man Nyunggai Warren Mundine.

The archives of Yulgilbar cattle station, where my family worked since the 1840s, include a photo taken around 1919 to 1920. In this photo (shown on my phone, left, and in full later in this article) of a family gathering on the station, the bloke at the back left holding the baby is my grandfather Harry Mundine and the baby is my father Roy, who was born 1 January 1919. My grandmother Lily is standing next to them and some of my Dad’s siblings are among the children. One of the things I look at is how this is like a time machine as well. Those two old women in the front look like they are in their late 50s or 60s or even probably older, which means they were probably born in the 1850s or 1860s. What a life and what a change they would have witnessed in their time on this Earth!

That photo sits on my computer, my iPad, and my phone, and it is something that guides me every time I turn my computer on or I turn my phone on or I turn my iPad on, because it reminds me of where I come from. It reminds me of the people who worked hard and fought hard so I can enjoy the life that I enjoy today because of their battles. They are very amazing people, because they always said to me:

Never, ever be a victim, never be a victim, always strive in life for betterment for yourself and your family, and fight for equality.

When that photo was taken, soon after World War I, there were many discriminatory laws in Australia: we cannot dismiss that fact. We had the Aborigines Protection Act 1909 in New South Wales and various versions of that across Australia, and we had the Aborigines Protection Board and then the Aborigines Welfare Board in NSW as well as various other things.

I was approached by Melbourne University Press (MUP) when I began writing what became my bestselling book In Black + White. This was after I quit the Labor Party in 2012, and MUP thought I could write a book about politics in Australia. I thought what they really wanted was for me to talk about dirt and stuff like that; but I did not want to talk about that. I wanted to tell a story of Australia, using myself and my family as the performers in that story. There was a bloke by the name of Edward Ogilvie who came up to my country, Bundjalung country in northern New South Wales, and that was in the late 1830s. He was a bit of a visionary, he was also a bit of a rogue, but one thing he did was to sit down with one of my ancestors and they came to an agreement. They decided together what is Aboriginal land and what the cattle station is going to do.

Menzies gave full voting rights to Aboriginals.

My family worked on that cattle station from the 1840s. One day when I was in Federal parliament, the former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson walked past me then stopped and said “Warren”. I said, “What?” He said, “We come from the same place” and I thought he must have been talking about Western Cork because one of my ancestors was Irish. (Western Cork is where Michael Collins was shot, so one of my ancestors probably shot him.)

Anderson said, “No, Yulgilbar cattle station,” and I said, “Oh, how did you know about it?” and he said, “I’m a descendant from Edward Ogilvie,” and I said, “Wow, how you going, cousin?” Because as I said about Edward, he was a bit of a rogue, he had an Aboriginal wife for about 30 years. This journey we travelled upon and we saw things happening in Australia, and as the colony expanded and things moved forward, some falsehoods that have been talked about in this Voice campaign I would like to dispel at the beginning of my talk, and that is Aboriginals had the voting right before 1967. It was Menzies who in 1962 gave full voting rights to Aboriginals at the Federal level, but voting rights also existed before that, depending on the geography where you were and the time.

New South Wales, for instance, had voting rights from when elections were first set up because for the elections—sorry ladies, you had to be male—you had to be over 21, and you had to be a British subject. Aboriginals in NSW had been voting since the 1850s. In fact when I was researching my book, I found in the archives rolls of my grandparents and great-grandparents actually voting around 1913 and 1900. South Australia was the same in the 1890s, and women were given the vote too. For the 1901 Federal elections, there were polling booths on Aboriginal reserves for Aboriginal women and men alike to vote.

That led, of course, to women in other States complaining, “Well, how come Aboriginals can vote in South Australia, but we can’t?”. From 1902 onwards, women got the vote in Australia. However, Queensland took the vote away from Aboriginals in 1885 and Western Australia denied Aboriginals the vote in 1893. These two States did not restore Aboriginal voting rights until prime minister Robert Menzies put the pressure on them, with Western Australia extending the State vote to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in 1962 and Queensland being the last State to grant this right in 1965.

When people talk about the Constitution, I always think about the Constitution as a document that is a journey that provides a vision for a nation. The Declaration of Independence in the United States says, and this is not the full wording, that all men—sorry ladies, you missed out again—were equal under God. Slave owners created that, but it was not about them being slave owners then: they saw a vision for their nation, that everyone would be equal under God. It was a discussion they had for many years, and even ended up in a Civil War and then the civil rights movement, so there was a vision.

