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.

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

booksReview: Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments