Warren Mundine on life lessons and facing fears

PHOTO: Warren Mundine, Australian Aboriginal leader and former national president of the Australian Labor Party. (AAP: Alan Porritt, file photo)
PHOTO: Warren Mundine, Australian Aboriginal leader and former national president of the Australian Labor Party. (AAP: Alan Porritt, file photo)

Warren Mundine has a big grin and ready laugh.

He is also, surprisingly for a man who has been the national president of the Labor Party, an introvert.

He fiddles when he is nervous and unconsciously pouts when he is thinking, a habit his family tried to knock out of him.

In 2005 The Australian newspaper called him “Labor’s great black hope” but in 2012 he quit the ALP, saying it was no longer the party he joined.

In 2013, Mundine arguably became the most powerful Aboriginal leader in Australia when Tony Abbott appointed him chair of the Federal Government’s Indigenous Advisory Council.

For this week’s Anything But for The Brief, I tried to talk to him about anything but politics, although we did discuss why he thinks Australia should be more like he was in his 30s – finally comfortable in his own skin.

On being a father:

How did you come to have ten children?

Well I blame the nuns at the Marist Brothers for that. I went to an all-boys Catholic school. My first wife, I told her I didnt want kids and she said, “Thank god for that. How many kids would we have had if you wanted kids?” I had six with my first wife and then we adopted one, that made seven, and then Elizabeth came along and we had three more. I should have told my 17-year-old self to go get a vasectomy! No, no … I love every one of them. They’re sometimes a curse but also a blessing.

What is your greatest lesson from parenting?

I love my father dearly and he’s meant so much to me my entire life but there was something lacking. I suppose every man of my age says this. We didn’t have that relationship where we could sit down and have those conversations. I’m very lucky that I was able to do that with my kids … be their father and then make that transition when they’re adults to be their friends.

On self refection:

Finish this sentence – my 30s was a decade of:

It was a decade of immense relaxation. For the first time, I felt really comfortable about myself, about being Warren. At one stage during my teenage years I wanted to change my name to my second name Steven because Warren in the 1960s and 70s movies was always the guy who lost out. But Steven didn’t suit me! I was comfortable being Warren, my children were getting into their teens and I started to feel economically comfortable and life was pretty good.

What would you tell your 90-year-old self?

I would say I had a good life, you silly old bugger. I suppose it was a blessed life, considering where I come from.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

From my mother – “enjoy your children while they’re young because they’re not young for long enough. Suddenly they’re 13 and they don’t want to know you any more! And you think, I should have done this, I should have done that.”

When was the last time you were genuinely scared?

I was at the cinema and I went down to the toilets and this fella followed me, this big muscle young bloke, and for the first time in my life I felt really nervous and scared. He came up next to me and then this other person walked in and he walked away. I’m thinking, “Oh my god.” It was scary … really the only time in my life that I’ve been petrified.

On habits:

Do you have a habit you’re ashamed of?

That’s a good question, I have a few bad habits. I use to [pouts lips] so my brother and my mum use to slap me in the lips. It still comes out every now and again. I use to chew my fingernails but I stopped that.

Do you have one thing that you do every night before you go to bed?

Yeah I take my wife’s hand and go to sleep (laughs). I usually try and get a bit of a read in. I used to only read non fiction, biographies, now I’m starting to expand in to other areas. I’m reading Stephen King. People discovered him 30 years ago!

What’s your favourite thing to do on the weekend?

I like going to the footy and spending time with my kids. I had a conversation with my father once and he said “I’m not your friend, I’m your father.” I’m glad times have changed. I’ve actually become friends with my older children and we enjoy each other’s company. I go have a beer with them, we have arguments and discussions about the politics of the day – they’re stirrers.

On Australia:

Which Australian do you most admire?

The person who had an enormous amount of influence on me when I was a young kid. It was the first time my parents let me stay up late and we listened to Lionel Rose on the radio fighting the world title in Tokyo. I had to look up in the atlas where Tokyo was and that inspired me. To think you can do anything in life if you’re willing to put in the hard yards. Life is full of adventures and it’s up to you to pick and choose which ones and be brave about it.

If you had one wish for your country what would it be?

I’m a republican. I’d like to see us become a republic.

On domestic life:

If you could design your own house what would it look like?

It would be old fashioned in a lot of ways. Mediterranean – a Tuscany type of house – with nice-sized rooms, especially entertainment areas. I love having people round which is a big change for me because I’m very much an introvert. I’ve got mates from kindergarten I’m friends with and they say to me, “We see you on TV and we think where did this bloke come from? Half the time at school we didn’t even know you were there!”

I always wanted to do a lot of things but I was shy and about the age of 26 I decided to force myself to do things … so I do a lot of things to get through my fears.

Is this interview one of them?

Yes, this is one of my fears!

So you like a big entertaining space?

Yes, I love people, they are fascinating, The best thing that happened to me was when my parents moved me to Auburn in Sydney, a very multicultural suburb. There were 39 nationalities in my class. Some of them couldn’t speak English. [They were] just off the boat. And I thought, “How do I communicate with these people?” and “How do I listen to what they’re saying?” And I made some lifetime friends out of that time – [I] go to the footy, have a beer with them. To me it was a great experience.

That’s the mark of an introvert – the ability to listen to people.

And also to fit in. You try and fit in. This was the 1960s remember and it was often the first time people met an Aboriginal person. You know I talk about football and soccer and one of the things I loved about that was they accepted us the Croatians, the Greeks, the Italians. They always use to say to us, “You are the real Australians.”

Favourite TV show?

Walking Dead, Game of Thrones.

Julia Gillard likes Game of Thrones!

Yes, the show probably reminds us both of our time in the Labor Party!

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