Yes, our Constitution had some racial clauses but after World War II there was a movement, mainly founded by military people. After serving in Papua New Guinea and being in prisoner-of-war camps in Changi and on the Burma railway and fighting in North Africa and Greece with their fellow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers, the soldiers who served with them came back after the War and found out they were not allowed to have a beer with them. They were not very happy about that, and this is when you started to get the campaign for full citizenship rights for Aboriginals. We were citizens, but we were second-class citizens.

No race ever got out of poverty without commercial activities.

So it was a bloke by the name of Paul Hasluck, a man of vision who, during World War II, actually undertook Aboriginal Studies and learned about Aboriginal people. He was a very keen man who worked with Menzies and he made it very clear in the late 1950s and the early 1960s to the States and Territories, because they had the laws that controlled Aboriginal people, that they have to change, that Aboriginal people could not be treated as second-class citizens anymore. They needed to have all the rights.

Family gathering at Yulgilbar cattle station, Baryulgil, circa 1920. Top left: Warren Mundine’s grandfather Harry Mundine, holding Warren’s father Roy Mundine, born 1 January 1919.
Photo: Yulgilbar Archives

The Menzies government took that up with a cudgel and beat State governments over the head. So, the 1967 Referendum was about equality and about getting race out of the Constitution.Within four years of that 1967 Referendum, all the race laws in Australia disappeared, all the discriminatory laws. In fact, the last one in NSW was withdrawn in 1969 and then we went through a process of equality. How do we bring our Aboriginal brothers and sisters and Torres Strait Islanders to enjoy the fruits of citizenship of Australia?

When I was a kid in the 1960s, I remember Charles Perkins and John Moriarty came to our town on their Freedom Rides. I remember my parents and my elders in our community talking, “Wow, these two Aboriginal men, they’ve actually been to university.” And we as kids thought, “Wow, that must be really important. What’s a university?”

Now we have doctors, engineers, accountants, professors, professors of surgery, professors of law, professors of medicine. We have a whole wide range of people now and even lawyers. I don’t know if that helps civilisation, but anyway. Or even worse, yes, we even have Aboriginals in the Parliament now: politicians! But it was a journey. So for the last 50 years—56 years since the 1967 Referendum—the journey was about equality for all, about equality for opportunities. You cannot make people equal but you can open up opportunities for people, and they can grasp those opportunities or not, and that is all you can do in a society. Some people will be mad like myself and they want to run a business, and other people will just want a job, and so on.

So here was this incredible journey we have gone on and we have Aboriginal medical services, Aboriginal legal services, and since 1973 we have had advisory boards to government. Currently, there are about 1,000 Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders sitting on these boards advising government.

In fact, I chaired one of those committees: I had the flash title of the Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council. One thing we looked at was the Closing the Gap program, and I was an advisor to Malcolm Turnbull and to Tony Abbott; where was the economics in this? Where was economic development and where was business development? Because going by my readings in those areas I do not know of any race of people in the history of the world having ever got out of poverty without having an economy, businesses, and commercial activities.

When Tony Abbott approached me to do that, I said I want it to be an economic committee. So everything we did—whether it was health, education, whatever—had to be focused on that issue of economic development in Aboriginal communities and the Torres Strait Islands. We even tweaked the Native Title Act and the Land Rights Act so Aboriginal people could own their own homes on their own land, because we were in the bizarre position of Aboriginal people—even some Aboriginal people who worked in the mining industry and huge wages—could not own their own home.

That was one of the things that changed my life and my family’s life. After my father came back from World War II, Mum and Dad wanted to buy a house like every other Australian but at the time he was on an Aboriginal allowance. He did not get to receive a full wage, but he did not sit back and take that. He actually fought it and finally got paid a full wage and in 1947, my Dad and Mum bought a house.

Buying a house changed our lives.

That little thing of buying a house changed our lives. We had a place where we could go every day. It was safe. It was a place for the family to be and live. It was a place that was an asset for us and we grew up thinking that was normal. So the first thing I did when I left school was I worked in three jobs to raise my deposit and bought a house myself. This is a generational thing. My kids have bought houses. My kids also run businesses, and they do these things because they grew up thinking it was normal to do these things.

