Bonner, Neville Thomas (1922-1999)
Neville Thomas Bonner was the first Australian Aborigine to sit in the Australian Federal Parliament, as a Liberal Party Senator for the State of Queensland, 1971 to 1983. His humble beginnings, along with a first hand experience of poverty, unemployment and discrimination, hardened his resolve to work within the political system in order to bring change and improved conditions for indigenous Australians. Having a passionate and articulate Aboriginal voice in Federal Parliament helped raise awareness of Indigenous people and the issues and challenges confronting them.
He was born in 1922 under a tree on Ukerebaagh Island, at the mouth of the Tweed River in northern New South Wales, as his mother, being Aboriginal, had to be out of town before sunset and could not return until sunrise the next day. He never knew his father, an Englishman, who, although married to his mother, returned to England before he was born. His maternal grandfather, Jung Jung (Roger Bell), was the last initiated member of the Jagera Tribe. Orphaned at age nine, he was raised by his grandparents in what he termed “a blacks’ camp under the lantana bushes.” Life was hard, and by age seven Bonner was helping the family earn money by clearing the bush; “my job was to crawl underneath the lantana bushes and with a little tomahawk, cut the lantana off at the root.”
Bonner was unable to attend school, for the education system was segregated and there was no mission school nearby. However at age 13, his grandmother, who insisted he learn how to read and write, arranged with the head teacher for him to go to the local school, which he did for one year. At age 14, following the death of his grandmother he left school to seek employment, working in a variety of rural jobs on banana plantations, at ring-barking, scrub felling and timber cutting, as a dairy hand, cutting cane, and then as stockman in north-west Queensland he met his wife, Mona Banfield.
Married in 1943, they moved to her birth place, the Aboriginal settlement of Palm Island, where they and their five sons remained until 1960. Here Bonner became actively involved in community affairs, rising to the highest position open to an Aborigine on the island, that of Assistant Settlement Overseer responsible for the administration of works, with responsibility for 250 workers. The family then moved to Ipswich, where he established a boomerang supply business and became involved with the Coloured Welfare Council, which later became the One People of Australia League (OPAL). Mona died in 1969, and he subsequently married Heather Ryan, a director of OPAL, on 29 July 1972.
Bonner joined the Liberal Party in 1967, being elected chairman of the Oxley Area Committeein 1969. He was endorsed as a Liberal Party candidate for Queensland in the 1970 half-senate election but failed to win a seat. But after much public debate he was selected by the Liberal Party to fill a casual Senate vacancy in August 1971. In 1974 he was instrumental in ending 77 years of legislative paternalism towards indigenous peoples in Queensland, when he successfully pushed for the Commonwealth Government to introduce overriding legislation to end the abuses of human rights on Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Reserves. Bonner also chaired the Senate Select Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, whose 1976 report, The Environmental Conditions of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, saw 82 of its 86 recommendations accepted. He was the first Aborigine to introduce legislation into the Australian Parliament and was also the first back-bencher to introduce a Government Bill – the Aboriginal Development Commission Bill, and carry it through all stages.
Elected to the Senate on three occasions, his increasing advocacy for indigenous rights, land rights, his insistence on raising environmental issues such as mining on the Great Barrier Reef, and his outspoken criticism of the Queensland National-Liberal Party government, especially its leader, Premier John Bjelke-Petersen, ensured that he was relegated to an unwinnable position on the 1983 Queensland Liberal Senate ticket. Left with no choice but to resign from the Liberal Party, he stood unsuccessfully for a Senate seat as an independent. Rejoining the Liberal Party in 1996, his reconciliation was completed when Prime Minister John Howard bestowed on him life membership of its Queensland Branch.
It was on Palm Island Aboriginal Reserve, remembered by Bonner as “experiencing my private hells,” that he forged his political convictions, based on an ideal of inter-racial co-operation and togetherness. Attacked by some in the Black Power movement for being a moderate, for working within the system and for belonging to a party on the right of the political spectrum, he always sought reconciliation and non violent solutions. Known for his keen sense of humour, dignity, oratory and self-effacement, he was an inspiration to the many Australians who took heart from the fact that one from such a deprived background could in fact rise to greatness.
Following his parliamentary career he continued to speak out on issues which divide Black and White Australians. Elected a Queensland delegate to the Constitutional Convention, as a member of the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy campaigning against an Australian Republic, Bonner argued passionately for the retention of the monarchy. On 29 July 1998, in an historic first, he was invited, as a Jagera elder, the traditional landowners of the Brisbane River district, to open the 49th Queensland Parliament.
He died in 1999, aged 76, after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Accorded a state funeral, the mourners included his wife Heather, some 60 members of his extended family, the Prime Minister, the Premier and Governor of Queensland, as well as several hundred guests, friends and members of the public. In 2000, the Commonwealth Government established the Neville Bonner Memorial Fund, contributing $AUS 400 000 towards an annual scholarship for an indigenous person studying an honours degree in political science.
Thomas Neville Bonner. Born 28 March 1922 on Ukerebaagh Island, New South Wales, Australia. Education. Beaudesert State School, 4th grade. Employment. Head Stockman, 1941-5. Assistant Settlement Overseer, Palm Island. Dairy farm manager, Ipswich, 1960-2. Established Bonnerangs boomerang manufacturing business, Ipswich, 1966-7. Bridge carpenter, Moreton Shire Council, 1968-71. Board of directors of OPAL, 1965. Queensland President, OPAL, 1967-73. Senator, Australian Senate, 15 August 1971-83. Senate Deputy Chairman of Committees, 1974. Chairman, Joint Committee on Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory, 1977. Board member, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1983-91. Senior official visitor to Queensland state prisons, 1990-7. Member, Griffith University Council, 1992-6. Member, Queensland Land Tribunal, 1992-9. Chairman, Queensland Indigenous Advisory Council, 1997-8. Appointed patron, OPAL, 1980. Patron, World Vision Australia, 1976-90, Ipswich Women’s Shelter, Coloured Youth Soul Center. Awards: Canberra Australia Day Council Australian of the Year, 1979. Life membership, Young Liberal Movement, Queensland, 1978. Life membership, OPAL, 1979. Order of Australia, 1984. Honorary Doctorate, Griffith University, 1993. Delegate, Australian Constitutional Convention, Canberra, 1998. Life membership, Queensland division of the Liberal Party, 1998. Ipswich Citizen of the Year, 1999. Died in Ipswich, Queensland, 5 February 1999. Buried at Warrill Park Lawn Cemetery, Ipswich.
Selected Works [N.T. Bonner]
Equal World, Equal Share, 1977
For the Love of the Children, 1982
Burger, Angela, Neville Bonner: A Biography, Melbourne: MacMillan, 1979
Turner, Ann, editor, Black Power in Australia: Bobbi Sykes Versus Senator Neville T. Bonner, Melbourne: Heinemann, 1975
I wrote this for an encyclopedia article crica 2001/2