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Neville Thomas Bonner AO

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Senator for Queensland 1971 to 1983
Liberal Party of Australia, 1971 to 1983
Independent, 1983

In 1971, Neville Bonner (1922 - 1999) was chosen by the Queensland Parliament to fill a casual vacancy in the Senate, becoming the first Indigenous Australian to enter the federal Parliament.1 Bonner won the seat in his own right the following year and served as a Senator for Queensland until 1983. Today Indigenous parliamentarians from across the political spectrum cite his inspiration.2

A Jagera man, Bonner was born on Ukerebagh Island, NSW. Like most Indigenous children at the time, he received little formal education, and during his youth worked as a farm labourer in Queensland and northern NSW. In 1943, he married Mona Banfield, with whom he had five children and fostered three others. Following Mona’s death (1969), Bonner married Heather Ryan (1972).

In 1945, Bonnor relocated to Palm Island where he became a foundation member of the island’s Social and Welfare Association. By the early 1960s, he had developed an interest in politics and became involved with the One People of Australia League, serving as its Queensland president (1968–74). He joined the Liberal Party in August 1967, just months after the historic 1967 referendum. By 1969 he had become a member of the Party’s state executive. At the 1970 election, placed third on the Liberal–Country Party ticket, he campaigned unsuccessfully for the Senate, believing that ‘if you’re inside the system you can influence the decision makers’.3 However, the following year he was nominated to fill the casual vacancy caused by the resignation of Senator Annabelle Rankin.4

In his First Speech, Bonner declared his intention to play ‘the role which my State of Queensland, my race, my background, my political beliefs, my knowledge of men and circumstances dictate’.5 He was acutely aware of the expectations placed on him:‘My whole political life was under scrutiny … everything I did was being judged, and the whole race was being judged on it.' 6

Highly respected and known for his principled approach to politics, Bonner spoke regularly in the Senate on Indigenous matters, and also on issues such as East Timor, social security, technology, and the environment. Independent-minded, he crossed the floor 34 times.7 He served as the parliamentary representative on the Council of Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (now AIATSIS).

Relegated to third place on the Liberal Senate ticket in 1983, Bonner resigned from the party and narrowly missed re-election as an Independent. He was later awarded Liberal Party life membership.After politics, he held a series of prominent positions including as an ABC director and a patron of World Vision and Amnesty International. Deeply proud of his role as a trailblazer, he continued to be a strong advocate for Indigenous rights. He was named Australian of the Year in 1979, and appointed an AO in 1984.

Wesley (Wes) Barton Walters
Portraitist and abstract painter Wesley 'Wes' Walters (1928-2014) studied architecture at the Gordon Institute in Geelong and art at the Ballarat School of Mines before embarking on a career as an illustrator in Melbourne. He studied life drawing at night at the Victorian Artists’ Society and taught himself anatomy. By the 1950s and 1960s he was freelancing as a commercial artist and had achieved success with commendations and awards for his advertising work that led to his induction into the Illustrators’ Hall of Fame some 30 years later. Walters developed a love for non-figurative abstract painting, creating layered, expressionist works emphasising texture and a sense of movement. In the 1970s Walters focused on portraiture, undertaking hundreds of commissions of public figures across business, academia and the arts, including his Archibald prize-winning portrait of broadcaster Phillip Adams in 1979 and his portrait of art collector and arts mentor Dr Joseph Brown AO OBE in 1983. He was a finalist in the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize in 1988 and 1990.9

Neville Bonner
by Wesley Barton Walters
Oil on canvas
161 x 67.5 cm
Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection

1. Information in this biography has been taken from the following: N Bonner and B Sykes, Black power in Australia: Neville Bonner versus Bobbi Sykes, ed. A Turner, Heinemann Educational Australia, South Yarra, 1975; A Burger, Neville Bonner: A Biography, MacMillan, South Melbourne, 1979; N Bonner, ‘First speech’, Senate, Debates, 8 September 1971, pp. 553–56; D McKeown and R Lundie, ‘Crossing the floor in the federal parliament 1950–April 2019’, Research paper series, 2019–20, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 12 March 2020; R Sullivan, ‘Bonner, Neville (1922–1999)’, Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University; T Rowse, ‘Bonner, Neville Thomas (1922–1999)’, The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate Online Edition, Department of the Senate, Parliament of Australia, published first in hardcopy 2010; B Juddery, ‘Bonner, Neville (1922–1999)’, Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University; N Church, ‘Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Neville Bonner’s appointment to the Senate’, FlagPost, Parliamentary Library blog, 11 June 2021; ‘Senator Neville Bonner AO – In Memoriam: First Aboriginal Senator Australian of the Year 1979’, Australian of the Year Awards; C Freyne, ‘Compromise and confrontation: Senator Neville Bonner’, Radio National, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), 6 January 2013; S Collard, ‘Fifty years since Neville Bonner broke new ground’, NITV News, 11 June 2021.
Note: David Kennedy was the first Australian Indigenous person to be elected to both a state parliament and the federal Parliament, having served as the Member for Bendigo (1969–1972) prior to entering the Victorian Parliament in 1982 (MLA, ALP). However, his Indigenous heritage was not known when he entered either parliament and he did not self-identify as Indigenous at that time. For these reasons Neville Bonner is recorded as the first Indigenous federal parliamentarian and Ken Wyatt as the first Indigenous member of the House of Representatives. See H Gobbett, ‘Indigenous parliamentarians, federal and state: a quick guide’, Parliamentary Library, 11 July 2017. Websites accessed 11 June 2021.
2. Freyne, op. cit.; K Wyatt, ‘Governor-General’s Speech: Address-in-Reply’, House of Representatives, Debates, 29 September 2010, p. 212; N Peris, Nova: Finding My Voice, Wilkinson Publishing, Melbourne, 2018; D Cox, ‘First Speech’, Senate, Debates 19 October 2021, p. 47; A Ridgeway, ‘Adjournment: Bonner, Former Senator Neville’, Senate, Debates 18 September 2003, pp. 15644–45; J Lindgren, ‘First Speech’, Senate, Debates, 11 August 2015, p. 4978; Collard, op. cit. See also J Ireland, ‘Linda Burney portrait unveiled: not just another painting of a suit’, The Canberra Times 13 February 2019, accessed 21 June 2021.
3. Burger, op. cit., p. 31.
4. S Marchant, ‘Rankin, Dame Annabelle Jane Mary (1908–1986)’, The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate Online Edition, Department of the Senate, Parliament of Australia, published first in hardcopy 2010, accessed 11 June 2021.
5. Bonner, ‘First Speech’, op. cit., p. 553.
6. Rowse, op. cit.
7. McKeown and Lundie, op. cit.
8. Church, op. cit.
9. Information in this biography has been taken from the following: ‘Wes Walters: 1928–2014’, National Portrait Gallery; H Ryan, ‘A collection of works by Wes Walters’, Leonard Joel Auctioneers; D Thomas and Clare Gervasoni, ‘Wes Walters (1928–2014)’, Federation University. Websites accessed 15 April 2021.

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