Thursday, 6 July, 2006

I thank God every night, says new Labor head

A CONVERSATION with Warren Mundine, Labor’s new president and ‘great black hope’
By Emma Logan
12th March 2006
Warren Mundine
REWARDING EXPERIENCE: Mass is important says new Labor Party president Warren Mundine.
"I pray to God every night," says Warren Mundine, the new federal Labor Party president, "to thank him for what I have and talk about my issues and problems."

Catholicism, he says, "very much shapes" his political views.

"To me it’s a very important spirituality thing," he said. "I don’t think it’s all I’m about, but my faith has had a great influence on my life and got me through a lot of tough times."

Warren has been described as ‘Labor’s great black hope’, and ‘the most prominent Aboriginal person in the country’.

But the boy who grew up the ninth of 11 children in Grafton, NSW, insists he has “never had any visions of grandeur”.

“Actually I find it very funny; I laugh at night sometimes thinking that here I am, the national president of the Labor Party,” he says.

“I’m just a bloke from the bush.

“I started my working life as a fitter in a factory and that’s how I see myself, I’m a great believer in the simple things.”

Warren was raised a “staunch Catholic”.

“My great grandfather, William O’Donovan, emigrated from County Cork, Ireland, in the 1870s,” he said.

“He left us with his Catholic faith. We all went to Catholic schools, as a kid I remember always being rushed off by my mum to early morning Mass.”

Warren says his parents “worked bloody hard for us”.

“They are my greatest role models,” he said.

“They grew up in a very different world to the one we live in.

“How they managed to raise and put 11 children through a good Catholic education system amazes me.

“They constantly strove for better lives for themselves and their kids.”

After World War II Warren’s father, Roy, worked building roads in the hope of having enough money to buy a home for his family.

“Under the NSW laws he couldn’t get full wages,” says Warren. “Aboriginals were earning only 30 per cent of the wage paid to white Australians.

“So he joined the Australian Workers Union and they fought to get him a full wage.”

After that Roy became a “very strong Labor party person” and politics became a frequent topic of conversation at the dinner table.

“I remember us constantly arguing over the issues of the day,” Warren said. “As one of the youngest I had eight people ahead of me arguing, it was always interesting.

“I was lucky; it was an unusual upbringing for an Aboriginal kid.”

Former world bantamweight boxing champion Lionel Rose, who was born and raised on an Aboriginal settlement in eastern Victoria, was another of Warren’s role models.

“I was a young kid of about six or seven when I watched Lionel win the world title at the age of 19,” he says.

“I was very proud to be an Aboriginal. Some people see aboriginality as something that closes doors, but I have always seen it as an opportunity, as something to be positive about.

“Seeing him win that fight also really sent the message to me that if you strive for something and work towards it and hard at it, then it is something you will achieve and there’s nothing stopping you from doing it.”

It is a message Warren wishes the Federal Government would take heed of.

“I want us, the Australian Government and Parliament, to stop looking at the big problems as being too big an issue to fix,” he says.

“We tend to get caught up in the processes too much when we should be driving for outcomes. I want us to look at things and say: ‘OK, in 20 years’ time this will be fixed’.”

Warren is “sick and tired” of politicians “saying they have a hands-on approach”.

“They need to get dirty and strive for results,” he said.

“I think we can do it, we’ve just got to focus on the problems, we don’t need to pick grand things, just pick little things.

“Why can’t we eradicate domestic violence in 20 years?

“Why can’t we have proper housing and access to those basic living standards for everyone? It’s not about extra resources or money, it’s about better utilising those resources.”

Warren’s passion for politics has him vying for a Senate seat, which would see him succeed Aden Ridgeway as the only Aboriginal in Federal Parliament.

“It’s a long way from getting pre-selected to getting elected,” he said.

“But I would love to get involved in designing and working on policy and be a part of instigating change within Australian society.”

Despite his criticism of politicians, Warren says they are people he is “in awe of”.

“Mainly because they work so damn hard at what they do,” he said.

Hard work is something he, too, seems all too familiar with.

On top of his job as president of the Labor Party, Warren is also the chief executive officer of the NSW Native Title Services, sits on several boards, has seven children of his own and admits to having done “42 media interviews in the last week”.

At the rate he’s going, he could wind up the first Aboriginal Prime Minister, or become Australia’s own Nelson Mandela.

“Me?” He laughs. “No I don’t think so.”

More seriously he admits it’s going to be “a tough job” for Labor to win back power.

“To be honest, after 10 years in power, John Howard has almost become Captain Invincible,” he said.

“My job as president is to raise membership by making people proud to be a part of the Labor Party.”

Warren spends a lot of his time travelling around Australia, meeting people, answering questions and “just saying g’day”.

“I’m travelling a hell of a lot for the party, probably more than anyone else does,” he said. “But if we’re not in the shopping malls, in the school yards educating people and answering their questions about our policies then they’re not going to vote for us.

“They’re going to say ‘where is the Labor Party?’ and we will never win the election.”

He is concerned about what he sees as a shift in society in the last 10 years to a more “me-me, look after yourself” type culture”.

“We seem to be becoming very involved in ourselves and forgetting about the people at the lower end of the spectrum,” he says.

“I see some people in the Aboriginal community who can’t afford dental care.

“It’s all right for me, I’ve got a nice wage, but I don’t forget where I come from.”

Warren sees the family structure as the “glue that holds society together”.

He says the Government’s industrial relations program is “making it more and more difficult for families to be together because they are all working all the time”.

“Family is a real safety network and we are losing that in so many ways,” he says.

He holds his own family close to him. “My kids have turned out all right despite their father,” he laughs.

He says his rise in prominence has been a “weird experience” for him and a “difficult” one for his family and friends. “It’s a bit scary because you lose your private life a bit,” he says.

“No matter where you go you bump into people who know you.

“I found it nerve racking at first.

“I started to think about how I should dress, how I should comb my hair.

“I started doing things not to upset people.

“But the hard part is not for me; it’s for my family and friends.

“I made the choice to be in the public eye, but they didn’t. Suddenly everyone has an opinion of you and they often have to defend me.

“I always try to avoid putting them in the spotlight.”

When he’s not working, Warren says he finds it “hard to relax”.

“It’s really weird, I was raised to work all the time and I’ve had to force myself to relax,” he says.

Praying and going to Church “is one thing that relaxes me”.

“I believe in the importance of the ceremony of Mass and I find it is a rewarding experience,” he said.

Whether or not he makes it into the game of politics, Warren says he feels “very lucky” to be doing what he is doing, “mostly because I get to meet so many people”.

“I love people; people are great,” he said.

“I have truly been blessed to be able to meet so many different people in what I do.”

Warren says he will “never stop working” on the issues he feels passionate about.

“Hopefully I’ll be sitting as a parliamentarian for the Labor Government in 15-20 years’ time,” he said.

“But I hope it doesn’t take us that long to win!”

Copyright © 2005 The Catholic Weekly - Sydney