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The great disruptor: Mundine vows to 'change the status quo'

DISRUPTIVE. A change-maker. From early adulthood, Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO has been intensively involved in championing changes to the quality of life of his mob, his fellow Aboriginals.

Through his recently released candid memoir Warren Mundine: In Black + White, I met a man, who as a teen, knew he wanted to be in public life. He watched Lionel Rose win the 1968 world championship and started to form his life pathway from then. In the 80s he believed in activism as the best way to achieve change. Soon he became an insider, using his astute learning of big business, politics and the media to be heard across all of Australia and all its generations.

Many may not, and in fact have not, agreed with Warren's ideas for changing the younger generation's choices - he firmly believes in moving away from welfare centricity to economic centricity, in creating real economies within Aboriginal communities, in creating jobs and facilitating education, and better access to health services.

A group of Aboriginal Australians at rally lead by Warren Mundine, chairman of the Justice Before Games support group, demonstrating in front of the Queensland Tourist Bureau office in Grenfell Street, Adelaide 17 Sep 1982.
A group of Aboriginal Australians at rally lead by Warren Mundine, chairman of the Justice Before Games support group, demonstrating in front of the Queensland Tourist Bureau office in Grenfell Street, Adelaide 17 Sep 1982. John Guster

The road ahead to achieve these changes remains uphill. The Federal Government's target of halving the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by 2018 isn't on track. The Closing the Gap targets, 2017 analysis of progress and key drivers of change report explains, "the lack of opportunities is an issue on the demand side of the labour market, the lack of skills is an issue on the supply side, and logistical reasons a market barrier to potentially matching workers with jobs".

How can this be changed?

"The only way to change the status quo is to disrupt it," Warren, 61, says. "Everything that has happened in history that has made a change has been through someone who has been a disruptor."

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The proud Australian has come from a working background - first as a Sydney factory worker, then a public servant before pursuing higher education. He then became the first Aboriginal to be elected to a NSW local government role, before moving up to National President of the Australian Labor Party in 2006/7, choosing not to renew his party membership in 2012 and then voting Liberal - and that's only part of his extraordinary story.

Warren has earned the ear of the politicians and of the mainstream media. This allows him to keep pushing out his message of economic participation where outcomes rather than activities are the measure of the success of change within the Aboriginal communities.

"Giving a person a job; it deals with a lot of issues like mental health, substance abuse and people's living style with better housing, and access to better finance to have a better lifestyle," Warren says.

He has survived many political upheavals and five prime ministers. In February last year he stepped away from the chair of the Indigenous Advisory Council. "Malcolm Turnbull asked me stay on the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council, but I said I was more interested in economic development and doing something at the coal face rather than advising on policy and hoping governments take it up," he adds.

Instead, there's another hill that he is happy to climb.

Aboriginal business leader Warren Mundine.
Aboriginal business leader Warren Mundine. John Feder/The Australian

"I'd been around the political process for long enough to understand that achieving change is not a war but a series of battles. You have to go out to battle for what you want every single day," he writes in his memoir. So, he's back at the coal-face, working 24/7 on two new businesses, continuing his advisory roles for public groups, holding board positions for several private businesses and charities, and delivering in a variety of written and broadcast media roles including his own business show on Sky News.

The two companies he has bought into have 16 offices across Northern Territory, NSW and West Australia. Their focus is on getting Aborigines into work and creating employment opportunities for them within a community. He also spends about 14 days each month visiting Aboriginal communities - talking to people, and listening to them.

Tapping into the power of social media is another of his battles. "I am very vocal on social media which I want to expand, plus looking at more blogs and more media approaches," Warren says.

His lengthy memoir is an easy read. Designed to engage a broad audience, it includes a deeply researched history of his family and of the cultural connections that have help to develop his passion.

"I wanted to tell a story of Australia and use my family and myself as a vehicle for that," Warren says. The book smoothly crosses between family history, personal experiences and Australian political history. "The vast majority that have read it liked it, even though some of the political comments they may not agree with them. I had one bloke who said he totally disagrees with my politics, but he enjoyed it because of the story it told. He actually said it should be high school and university reading as it shows a history of Australia which most people wouldn't know about or don't remember it."

Warren Mundine pictured at his home in Roseville Chase in Sydney.
Warren Mundine pictured at his home in Roseville Chase in Sydney. AAP - Damian Shaw

Facing up to reaching his 60s has been tough for Warren. He already has three stents, courtesy of his mother's genes so he says.

"I wish they told me this when I was 18 that what you are doing at 18 does affect you when you are in your 60s and 70s," Warren chuckled.

While he might have to watch what he eats and drinks, he isn't slowing down nor looking at retiring. "In fact, I probably couldn't think of anything worse than retiring," Warren says.

"No offence to anyone who is retired. I am very focused on doing things which is something I got from my father who worked until he was 72."

Look. There's another hill. Warren hasn't climbed that one, yet.