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 & Entertainment
Jessica Pare as Megan Draper and Jon Hamm as the troubled, melancholy Don Draper
tvAnd six other questions we hope Mad Men series seven will answer
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'

'Rebel without a Cause', 'East of Eden' and 'Giant' re-released

Arts & Entertainment
TV The second episode of the hit HBO featured a surprise for viewers
Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Arts & Entertainment
Gian Sammarco plays Adrian Mole in 'The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole'

Sue Townsend's much-loved character will live on
Arts & Entertainment
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show

Kylie Minogue quits The Voice UK

Arts & Entertainment
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Favour Asikpa and Thandie Newton in 'Half of a Yellow Sun'

Review: Half of A Yellow Sun

Arts & Entertainment
Andrew Motion would send 'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens
booksLeading writers protest against government restrictions on prisoners receiving books
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
    Supersize art

    Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

    The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
    Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

    How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

    More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
    10 best activity books for children

    10 best activity books for children

    Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
    Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

    Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

    Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
    Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

    Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

    Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
    Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

    NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

    Politicians urged to find radical solution
    Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

    Ukraine crisis

    How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    A history of the First World War in 100 moments
    Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

    New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

    Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
    Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

    Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

    Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?