Warren Mundine and the case for self-determination

In an extraordinary recent piece for the Daily Telegraph, Warren Mundine wrote about how ‘sit-down’ money was condemning generations of Aboriginal people to poverty and breeding anti-social behavior. Reading the account that he, one of Abbott’s key advisers on Indigenous policy, provided, you’d be forgiven for thinking that welfare is somehow particularly toxic to Aboriginal people.

It’s a fairly traditional and unimaginative refrain but, under a headline about black racism, it takes on a grossly hypocritical edge.

It is worth unpicking Mundine’s argument in the context of Aboriginal affairs.

Mundine targets employment and education as objectives for which Aboriginal people must strive to overcome welfare dependency. It is true that employment has generally been on the decline in Aboriginal populations over the last ten years. But this is in no small part because the Howard government and successive Labor governments dismantled Community Development Employment Programs (CDEP). CDEP is a form of government-subsidised employment, whereby Aboriginal people, often in remote communities, could work on local infrastructure project and public services. They could top up their wages with extra work.

CDEP was always a substandard alternative to proper wages and conditions, but for many Aboriginal people in remote areas, it was the only source of employment. For some communities, it provided the only alternative to chronic underfunding of infrastructure and services. Before Howard’s decision to dismantle the program in the NT as part of the Intervention, CDEP employed around 30,000 people or around 20 percent of the Indigenous workforce. Successive Labor governments, while slowing the process by which CDEP was abolished, trumpeted ominously that the replacement program offers ‘a more streamlined and flexible approach to employment’.

CDEP was axed on the basis that it was a barrier to ‘proper employment’ for its participants. But it is difficult to see how the labour market could offer alternative means of employment in remote communities. Basically, the message from the government was that, if you want employment, you need to come off country and into urban environments. If you don’t want to do that, according to Mundine’s logic, you only have yourself to blame for your poverty.

Mundine also refers to increasing incarceration rates amongst Aboriginal people. Again, it’s an undeniable problem (up 58.6 percent for women and 35.2 percent for men between 2000–2010). But Mundine’s comment seems particularly craven, given that one of Abbott’s first policy announcements was to cut funding of Aboriginal legal aid by $42 million – something that Mundine refuses to oppose. Legal aid is a vital front line service, offering direct advocacy but also informed policy perspectives. Alternatives to incarceration should always be explored, both in individual cases and at a policy level – and you really can’t do that if you don’t have a lawyer. Economic analysis of legal aid demonstrates that, in certain settings, every dollar spent on legal aid is returned to the tune of somewhere between $1.60 to $2.24. I’m not aware of any studies specifically on Aboriginal legal aid but I defy anyone to find research that finds legal aid spending is not a positive social investment.

Does Mundine support the Howard era policy of axing CDEP? Does he support the policy of slashing $42 million from Aboriginal legal aid? Both these policies belong to the government he is advising and both are actually contributing to the problems he identifies.

Interestingly, just the day before Mundine’s tirade, John Falzon wrote about how welfare was necessary to achieve a more equal and healthy society. The social determinants of health, wrote Falzon, include:

Nutrition, the natural and built environment including appropriate housing, income adequacy, empowerment, social connectedness, access to sport, recreation and cultural activity, education …

It would be difficult to argue that Aboriginal people, particularly those in remote communities, have any of these in any adequate measures.  Mostly, their absences can be fixed by targeted social spending – essentially Falzon’s argument. Money has undoubtedly been spent in Aboriginal communities but it has hardly been targeted and it often comes at the problem from a perspective of ‘cruelty and punishment’, to which Falzon rightly objects.

So is welfare really the problem with Aboriginal people? Or just a convenient way to blame Aboriginal people for their own misfortune? As Sol Bellear argued: ‘either Australian Aboriginal people have a knack for death and destruction, or something else is going on.’

From a political perspective, there two items on Falzon’s list worth considering closely, items that aren’t directly addressed through social spending: empowerment and social connectedness. These are particularly interesting because they are exactly what is undermined by the political framework through which we understand modern Aboriginal communities: the NT Intervention and its successor, Stronger Futures. This policy approach is marked by income management, alcohol bans, punitive education policies and the undermining of Aboriginal culture. It is, in short, a framework that treats Aboriginal people like children, incapable of managing their own affairs.

