Obituary: Neville Bonner

NEVILLE BONNER was the first Aborigine to be elected to Australia's federal parliament in its 98 years of existence. He went to Canberra, the capital, in 1971 as a member of the Senate, the upper house, for the conservative Liberal Party. It was an enormous breakthrough for him and his people. Aboriginal land rights were about to take off as an issue, and are still at the forefront of Australian politics almost 30 years later.

Bonner's triumph was short-lived. The party that adopted him dumped him in 1983, when the Liberals made it impossible for him to win re-election. Bonner's only crime was that he had become too radical for the party of the white establishment. But he had set a path in history for other indigenous Australians to follow, although only one so far has done so.

Bonner was born on an island in the Tweed River in northern New South Wales, but spent most of his life in Queensland. He was an elder of the Jagera tribe, a small, nuggety man with a rich growth of hair that became white and rather wild in his later years, but always made him looked distinguished. His home was Ipswich, a town near Brisbane, made infamous by Pauline Hanson, the fringe politician who shot to prominence last year with a campaign attacking Asian immigration and state funding for Aborigines.

Bonner's political life lasted more than 20 years: he was still speaking out for his people in 1998. Hanson's rash, fierce blaze petered out after less than three years. As Neville Bonner died, the rump of Hanson's party in Queensland was imploding, its leader seemingly a spent force after losing her parliamentary seat last year.

Hanson-style bigotry among white Australians was a hurdle that Bonner overcame to win power. Once in parliament, though, he often had to face resentment from among his own people, especially the younger generation of Aboriginal activists - educated, fiery and politically savvy - who accused him of being too conservative, too unwilling to rock the boat to advance the Aboriginal cause.

It was really a difference more of means than ends. Bonner's manner reflected the era of his upbringing in the 1920s and 1930s, one of paternal racism in Australia when official policy was to assimilate Aborigines as far as possible into the then predominantly Anglo-Celtic society in the belief that their own customs and culture would eventually disappear. On the vast cattle and sheep properties of the outback, Aborigines were "looked after" by white farmers who gave them jobs as stockmen in return for their keep; and in towns and cities, people took in Aboriginal women as domestics for whatever they cared to pay them.

When Bonner attended a constitutional convention in Canberra a year ago, on the question of Australia's becoming a republic, he did so as a committed monarchist. All four other Aboriginal delegates called for a republic. To them, the British monarchy was a symbol not of freedom but of the start of a long, sad road of dispossession ever since Captain Arthur Phillip raised the Union flag on the shores of what is now Sydney in 1788. Bonner saw it differently. Would becoming a republic really make a difference to the lot of black Australians, he asked. No, he said, it would not.

"I cannot see how it will resolve the question of land and access to land that troubles us . . . Fellow Australians, what is most hurtful is that after all we have learned together, after subjugating us and then freeing us, once again you are telling us that you know better. How dare you? How dare you?"

In his 76th year, and already battling the lung cancer that killed him a year later, Bonner the passionate advocate had come a long way from the more humble man of earlier years.

His mother, Julia Bell, was an Aborigine, his father, Henry Bonner, an Englishman. Neville Bonner was fostered as a child, and went out working cutting scrub and mustering cattle. Discrimination dogged him, as it did any black in rural Australia then, and sometimes even now. The Australian army declined to accept him when he tried to join up in 1940. The European climate was not suitable for Aborigines, they told him. Working in the bush, he suffered the indignity of eating and sleeping separately from the white stockmen. Such experiences awakened in him the need for change.

Yet he was conservative by nature, and, when he was later drawn to politics, the Liberal Party in Queensland, the most conservative of all that party's branches, was happy to accept him in 1967 as a token black member or, as the party itself put it, "the first coloured member". In 1971, the Liberals appointed Bonner to fill a Queensland vacancy for the Senate, a federal house elected on a state-by-state basis.

At first Bonner toed the Liberal Party line on the big issues of the day. He did not speak out against the Vietnam war, nor did he support younger Aboriginal activists who modelled themselves on the American Black Power militants. But Bonner's Aboriginality eventually drove him to take a more radical stand on indigenous rights. He put a motion to parliament calling on it to recognise that Aborigines were the prior owners of Australia.

That simple proposition was indeed radical, and threatening, in 1974. But in 1999 there is widespread public support for the same proposition to be written into the Australian constitution. It may be included in a forthcoming referendum on constitutional change to a republic.

By 1983, Bonner had stepped too far out of line as far as the Liberals were concerned. They dropped him to number three place on their Senate ticket for that year's election, ensuring his defeat. He ran as an independent and lost. "Neville felt rejected by the tribe he had chosen," said Peter Beattie, now Labor Party premier of Queensland, referring to the Liberals' dumping of Bonner. Bob Hawke, elected Labor prime minister in 1983, appointed Bonner to the board of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He was awarded the Order of Australia the following year.

Last month, he was too ill to attend a ceremony in Brisbane where the state Labor government named an office block after him. His second wife, Heather, spoke for him: "The life of my beloved husband, from his birth in that blacks' camp as it was so cruelly called, to the rank of senator of Queensland in the national parliament - he had only $5 in his pocket - is a splendid example of Australia's democracy."

Bonner always wanted the mainstream political parties to adopt more Aborigines as candidates, but they have been slow to do so. It is fitting that, in the year of Bonner's death, Aden Ridgeway will take his seat in the Senate in July, the second Aborigine to make it to federal parliament. It is even more fitting that Ridgeway, from New South Wales, got there by beating a candidate from Pauline Hanson's party.

Neville Thomas Bonner, politician: born Ukerebagh Island, New South Wales 28 March 1922; member of the Australian Senate 1971-83; AO 1984; twice married (five sons); died Ipswich, Queensland 5 February 1999.