He switched allegiances from the Labor Party to the Liberals, has the ear of Tony Abbott, and wants Aboriginal people to embrace private ownership. Welcome to Warren Mundine's new world. By Stuart Rintoul.
It was the most lavish of weddings, testament to all the courses of Warren Mundine's life, attended by an extraordinary cross-section of Australian society: rich and poor, black and white, bankers, football players, politicians, movers and shakers. Tony Abbott was invited, but was unable to attend. Mundine was disappointed. But mining magnate Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest was there and, as he mingled with his 450 guests, his new wife Elizabeth floating on his arm, Mundine felt very fortunate.
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Not present at the wedding at Sydney's Luna Park, not celebrating on that warm night in February this year, not forgiving, was Lynette Riley, the former wife who shared Mundine's life for 26 years and raised their seven children - four of their own, two from Mundine's first marriage, and a foster child.
Their divorce, after she caught him cheating, was bitter. But it remained in the shadows as Mundine rose, becoming national president of the Labor Party, an outspoken critic of decades of failed Aboriginal policy, an adviser to the Howard government on Aboriginal affairs, and now a close personal friend and adviser to a conservative prime minister.
When he has spoken about his divorce, Mundine has been contrite but brief, saying that when he became ALP president he succumbed to temptation and got what he deserved.
Riley, a senior lecturer in Aboriginal education at Sydney University, has not previously spoken of the disintegration of their marriage. But asked her view of Mundine's rise, she replies, "I think he has sold out his family and his culture. I think he gave up his good Aboriginal wife and kids so he could do that."
She says she suspects that Mundine feels as though he is "upgrading" with his marriage to divorced corporate lawyer Elizabeth Henderson, daughter of Gerard and Anne Henderson, directors of conservative think tank The Sydney Institute.
She takes a deep breath and talks about the first time she caught him cheating - Thursday, February 2, 2006. They were going to a barbecue and she was waiting for him in his office at NSW Native Title Services in Redfern, where he was chief executive. He was running late so she slipped in behind his computer to use the internet. An email was open, from a woman Mundine had met in Melbourne the previous year at a meeting of Emily's List, the Labor lobby group dedicated to getting more women into parliament. It was intimate. She called up all emails between them, which revealed they had spent many nights together.
Riley trashed his office and threw a pot plant at him as he walked into the room, then went home and cut up all his clothes, even his leather shoes.
They separated but the storm passed and, by the end of March, they began to see each other again. That month, as he continued to build what he hoped would be a political career, Mundine told The Catholic Weekly, "I pray to God every night, to thank him for what I have and talk about my issues and problems."
On the morning of April 20, as she took out the garbage, Riley found the Labor Party president asleep in the car in the backyard, just returned from a trip to China. In February 2007, she took him back. But soon Riley began to feel an emotional distance returning. In May 2008 she found his diary, which revealed he was cheating again, this time with a woman who works in the mining industry. She told him to leave.
She says that on a mild winter's day - Sunday, June 22, 2008 - Mundine came to their house in Haberfield and, in a final bitter exchange, told her that the breakup of their marriage was her fault, that she was not challenging him and satisfying him, that she didn't know how to socialise with the right people, and that she was "too Aboriginal".
There were days I could hardly get out of bed. It was a very, very dark period of my life.
"I was really shattered," says Riley. "I always thought of Warren as my soul mate. I thought we were always heading in the same direction." (Mundine denies saying it. He says it would be a "bizarre" comment for him to have made.)
A few days later, on June 26, Lynette Mundine changed her surname back to Riley.
In the Abbott administration, Mundine, who quit the ALP last year, sad and angry about the state of the party, will chair a small, powerful committee that will advise on change in Australia's impoverished Aboriginal communities. For months leading up to the federal election he spoke to Abbott almost daily, often as early as 5am, or late at night. The relationship is based on their shared Catholicism and a common belief that radical conservative change is needed to free Aboriginal Australians from a social and economic phantom zone.
They first met in 2004 when Abbott was health minister in the Howard government and Mundine was the Labor Party's vice-president. "I didn't like him," Mundine says, laughing. "He seemed very conservative, very old-fashioned, and he didn't get it."
That changed in 2008. Labor was in government but needing to negotiate legislation through the Senate, and Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin asked Mundine to negotiate with Abbott, then the Coalition's Aboriginal affairs spokesman.
Mundine told Macklin he disliked Abbott, but she believed they would get along. Mundine relented and they began meeting in Redfern for coffee. Abbott was inquisitive and Mundine was intrigued. While others in the Labor Party regarded Abbott as a brute conservative, Mundine took a shine to the Jesuit-educated former seminarian. He joked with Abbott that the Jesuits did all the thinking, while Marists like him did all the work.
In August this year, Mundine accompanied Abbott to the Garma festival in Arnhem Land, where Abbott described him as "a kindred spirit" and "a courageous and visionary leader".
