Image credit: Wesley Walters (1928-2014) Neville Bonner AO, 1979, Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection, Department of Parliamentary Services, Canberra ACT.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this article contains an image and names of deceased persons.
The eleventh of June 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of Neville Bonner’s appointment to the Senate, when he filled a casual vacancy created by Dame Annabelle Rankin’s resignation to become Australia’s High Commissioner to New Zealand. A Jagera man, Mr Bonner went on to serve as a Senator for Queensland for over a decade until he was defeated in the 1983 federal election.
Born in 1922 on Ukerebagh Island, Tweed Heads, Bonner had little formal education. Before entering the Senate, he worked at a variety of jobs, including as a bridge carpenter for the Moreton Shire Council. From 1968–74 Bonner was President of the One People of Australia League (OPAL), an advocacy group which supported Indigenous Australians with housing, education and other services. He joined the Liberal Party in August 1967 (just months after that year’s historic referendum) and by 1969 had become a member of the party’s state executive.
At the 1970 federal election Bonner was preselected third on the Liberal Party ticket, largely regarded as an ‘unwinnable’ position due to the candidacy of the incumbent Democratic Labor Party senator (and former Premier of Queensland) Vincent Gair. However, the following year he won preselection in the first round of ballots to fill Dame Annabelle’s Senate position. Other preselection candidates included Queensland Legislative Assembly parliamentarian William Heatley and State Liberal vice-president Noelene Wheeler. When his nomination was announced on 24 May 1971 at Liberal Party headquarters in Brisbane, Bonner reportedly wept and declared his pride at receiving the nomination.
Bonner believed that the interests of Indigenous Australians would best be advanced by working within the existing political institutions. As a Senator, he advocated strongly for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people throughout his parliamentary career. In his first speech he declared:
I crave your indulgence and the indulgence of honourable senators in that for a very short time all within me that is Aboriginal yearns to be heard as the voice of the indigenous peoples of Australia. For far too long we have been crying out and far too few have heard us. I stand humbly in the presence of honourable senators to bring to their attention what I believe to be the lot of those of my race in 1971. It would be an understatement to say that the lot of fellow Aboriginals is not a particularly happy one. We bear emotional scars—the young no less than the older … Less than 200 years ago the white man came. I say now in all sincerity that my people were shot, poisoned, hanged and broken in spirit until they became refugees in their own land.
He also became the first backbencher to move and carry through to passage a government bill, being the Aboriginal Development Commission Bill. In making his second reading speech Bonner stated that ‘This is doubly an historic occasion, I believe, not only because of the importance of the Bill itself for Aboriginal people, but for the first time in history an Aboriginal is introducing a Government measure into the Parliament’. He also chaired the Senate Select committee on Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (report published 1976) and Joint Select committee on Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory (report published 1977).
Bonner’s Private Members’ Bill, Aborigines and Islanders (Admissibility of Confessions) Bill, was also significant in drawing the Parliament’s attention to the disproportionate incarceration rates of First Nations people in Australia. First introduced by Bonner in 1976, the Bill lapsed across successive parliaments, leading him to lament in 1981:
For the many years that I have been privileged to sit in this chamber, I have listened attentively, if somewhat cynically, to the many debates concerning my race. This cynicism has of late, I believe, been reinforced by events which all honourable senators should be familiar and concerned. However, I now call upon the honourable senators to do some soul searching, to exercise their minds, to put their fine words into some definite, direct action. This chamber has been deluged by noble words and sentiments which have hung heavily on my ears and then, sadly to say, like some hot air, have drifted upwards, to be dissipated and blown away on the winds of indifference. Today I am issuing a challenge to all senators to put these thoughts and expressions of concern for the Aboriginal and island people into positive and effective action.
Bonner was awarded the title of Australian of the Year in 1979, the only sitting parliamentarian to have received this honour, and in 1984 was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia.
In the lead up to the 1983 federal election, Bonner was relegated to the third position on the Liberal’s senate ticket. In response, he quit the party and instead sought re-election as an Independent. Despite receiving the fifth most first-preference votes, preference flows saw Bonner ranked eleventh in a field where only the top 10 were elected. Having renewed his affiliation with the Liberal Party in 1996, he was conferred as a life member in 1998 by Prime Minister John Howard. Upon departing the parliament, Bonner held a series of prominent positions including a director on the board of the ABC and a patron of World Vision and Amnesty International. The Queensland federal electorate of Bonner is named in his honour.