Soon-to-be president of the ALP and current member of the National Indigenous Council, Warren Mundine... he’s a recent recipient of an award from the Bennelong Society, a right-wing think-tank which claims to foster debate about Aboriginal economic independence

How to lose friends and influence people

29th September 2005

The big orange bus just reached the end of the road. This past five weeks the fourteen tonne vehicle has criss-crossed five and half thousand kilometres of New South Wales promoting the rights of workers, black and white.

The Rights at Work bus has been employed by Unions NSW to travel up hill and down dale in a campaign against the Howard Government’s proposed industrial relations changes.

Box Seat has been charting its progress courtesy of the e-letter, Workers Online, a regular drop into my inbox.

Workers Online says the bus was meant to leave more than awareness behind... and it appears it did. Thousands of workers attended meetings convened in more than 40 regional towns. There are now some 40 local campaign committees working to organise the fight against Howard’s proposed IR revolution.

Workers Online says trade unionism is emerging publicly for the first time in many decades in many conservative country towns.

One hope’s it’s true.

The bus was even blessed in Bathurst.

Local preacher Adrian Horgan was so outraged by Telstra’s treatment of its call centre staff he cut a radio advertisement to promote the travelling Rights At Work campaign.

He was on hand when the bus pulled into Bathurst along with a host of workers who detailed a litany of complaints about not being able to access sick leave under a new Australian Workplace Agreement.

They included one woman who turned up for work after being denied sick leave, only to collapse on the job. That leg of the trip started in Sydney and wound its way down to Wollongong, down the coast to Merimbula then back up the mountain, through Cooma, Queanbeyan and Goulburn.

One of the passengers, Nathan Brown, reported encountering people “... as diverse as the land we travelled through”.

“Teachers, nurses, retirees, casual workers, council workers, dock workers and warehouse workers were some of the people that had turned up to the meetings,” he said.

“The feeling from everyone who spoke and attended the meetings was that they had not voted for the changes. In electorates dominated by conservatives, people wanted to know why their representatives were pushing ahead with reforms that weren’t even mentioned before they went to the ballot boxes.

“Unfortunately, no Coalition members turned up to the meetings, despite being invited: prior arrangements was the main reason given.”

I don’t know if an invitation went to the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews, the bloke charged with selling the new IR regime.

Doubtless an apology would have been tendered. Kevin’s a busy man.

As we noted in the last Box Seat he recently had the honour of presenting the Bennelong Medal to incoming ALP President, Warren Mundine.

The Bennelong Society website does not explain what one has to achieved to be considered for award honours so we must assume Mundine has been rewarded for his public advocacy on behalf of John Howard as a member of his hand-picked National Indigenous Council.

It was too close to deadline last issue to provide any details of the award ceremony.

I’ve since caught up with events.

Kevin gave a long speech leading in to his presentation to Mr Mundine, “... a truly inspirational man”.

He told the gathering the case for “... reforming Australia’s welfare system from one of purely entitlements and inability to one of capacity, opportunity, incentives and responsibilities has been a long-time coming”.

“If I were to nominate one group of leaders who have agitated policy makers into action,” he added, “it would have (to be) found among Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. This trailblazing leadership has forcefully put the moral case for reform.”

He commended the Bennelong Society for “... generating debate on the economic opportunities available to Indigenous Australians living in remote Australia,” before turning to matters at hand.

“Another individual who has been generating debate on economic independence in Indigenous communities is this year’s Bennelong Medal recipient, Mr Warren Mundine,” he said.

“I have to be very selective when I commend members of the Australian Labor Party.

“If I do it too often, I may find myself out of a job at the next election. But seriously though, Warren has been a brave advocate for change.

“What makes Warren different though is that he puts forward practical solutions rather than simply heckling from the sidelines. His proposal to change the way community-owned land is controlled was aimed quite squarely at improving the wealth and well-being of his people.

“His representation on the new National Indigenous Council surprised many.

“However, this one time football coach rose through the ranks of the Dubbo City Council, and then through the ranks of the ALP to display a tremendous ability to motivate people into action.

“At a time Indigenous Australians are looking for inspirational leadership, I am honoured to present to you a truly inspirational man, the 2005 Bennelong Medal winner, Mr Warren Mundine....”

Mundine’s acceptance of the award motivated a number of people into action.

Mostly against him.

But we will come to that.

Mundine had a different message for Indigenous leaders. He delivered a speech as light on content as a cotton ball.

But he managed to put himself squarely to the right of Minister Andrews.

Mundine said it was unfortunate but there “... has now developed a group of Indigenous Australians who claim leadership of our people who wish also to preserve us as museum pieces as well as keep us locked in poverty and socially dysfunctional communities. It keeps them in a job.”


Mundine’s gig at the Bennelong Society raised more than a few eyebrows but he doesn’t appear to care.

He’s fully conscious of his unique ability to lose friends trying to influence people.

His speech was duly reported in The Australian which has declared him a member of the new “radical centre” of Aboriginal leaders.

The criticism of his decision to accept the Bennelong Medal, and speak to it, inspired a follow up piece in The Australian.

It began with an admission he loses friends whenever he declares his priorities for ending Aboriginal poverty, such as his rights-busting agenda on private land ownership.

“I have lost some dear lovely people (in the Indigenous community) who have disagreed with me very strongly on this and I’ll be quite honest that has caused me a lot of heartache,” he told the newspaper.

But he pledged to fight on for his strong beliefs in fixing the problems afflicting Aboriginal Australia “... through private land ownership and zero tolerance of criminal behaviour”, even if it did mean “... I end up with no friends”.

Predictably, the article reported, some in the ALP want him to step down from the NIC before he becomes Labor’s national president in January next year.

The article carries statements from Linda Burney, Tom Calma and Phil Lockyer, who co-ordinates the NSW-based Indigenous Labor Network, expressing increasing concern about Mundine’s political views.

The article talks of his increasing alienation from the Aboriginal community in NSW.

“People are really upset about it,” says one Indigenous source from NSW, “People feel like he is doing John Howard’s work.”

But it contains a stirring defence of the man by NSW ALP Secretary Mark Arbib who sees no inherent conflict of interest between Mundine’s ALP leadership and his possie on the NIC.

“Warren Mundine is an outstanding party official,” he declared. “He has strong beliefs and convictions about the Indigenous community and has a right to take a stand,” Arbib tells The Australian.

“The great thing about the ALP is that it accepts a diversity of views and is not afraid of robust debate.” Resignation from the NIC is a “matter for Warren to consider”.

No-one should be afraid of robust debate or a diversity of views... but hold the phone.

Mundine was elected to his position within the ALP in the first ever rank and file ballot of ALP members for the position of National President. As such, he will be the chief party spokesperson for the membership come January. He set out his principles in a candidate statement released before the ballot. Chief among them was a pledge to work towards party unity and the defeat of John Howard. He appears to be failing miserably on both counts.

It’s a bizarre strategy; the Bennelong Medal a bizarre prize.

It’s join them to beat them. How absurd.

Isn’t it time someone in the ALP came to their senses and tapped Mundine on the shoulder. Andrews and the Bennelong boys must still be chortling. The message to Mundine from ALP chiefs should be short and sharp.

Get on the right bus, or get on your bike.
* Brian Johnstone is a former media and marketing director of ATSIC and a fortnightly NIT columnist and writer, where he has won both the Human Rights Award - Print media category and a High Commendation at the Walkley Awards.