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
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls


The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence