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The contempt for disrespect - 01.10.2005

ROGER COOMBS in Saturday Interview in the The Daily Telegraph 1st October 2005 reports on Mick Mundine CEO of the Aboriginal Housing Company.

Mick Mundine, famously derided by Planning Minister Frank Sartor - who invited him to "get his black arse" down to his office to discuss the Redfern-Waterloo redevelopment issues-isn't one to hold a grudge.

With a resigned shoulder shrug, he says he doesn't hate the minister for his racist slur.

"I don't hate him. Hate is a bad thing, it eats away at the heart, it makes you weak," Mundine says.

But nor is he in the mood to forgive. And right now, he can't see exactly how it's going to be possible for the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) - the multi-dimensional indigenous organisation of which he is CEO - and the minister to come to terms.

"I don't think it's possible, at the present moment, for us to work with him," he says.

"Right now, I think he's behaved arrogantly and disrespectfully. For him to disrespect, I think, this company, my board of directors, Aboriginal people in general, and me personally ... how can you work with a man like that?

"The main point that's been missed is what was said earlier - 'I'm glad he got off his backside’ that's what really gave Aboriginal people the hump because it conveyed the old idea that the blacks are lazy, they need to get off their bums, you know."

Mundine explains that the resentment Aboriginal people felt at Sartor's ill-considered choice of words flowed from the old paternalistic image of the "Mission Manager", the whitefella with authority over the blacks, the bloke with the power to get them off their backsides.

"The comment about 'your black arse', that was just the tip of the iceberg, the icing on the cake. He had no reason to use that language," Mundine says.

As to the staged "reconciliation" between the two (Sartor arranged for Mundine to attend a photo opportunity shortly after his foolish gaffe at which they would be shown shaking hands and apparently on friendly terms) Mundine feels he had no choice at the time.

"I'm taught by my culture to be very respectful," he says. 

"That's why I did that. But you have to understand our dispute with Mr Sartor had been going on for more than eight months. It wasn't just his 'black arse' insult, it's a bigger problem".

Working with the AHC for more than 30 years (he started as a house painter in August 1975) Mundine has been insulted and abused by the best of them over the years, so in reality, Sartor's slip-up was "water off a duck's back". Being seen to have accepted Sartor's apology was one thing. Excusing his behaviour is another thing altogether. At the time, Mundine says he was mindful of the tension in the Aboriginal community over the minister's apparent lack of respect; tension he feared could boil over into violence if he had not shown a gesture of goodwill. He was also hoping Sartor might have done "the right thing" and quit as minister.

The schism between the AHC and Sartor's departments (he's Minister for Redfern-Waterloo as well as Planning Minister) relates to their differing ambitions in regard to the redevelopment of the Block, the notorious Aboriginal enclave in Redfern, a focus of so much conflict and disharmony in recent years.

Significantly, the actual land is owned by the AHC. Using a grant of $530,000 from the Whitlam government, the AHC bought the land in 1973, and then worked to restore 29 terrace houses on the Block as low-cost accommodation. Initially, the development was seen as a showcase of how, with proper funding assistance, Aboriginal people could initiate and manage such ambitious urban projects.

But gradually-and mainly due, Mundine believes, to the importation of a "vicious cycle" of drug addiction and the inevitable criminality which accompanies it - the Block descended into a tragedy.

Violence was commonplace, drug abuse on the streets endemic. Even the police were afraid to enter the area. Not any longer, Mundine says.

The AHC has surveyed every resident of the Block and the drug culture has been broken. Virtually none of the locals are drug users, he says. The presence of the hated "syringe bus" in Redfern, however, still acts like "a honey pot", and addicts from elsewhere infest the area. He'd love to see the bus go for good.

Mundine's redevelopment plan for the Block configures 62 dwellings, a community centre, a short stay hostel facility, a medical centre, an indigenous learning centre and abundant open space. Developed by the Merrima Group, the Aboriginal design unit within the Government Architects Office, in conjunction with a group of planning and design consultants appointed by the AHC, the so-called "Pemulwuy Project" is an ambitious plan to completely revitalise the Block as an open residential precinct, while retaining and celebrating traditional aspects of Aboriginal culture.

But Mundine's fear is that Sartor and the State Government will compulsorily acquire ownership of the land under the wide-ranging powers vested in the minister.

“This is not just an issue for Aboriginal people -non-Aboriginal people are up in arms as well," he says. "If he can resume our land, he can do it to any land-holder."

And the cleft stick for the AHC and the Pemulwuy Project is that Sartor must give planning permission for it to get the go-ahead. Plans are virtually ready to be presented for development approval, but Mundine knows the fight is not yet won. He believes the government has a hidden agenda; to acquire the AHC's parcel of land and make it available for commercial redevelopment. Sartor, for his part, says that is just plain wrong, adding that any suggestion the AHC's land would be compulsorily acquired had been "categorically ruled out".

The sticking point between Mundine and the minister is the proposed 62 dwellings. The AHC says there is a need for more housing and the 62 is culturally significant as well. By Aboriginal lore, it is the number of Gadigal families who lived in the area when Europeans arrived. Having 62 Aboriginal families living on their traditional land would be an apt commemoration, Mundine says.

But Sartor says 62 is too many, and that to build that many houses in close confinement would lead once again to the creation in the vicinity of a dysfunctional ghetto; back to the bad old days.

The solution, Mundine says, is for the State Government to have nothing to do with the project at all.

"We don't "actually need any money from them, all we need is consent," he says.

So the convictions run deep on both sides. But for Mundine, the brother of former boxer Tony Mundine, and uncle of current world champion Anthony, it's a matter of passion not just mere conviction.

His story of moving from the bush to the city, trying to make his way in "the big smoke", is a snapshot of the experience of countless of his people.

Born at Grafton, Mundine grew up at Baryulgil, about 70km northwest of town. Baryulgil was the site of one of James Hardie's most productive asbestos mines. His father and four of his uncles all worked in the mines-all have died from asbestos-related illnesses.

Like thousands of others of his generation, black and white, Mundine had itchy feet and, about 16, headed off to seek adventure and experience, eventually ending up in Sydney. He played football, drove forklifts and trucks and delivered frozen food, before taking work as a painter for the AHC.

He went from foreman to office manager ("I had no skills to do that, I can tell you") before finally taking over as CEO "about 10 years ago".

It's been a steep learning curve for Mundine, but he's supremely optimistic for the future.

"It's time for change, time for our people to change" he says.

"Our people used to live on hate, now they need to live on hope. What we have to have here [with the Pemulwuy Project] is a vision for the next generation, to give them a sense of respect and self-esteem."

He looks back on the hard times: times when it looked certain the AHC would not be able to continue; when the community was bitterly divided; when he thought nothing good would ever come out of the Redfern-Waterloo area; when he was hated by his own people.

But that's all changing. The junkies and criminals are moving out, and a strong sense of identity is beginning to emerge. "It's been a hard road, but I believe we're on the right track now," Mundine says.

"We have to lay a strong foundation for the next generation. They're always talking about the Stolen Generation - what we have to be careful about is that we don't make the next generation the Lost Generation ... lost on drugs and the vicious cycle of crime.

"I think we just have to get people of the right spirit together. You have to take people how you find them; it's time to break down barriers. For us to survive we've got to work together as people."

Maybe there's a lesson in that for the Planning Minister. Perhaps, minister, another olive branch might be in order.

The Daily Telegraph  Saturday, October 1, 2005-70