Warren Mundine

Warren Mundine, a prominent Indigenous leader and former national president of the Australian Labor Party, boarded Scott Morrison’s sinking ship this week. The Prime Minister unveiled Mundine as the Liberal candidate for the New South Wales seat of Gilmore.

Mundine faces an uphill battle. Gilmore is the Liberals’ most marginal seat in the state, and Morrison’s decision to parachute in his high-profile captain’s pick has angered local branch members; spurned candidate Grant Schultz is running against Mundine as an independent.

Things got tougher for Mundine this week when, days after his announcement, The Sydney Morning Herald reported allegations by his first wife Jennifer that he was physically violent towards her during the breakdown of their marriage in the 1980s. Mundine strenuously denies the allegations.

But even if he doesn’t become the next member for Gilmore, Mundine’s candidacy marks the final stage in a decades-long political evolution, from rising star touted as “Labor’s great black hope” by The Australian in 2005, to wannabe Liberal MP chummy with mining magnates and conservative politicians.

Hell hath no fury like a candidate scorned

Mundine, a Bundjalung man, needed plenty of grit to get where he did. The ninth of 11 children, he was raised on the NSW North Coast and later in Western Sydney. His family was firm in their devotion to both the Catholic Church and the Australian Labor Party. After dropping out of school at 16, Mundine eventually got his HSC by night, while working to support two young children.

Following a few brushes with activism, Mundine’s political career kicked off in earnest when he was elected to Dubbo City Council in the mid-1990s. From there, he went to the NSW public service and joined the ALP, climbing the ranks, eventually becoming national president in 2006. But Mundine’s dreams of a place in parliament were repeatedly thwarted.

In 2001 he managed to secure third place on the party’s Senate ticket, and narrowly missed out on getting elected. In 2007, after a factional battle, he failed to beat sitting MP Julia Irwin for preselection in the Western Sydney seat of Fowler. When Labor senator Mark Arbib left the senate to work for James Packer in 2012, Mundine felt his time had finally come. But despite wining and dining the NSW Right’s factional powerbrokers, Mundine was again overlooked, as Julia Gillard brought former NSW premier Bob Carr out of retirement to take over as foreign minister.

Disillusioned, Mundine didn’t renew his Labor membership.

Rightward shift

Mundine has always been outspoken about his differences with Labor. In 2004, while an ALP national president in waiting, Mundine joined John Howard’s National Indigenous Council, and openly condemned his party’s “politically correct” approach to Aboriginal policy, causing anger in the Labor ranks. What Black Australia needed, Mundine argued, was less welfare, more personal responsibility and free markets.

This laissez-faire, bootstraps approach lies at the heart of Mundine’s political ideology, and has increasingly endeared him to conservatives. A year after quitting the party, Mundine voted Liberal for the first time in his life; he claimed that Labor had become “a party of spin not workers”.

Around that time Mundine was getting increasingly cosy with former prime minister Tony Abbott who, like Mundine, is a devout Catholic. After winning the 2013 election, Abbott made Mundine — who he described as a “kindred spirit” — chair of his Indigenous Advisory Council.

Mundine’s conversion and his relationship with Abbott angered many on the left — terms like “Uncle Tom” and “sell-out” are some of the nastier attacks flung his way. But since 2012, his commitment to the right has firmed.

A long proponent of nuclear energy, Mundine was appointed by Queensland’s former LNP premier Campbell Newman to help resurrect the state’s uranium mines. More recently, he has gone out to bat for the controversial Adani mine and landed himself a show on Sky News. Last year, Mundine had joined the Liberal Democratic Party, and was reportedly in talks to replace leader David Leyonhjelm in the Senate.

Still, Mundine is far from a neat ideological fit for the Coalition. This week, while Scott Morrison was announcing a multi-million dollar re-enactment of a voyage Captain Cook never made, Warren Mundine quietly reaffirmed his desire to change the date of Australia Day.

Upgrading to conservative royalty

Mundine, who currently resides on Sydney’s North Shore, has never lived in the Gilmore region although this week he has repeatedly stressed his family ties to the South Coast, calling it an “ancestral home”. The Gilmore run, in many ways, displays this kind of  “politically flexible” opportunism that has characterised his recent years public life.

The “opportunist” tag has followed Mundine into his private life too. In 2013, Mundine married corporate lawyer and banking executive Elizabeth Henderson — the daughter of conservative power couple Gerard and Anne Henderson, who are directors of the right-wing think tank the Sydney Institute.

In a 2013 Herald profile Mundine’s ex-wife, Indigenous academic Lynette Riley, accused him of “upgrading” his marriage by marrying Henderson. “I think he has sold out his family and his culture,” Riley said.

Mundine and Henderson’s wedding, held at Sydney’s Luna Park, was an illustrious affair. Among the 400 or more attendees were politicians from both sides of the aisle and business leaders like mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest (who recruited Mundine to head his Indigenous jobs program GenerationOne). Mundine’s memoir In Black and White, released in December 2018, includes a chapter on the virtue of work for Indigenous people, reflecting on his grandfather and father in the same breath as Forrest.  

After decades in politics, Mundine’s establishment connections run deep, and his blood increasingly runs a North Shore blue. But even that might not be enough to get the spot in Parliament that has eluded him for so long.

Peter Fray

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