It is not a universally held opinion. The grand dame of Aboriginal politics, Lowitja O'Donoghue, sighs wearily and says that Mundine is "not our new messiah". Respected indigenous leader Pat Dodson says it is far from clear what Mundine intends to do and that he has yet to see any "silver bullets". Indigenous NSW Labor MP Linda Burney says there is "concern and incredulousness" within the Aboriginal community that Mundine has risen so high. She says a group of Aboriginal people recently stopped her on a street in Sydney's Marrickville and asked her, "What are we going to do about pretty boy?"
Burney, a long-time friend of Riley's, acted as an intermediary to reunite the couple. "I felt that they had been together for so long, there were seven children involved, and obviously Lynette was still very much in love with Warren," she says. "It worked, but then Warren continued on his way. I'm no prude and marriages break up, but you can do it in a dignified, respectful, caring way, or you can be a total pig. I saw the devastation that he caused."
Warren Mundine was born on august 11, 1956, the ninth of 11 children. His first years were spent in South Grafton, NSW, in a tiny two-bedroom weatherboard house where his family of 13 were joined by grandparents and cousins. His father, Roy - a Bundjalung man, tall and lanky, born in Baryulgil about 1919 - was a hero to his sons. He spent most of his life working on the roads while his six brothers went down asbestos mines that killed several of them from lung disease.
In an era when Aborigines were paid a fraction of what white people earned, Roy joined the Australian Workers Union to get equal pay and became a union and Labor man for life. Because he was a good cricketer, a police sergeant sponsored him to obtain a certificate of exemption from the restrictions of being Aboriginal - the hated "dog tag" - so he could have a beer with his mates. He carried it with him all his life and was buried with it as a reminder of the discrimination he'd suffered, but also how much life had changed. Because no bank would lend money to an Aboriginal person to buy a house, he borrowed from a money lender, but paid it off early just the same.
If his father liked someone, Mundine says, he would say he was a worker. "It didn't matter what job it was. You could be sitting in a sewer pumping it out, or sweeping a floor, or a lawyer. You worked, that was the important thing. If you didn't work, you didn't rate very highly."
Mundine's mother, Olive Donovan, was devout and determined. A Gumbaynggirr woman from Nambucca Heads, where her father worked in the mill, she was so small when she was born she was called "Dolly". Her grandfather was Irish Catholic.
"She would never turn anyone away at the door," Mundine says. "She always had something for someone to help them." She ruled an unruly house, getting the children off to morning Mass, while Roy concealed a strong temper by not saying much.
In 1963, the family moved to Sydney to give their children better opportunities and settled in a three-bedroom house with a granny flat in the inner-western suburb of Auburn. "You couldn't get a more 'red' place than Auburn," Mundine says. "Labor legends came out of Auburn. Jack Lang had a real estate shop in the main street, the nuns at the schools used to do cake stalls for the Labor Party, and the priest used to give sermons in the church about voting for Labor."
Mundine went to a Catholic school, Benedict Marist Brothers College, where there were children of many nationalities. "I hated it," he says, "but it opened my eyes to the world." He left school at 16, worked as a fitter and machinist, then built sewage and gas pipelines.
When he was 19, he married a non-Aboriginal girl, Jenny Ross, who was 17 and pregnant with their first child, a son they called Warren. "First time lucky," he says. They got a flat in Lidcombe, in Sydney's west. He worked as a barman at night and as an office trolley boy during the day, in the days when there were trolley boys. A second child was born, Nicole. Mundine went to night school to earn his Higher School Certificate and got a job in the tax office, which sponsored him to study for a diploma of community development at the South Australian Institute of Technology.
It was around this time that Jenny Ross left him for another man. Mundine got custody of the children. "There were times when we didn't have money, there were times I couldn't pay bills, there were times that were pretty tough, but we got through it," he says.
He studied law at the University of NSW, without finishing. "It was just too much for me, studying and trying to feed the kids," he says.
In 1982, he was among more than 2000 Aboriginal people protesting for land rights at the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane. Indigenous activist Gary Foley recalls him waving an Aboriginal flag and "making a couple of radical speeches". Distantly related to Mundine, he refers to him, unpleasantly, as "the white sheep of the family" who unexpectedly elbowed his way to prominence to become "the Aboriginal man of the moment".
In 1983, Mundine began seeing Riley, a Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi woman from Dubbo who worked at the NSW Education & Communities department as an Aboriginal liaison officer. After a week, he said he wanted to marry her. Riley was keen on the idea, too. They tied the knot a year later, on Black Friday, April 13, 1984, and joked that it was a lucky day for them.
In 1986, Riley got a job as a research fellow at the University of New England in Armidale. Mundine studied economics but gave it up to work for a new Aboriginal land council. He moved in Aboriginal and Labor circles. Children were born and given Aboriginal names: Mindalnagan in 1984, Julang in 1986. In 1987, a community services worker came knocking and told them there was a 15-year-old girl in need of a place to live for a couple of weeks. Barbara came and stayed. Two more children were born: Yawun in 1989 and Garigarra in 1992.
