Senator Neville Bonner at his desk, 1979. Courtesy of National Archives of Australia 2022 (A6180, 18/12/79/7)
Cultural warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are advised that the following contains the names, images and voices of people who are deceased.
Senator Neville Bonner AO was the first Indigenous Australian to enter the Federal Parliament.1
On 11 June 1971, Neville Thomas Bonner (1922–1999) was chosen by the Queensland Parliament to fill a casual vacancy in the Senate of the federal parliament caused by the resignation of Senator the Hon Annabelle Rankin. It was a historic appointment, nine years after Indigenous Australians gained the right to vote. Bonner won the seat in his own right in the general election held the following year and continued to represent Queensland in the Senate until 1983.
A Jagera man, Bonner was born in 1922 on Ukerebagh Island, Tweed Heads, New South Wales. Like most Indigenous children at the time, Bonner received little formal education and, during his youth, worked as a rural labourer on properties in Queensland and northern New South Wales. In 1945 he relocated to Palm Island, Queensland, where he became a foundation member of the Palm Island Social and Welfare Association.
By the early 1960s, Bonner had developed an interest in politics and became involved with the One People of Australia League (OPAL) in Ipswich, 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, Bonner campaigned unsuccessfully for the Senate, only to be nominated to fill the casual vacancy the following year.
In his first speech to the Senate during the 1971–1972 Budget, Bonner said:
First and foremost, I participate here as an Australian citizen.… As an Australian, I am concerned for the future of my country, for the welfare of its people and for the quality of life that they enjoy. However, I am conscious of the fact that I am the first member of my race to participate in parliamentary proceedings. I am proud that, however long it has taken, this form of participation has been achieved.2
Bonner believed that the interests of Indigenous Australians would best be advanced by working within the existing political institutions, and by ‘negotiation’, not ‘confrontation’. He described himself as having ‘an all-consuming burning desire to help my own people’. He would later emphasise, however, that he tried in his political career ‘to serve all people’.3
During his 12 years in the Senate, Bonner was a highly respected parliamentary figure, known for his principled approach to politics in his campaign for Indigenous issues and the environment. Among the issues he raised in the Senate were national symbolism, land rights, technological opportunities, East Timor, and social security entitlements. In 1974, Bonner moved a motion that the Senate acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the prior owners of the Australian continent and introduce legislation to compensate them for dispossession of their land. He later served as chair of the Select Committee on Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and the Joint Select Committee on Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory.
Bonner did not always vote with the Liberal Party and crossed the floor on some 34 occasions. He later said,
I didn't toe the party line. I was a member of the party – fiercely, proudly, a member of the party – but I was not blindly a member of the party. I had a conscience, and political parties don't need people with a conscience. They want bottoms on seats, and hands in the air at the right time.4
Relegated to third place on the Senate ticket in 1983, Bonner resigned from the Liberal Party and narrowly missed re-election as an Independent. He would be made a life member of the Liberal Party 15 years later.
After politics, Bonner held a series of prominent positions including as a director on the board of the ABC and a patron of World Vision and Amnesty International. He remained deeply proud of his role as a trailblazer, but it came at some cost.
It was worse than being out droving … I was treated like an equal on the floor of the chamber, neither giving nor asking quarter, but there were hours just sitting in my office and I went home alone to my unit at night. There was never one night when anyone said, ‘Hey, let’s go out tonight’.5
In 1979, Bonner was named Australian of the Year in recognition of his advocacy for Indigenous rights and in 1984 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia.
In 1998 Neville Bonner was elected a monarchist delegate to the Constitutional Convention held at Old Parliament House, Canberra to consider whether Australia should become a republic. Bonner demonstrated his command over an audience receiving the only standing ovation at the convention following his speech:
How dare you! You told my people that your system was best … We have come to believe that … Now you say that you were wrong and that we were wrong to believe you. Suddenly you are saying that what brought the country together, made it independent, ensured its defence, saw it through peace and war, and saw it through depression and prosperity, must all go.6
Bonner ended his speech by singing a mourning song in Jagera language.
Neville Bonner died in Ipswich in 1999 and was given a state funeral at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Ipswich. The Queensland federal electorate of Bonner is named in his honour.
Wesley Barton Walters (1928–2014), Neville Bonner, 1979, Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection.
Senator Neville Bonner with his portrait and the artist, Wes Walters, Parliament House (detail), 1979. Courtesy of National Archives of Australia 2022 (A6180, 24/10/79/3).
Read more about the portrait of Neville Bonner by artist Wes Walters from the Parliament House Historic Memorials Collection.
National Film and Sound Archive. Neville Bonner interviewed by Robin Hughes, excerpts from an episode of Australian Biography Series 1, produced by Film Australia, 1992. Duration: 26 mins.
1. David Kennedy was actually the first Indigenous individual elected to Federal Parliament serving as the ALP Member for Bendigo (1969–1972). ‘However, his Indigenous heritage was not known when he entered [parliament] nor did he self-identify as Indigenous at that time. For these reasons Neville Bonner is recorded as the first Indigenous federal parliamentarian’. Read more. [pdf]
2. Senator Neville Bonner, ‘Budget 1971-72’, 8 September 1971, Hansard, p.553.
3. The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 356-364.
4. Neville Bonner: Australian Biography, 1992, National Film and Sound Archive 5. The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 356-364. 6. Neville Bonner, ‘Constitutional Convention’, 4 February 1998, Hansard, p.263.
Parliament of Australia. The biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate. Neville Bonner
Parliament of Australia. Hansard. Neville Bonner’s speech to the Senate, Wednesday, 8 September 1971 [PDF]
Parliamentary Library. Nathan Church, Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Neville Bonner's appointment to the Senate.
Parliamentary Library. Lisa Richards, Indigenous Australian parliamentarians in federal and state/territory parliaments: a quick guide [PDF]
National Library of Australia. Neville Bonner interviewed by Pat Shaw in the Parliament's oral history project. Duration: 47:17 min
National Archives of Australia. Neville Bonner
Australian National University. Indigenous Australia. Bruce Juddery, Neville Bonner (Obituary)
Museum of Australian Democracy. Celebrating Neville Bonner, the first Indigenous federal parliamentarian.