This is the journey we have been going on as a country. I have a little saying, I have a lot of little sayings, but one of them is, “I don’t know any country in the world that had a very good beginning”—no matter what, no matter how old they are or whatever, whether it was revolution or whatever. But what I judge a country on is how it overcomes its beginning, how it sets its vision for the future of what sort of nation that it wants to be and how its people are going to be treated.

We always hear this stuff about Australia being a racist country and a good mate of mine, Anthony Dillon, always points out on Twitter, “Name a law that is against Aboriginal people.” There are none. We have not had one since 1970.

In fact, we have done other things. We have set up land rights, we have set up native title. And when you look at that, more than 50 per cent of Australia’s landmass is now owned by Aboriginal people.

So this is the journey that we are going on and I predict in the next few years, that figure of Aboriginal ownership will probably reach 70 per cent. It is about us; everyone being treated equal and about every citizen now having the same opportunities.

Millions of people want to come to this country. We have seen them come here in the millions since World War II and all the migrants who come here—including refugees escaping Europe and other places around the world—and they helped build this economy, they worked hard. Some of them did not have their qualifications recognised, so they worked in factories and they did things and they got their qualifications finally recognised.

And people are getting on boats to come to this country, risking their lives. You started with the Vietnamese after the Vietnamese War and you have seen other groups of people doing the same things, risking their life to come here. They are not risking their lives to come here so they could be racially abused and treated as second-class citizens. They see something that we have sort of lost in Australia. They see Australia as a country of freedom and liberty. They see Australia with free speech. They see Australia with opportunities, economic opportunities, education opportunities, and things their kids can live on and go well.

Let me tell you about two of the things we did when I was chair of the Indigenous Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. One was that we took 150 Aboriginal programs and we put them into five categories: economics, land, employment, health, and education. That saved $56 million in paperwork, which provided funding to put back into the indigenous space to spend on other things. We set up the business economy strategy, which started in July 2015. There was $6.2 million in contracts going to Aboriginal businesses at that time. As of a month ago, it is an $8.7 billion economy. It has created over 45,000 new jobs for Aboriginal people, with 36 per cent of those in regional and remote Australia. More than 3,600 businesses were created.

This is the future. This is how you break down poverty. You give someone a job; you get investment on indigenous lands where they can build businesses and they can do things. So there are a number of things we need to do, and one is to get back to the journey we started in 2017 about tweaking the Land Rights Act and Native Title Act so people can actually get to own their own houses.

Aboriginal people now realise that the only way they can get out of poverty is through projects and things happening on the land. The mining industry is the biggest employer of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, so when a person in Sydney or Melbourne tells you that Aboriginals hate mining it is clear they do not have a clue what they are talking about.

You have to be a skilled worker for these jobs. You have to have a university degree or a trade to work in these areas. That is why we must continue this journey, because the Voice is not going to fix anything. It will just create more bureaucracy. The campaign for the Voice is spending $380 million, and that is after the $50 million spent already and $50 million more we are going to spend after the referendum. That is $480 million we would love to invest in education and many other things that Aboriginal people actually need.

Employment provides the best future for Aboriginal people.
Photo: Bunzl Safety and Lifting

We have fought for equality. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders fought for equality and we got it and we won after the 1967 Referendum. We need to keep equality. We do not want to put race back into the Constitution. We do not want one group of people having special powers over another group of people. We want to be treated like everyone else and we want to have those opportunities that citizenship provides to everyone in this country. Thank you very much. I will leave it at that.

This essay is an approved edited version of a speech by Warren Mundine to IPA Members and guests in Melbourne on 14 June, 2023.

Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO is a highly respected and influential businessman, political strategist and advocate for empowering the First Nations of Australia to build businesses and sustainable economies. His life and career have been shaped by a personal commitment to community and economic development. Warren has over four decades of experience working in the public, private and community sectors. He has advised successive Australian governments since 2004, including as Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council from 2013 to 2017. Warren is a member of the Bundjalung First Nation of Australia and a descendant of the Gumbaynggirr and Yuin First Nations of Australia.

This article from the Summer 2023 edition of the IPA Review is written by businessman and Bundjalung man Nyunggai Warren Mundine.

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