In the lead-up to 1988's Australian bicentenary, Mundine said Australia was celebrating 200 years of occupation, and bicentenary money was "blood money". But a friend from those days, James Wilson-Miller, now a curator at Sydney's Powerhouse Museum, remembers they were both targets for resentment within the Aboriginal community: "On many occasions, we had to leave certain drinking establishments because we were tagged Uncle Toms and uptown niggers for daring to have a bloody job. We understood why people were saying it, but it did hurt." He says they got out of a lot of trouble by looking like they could use their fists.
Mundine's political rise began in Dubbo, where the family moved in 1993. He got involved in local politics and became the town's first Aboriginal councillor, then deputy mayor. After years of handing out how-to-vote cards for Labor, he joined the party in 1995 and ran for state parliament in a safe conservative seat in 1999. He lost, but impressed. Sussex Street power brokers began to take an interest in him. Mark Arbib, on his way to becoming the party's general secretary and later a senator, met and liked him.
He was given third position on the NSW Senate ticket for the 2001 federal election, falling short in a campaign that slipped from Labor's grasp after the Tampa affair and 9/11. But in 2003, he was elected one of three national presidents of the Labor Party, taking up his position in 2006. He also married Riley for a second time in 2003. When they first married, it was not in a Catholic church but in St Andrew's Congregational Church in Balmain. This bothered Mundine, so they renewed their vows in St Brigid's Catholic Church, Dubbo, to celebrate 20 years together.
Mundine was rising in the Labor Party at a time that coincided with a growing mood for change in the direction of Aboriginal policy. Noel Pearson led the charge with fiery speeches about the poison of welfare and children whose crying was silenced with petrol-drenched rags on their faces.
Mundine's views hardened and he found his voice. In 2004, although a vice-president of the Labor Party, he accepted a position on John Howard's National Indigenous Council, saying he was determined to help Aboriginal people out of poverty and misery, even if it meant criticism and hostility from his people and party. He challenged Labor to dump its "politically correct" approach to black Australia and said Aboriginal people needed to embrace private ownership and enterprise, as his parents had done. Though not as eloquent as Pearson, he spoke his mind. In 2005, he was awarded a medal by the conservative Bennelong Society and used the occasion to hit out at those who sought to preserve "a mythical, noble-savage ideal of indigenous Australia".
In May 2007, his father, Roy, died and was buried at Baryulgil. Roy's nephew, Tony, the boxer and father of Anthony, dug the grave. Mundine was devastated. It was his second setback in quick succession - two weeks earlier, his political ambitions had again been frustrated when he failed in a factional play to unseat Labor MP Julia Irwin in the western Sydney seat of Fowler.
Mundine felt betrayed by his father's death. He had risen higher in the Labor Party than any Aboriginal person, but he'd dreamed of becoming the first Aboriginal Labor MP and his father was part of that dream. "He would've been very proud of me. He would've been very proud of me representing the Labor Party in that area."
His marriage was also collapsing and Mundine ended up in therapy. "There were days I could hardly get out of bed," he says. "It was a very, very dark period of my life."
In March last year, Mark Arbib resigned from the Senate. Mundine made it clear that he wanted the seat, but lost out when Julia Gillard drafted former NSW premier Bob Carr out of political retirement to become minister for foreign affairs.
He was recruited to lead Andrew Forrest's GenerationOne campaign to end Aboriginal disadvantage, but by June he was under the surgeon's knife after a niggling pain in his chest was revealed as a heart condition. In October he had surgery to bypass five coronary arteries. "It focuses you," he says. "All of a sudden death was in my face."
As he recovered, his ALP membership came up for renewal. He decided to quit instead. Labor was "no longer the party I joined" and he would often find himself at party meetings where he was the only person who had worked in a factory, which he found "quite bizarre". Elizabeth Henderson says that, since his surgery, he speaks more fearlessly and tells her, "I don't have time to waste."
As he sits talking about his journey, Mundine is more contemplative than the brash public figure he normally strikes. He says that Riley was the love of his life and his soul mate for a long time.
In the early evening, many days later, he sends me a text message: "Yes, our separation and divorce was shattering. For her, me, family and friends. It broke us all. It left us all broke in spirit. I wish I could change the past, but I can't. I'm guilty and that's that. I'm sorry and apologise, but ..."
He leaves the sentence hanging.
He says his wedding was a healing, but the wounds are deep and, while many of his family attended his wedding to Elizabeth, two of his daughters did not. One of them, Mindal, has a baby daughter but has not allowed Mundine to see her.
"I found someone who made me happy, and loving Elizabeth is like breathing oxygen," Mundine says. "Do I deserve that? Only God can answer that. All I know is Elizabeth and I are creating a new life together."