When pressed, Mundine has maintained that we need to look at everything afresh, not just assume we can fix problems using methods we’ve tried in the past. But the only thing that needs freshening up is Mundine’s out-dated attitude to the problems faced by Aboriginal people.

If we are serious about Aboriginal empowerment and social connectedness, we need to think outside traditional political structures and listen to Aboriginal voices outside the establishment. We need to resist the perennial mistake of creating an advisory structure which will, as Bellear argues, ‘spend its time telling the government what it wants to hear, not what it needs to know.’ Mundine’s Indigenous Advisory Council is exactly that: a hand-picked cabal.

Bellear argues that this is ‘the precise opposite of self-determination, light years from the only policies that have been shown to impact positively in other nations in a similar position’. Indeed, such an undemocratic approach to policy-making simply wouldn’t be tolerated in other contexts.

We need to consider how Aboriginal people can be given back power over their own fate. This includes obvious representative changes, such as proportional representation in the political system and meaningful consultations. But it also involves more material change, such as land ownership in substance (not just name), and housing, health and other social services run for Aboriginal people by Aboriginal people.

Mundine is all too keen to see the problems facing Aboriginal people as external, decontextualised and individualised. If we really want something new, perhaps it’s time to end the tradition of people like Mundine, unelected and unaccountable, passing judgment on their community. It’s time to talk about self-determination.

Lizzie O'Shea

Lizzie O’Shea is a lawyer. Her book Future Histories (Verso 2019) is about the politics and history of technology.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. You’ve kind of missed the point. CEDP IS welfare. Warren Mundine has always advocated for REAL jobs on -community, generated by commercial activity and freeing those communities from the constraints that currently prevent this from happening and by training local Indigenous people to do the jobs that at the moment are done by white people from outside community. That is self determination.

    But I don’t think any reader needs to be forgiven for thinking welfare is toxic for Indigenous people. It is absolutely toxic. And if you ever bothered to speak to the leaders from those communities they would tell you the same thing. Of course you need a safety net but spending your life tangled up in a safety net is not much good to anyone.

    Why don’t you do some proper research, read his speeches and articles in full (which are all findable online) and actually go spend some time in some of these communities you THINK you know so much about.

    1. We disagree. But FWIW I’ve spoken to leaders, done research and spent time in a number of communities. Please feel free to disagree with my argument, but at least put forward a reason other than your assumptions about me.

      1. You don’t talk about visits to communities or give any examples. Warren Mundine’s articles are full of real examples and conversations about people on community. So he does sound more informed and genuine than you – your article sounds like it is based around your world view and ideology

        1. Ha! Mr Mundine is pushing his own world view and ideology, just like me. I’m sorry I don’t sound as genuine. But anecdote plus anecdote does not equal evidence.

  2. As land is the ultimate source of life, the land issue is fundamental in any consideration of human rights.

    An acknowledgement that the land has been taken over in ways that deny some basic human rights is needed.

    There also needs to be the recognition that, however wrongly white Australia took root, all Australians have equal rights.

    Next, given that neither traditional ways nor current lifestyles can be upheld as sustainable for our nation, a new way of relating to the land is urgently needed.

    Clearly qualifying rights and responsibilities to land in these terms would require government to support a suitable compact of mutual obligations.

    Government support would involve guarantee of the human right to “be” somewhere that can support a dignified existence, conditional upon living sustainably.
    No rights are ever unconditional.

    Government support would also be appropriate in training and remuneration for the essential work of developing sustainable communities which all Australians would benefit from.

    CDEP could be the mechanism, but CDEP has been seen only as a stepping stone to paid work – this should change.

    The emphasis needs to be upon rights and responsibilities in regard to the land needed to sustain life … to build shelter, to feed one’s self, to establish community and to live in a sustainable way.

    Management skills and the ownership of knowledge have also led to self-empowerment problems. This can be overcome through a better process of sharing and cooperation. One process for this style of community development is described at http://ntw.net46.net/NTWmodel/NTWModeloverview.htm


  3. I think what has never been acknowledged is that all govts since 1788 have continued to do what they consider their best in trying to ‘solve’ the aboriginal problem. Govts of all persuations keep trying, its the people – us – blacks and whites, who generally wreck the best of schemes. How do you make a remote community – land locked or sea locked – genuinely self sufficient?. Do you cut it off from all welfare? Do you insist they only survive ‘traditionally? Do you let it run itself or do you intervene? Tough questions. No one solution. But the best way to ensure nothing ever gets done about this is to keep saying – ‘lets look at the underlying causes’. and then you spend all your time on this while everything continues to fall to bits around you. Well here is the underlying cause – this land and its original inhabitants were overtaken by another nation of people. And you know what – nothing can change this. Today is what it is! So, how do we best set about helping our fellow citizens so we can all live our lives to the fullest. Chris B I think you are asking some good questions. Elizabeth, I’m sorry, but I agree with Em, you have done the obvious and launched into Mundine and just extended the 200 year talkfest!

  4. Hi Chris,

    It seems there’s a contradiction in your argument when you say, firstly, that the cause of problems today is dispossession – ok – and then follow this by saying ‘Today is what it is’ – as if to say today were somehow divorced from history.

    I fail to see how wilfully not looking at the underlying causes of a problem – as you seem to be suggesting above (though please correct me if I’m wrong) – could constitute some kind of positive measure.

    Also: the author calls for ‘listen[ing] to Aboriginal voices outside the establishment.’
    How does this constitute a talk fest? It seems nearly the opposite: a listening fest. (Also, what is wrong with ‘talking’?)

  5. Warren Mundine is not and will never be the leader for Aboriginal People of Australia

    No man speaks for my people other than our authorised representatives from our tribes

    Again a Government select their token voices to mission manage Aboriginal People, same old same old

    There is a race of people that have very many different language speaking tribes. My people are one of over 18 different language groups through out South East Queensland and in our tradition no man speaks for another mans land. Aboriginal People all over Australia know this the only person ignorant of our Lore’s is Warren Mundine

    If anyone wants to conduct research into Aboriginal Peoples progression in this country you only need to go back to the Whitlam – Keating Governments

    Legal aid, Education, Health, Housing, Employment and so on and so on. It all changed and went back wood since the Howard Government. I know because I worked in Aboriginal Health and in the Aboriginal Education. I know because our children were progressing as our families in all those issues as mention above. All the services that allowed our people to own their own homes get a better education and health care and legal representation all went back wood after the Howard Government came into Government.

    All those services were owned and run by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People and making head way into giving our families something to be proud of and to look forward to a better future for the next generation. Why do you think Warren Mundine is where he is today.

    No child black or white should be with out a good education, roof over their head, food in their belly, and healthy It’s the rights of every Australian black and white and those in between.

    Now everyone including Warren Mundine seem to be missing the point. In stead of going over the same old grounds of why We The Aboriginal People need this or that take a look back at what they did have under the Whitlam/Keating Governments, people they had some HOPE. Right up until Howard the devils evocate as was Beaty to the Aboriginal People in Queensland

    When you trespass on someone else’s land you can be prosecuted under Laws of the Land

    When you steal and plunder another mans land
    you can be prosecuted by the Laws of the Land

    When you murder a man you can be prosecuted by the Laws of the Land

    Before white man put his foot on Australia’s soil Aboriginal People practiced their Laws of the Land, as a sovereign Nation they held laws/Lore that governed their existence

    The Land is what my people need, that was their only commodity and it was stolen from them, the land and all that is above and below belongs to the Aboriginal People of Australia, what’s left of it now

    Every time we get close Governments change the goal post. I will tell you the outcome of Australia, we will be paying for bread by 2020 10 dollars, am I stupid or what. Because you all have sat back and benefited from our demise Australians will reap what is sown by their Governments. If we cannot own our own Land then none of us will own this LAND. Because in the end it will be owned by every other Nation other then us.

    God Bless you all

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