Australia's very first Indigenous parliamentarian, Neville Bonner, tells of the many lonely nights he spent in Canberra in a new exhibition.
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The Point
11 Sep 2017 - 4:21 PM  UPDATED 12 Sep 2017 - 11:25 AM

This month marks 46 years since Neville Bonner became the first Indigenous person to become a member of the Australian Parliament. 

Elected in 1971, Neville served as Queensland Liberal senator for more than a decade until 1983, making Australian political history. 

Neville remembers the day he was sworn in. 

"There were only two Aboriginal people in Parliament. As they were leading me up I looked up and around the galleries I could feel that the whole Aboriginal race, of those who had gone before were all up there," Neville says in a documentary from the Museum of Australian Democracy. 

Neville held onto his seat for the next twelve years. He lost his seat in the 1983 election, he resigned and contested the election as an independent, narrowly missed retaining his seat.

But he remained a strong advocate for Indigenous rights right up until his death in 1999. 

Treated like an outsider 

But Neville's time in the Parliament wasn't easy. Despite his unique position, he was treated like an outsider spending most nights in the Old Parliament alone. 

The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate notes that Neville “was sometimes accused of being too sympathetic to white views and was labelled a ‘tame cat’ or ‘Uncle Tom’”.

He spoke of the particular loneliness he felt in Canberra.  

 

“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’.”

 "There was never one night when anyone said, ‘Hey, let’s go out tonight’.”

Libby Stewart from the Museum of Australian Democracy has put together personal items of Neville's life in a new exhibition. 

"One of the objects we have in this exhibition is a pillow that parliamentarians were given. They had long hours and often they had to rest. His has the red senate pillow case on it. Just that sense of never being asked to go out and never socialising with his colleagues and possibly sleeping here on his own," she told NITV.  

His family also witnessed first-hand the discrimination Neville faced. His step-son Rory worked with him in the Parliament. 

"He told me and I saw it, I was here many times with him and both sides the black and the white side and myself growing up. But we thought for a long time it was just a part of life and everyone was saying this is not a part of life," Rory told NITV.

His son Alfred also remembers.

"We've all had that feeling of hatred towards the Aboriginal people, but he looked above that. He didn't worry about what the white men thought of him as a black man, he sort of fought all his life to keep above all that," he told NITV. 

Indigenous activists had mixed views about Neville Bonner's arrival on the political scene. The 1970's was a turbulent time in Australian politics and a high-point in the struggle for Indigenous rights and justice.

Neville however didn't come from the radical urban Aboriginal activist movement, and some didn't like his politics

Alfred Bonner says his father often faced criticism from both sides. 

"There was a lot of black men and white men that hated him, you know, but there was a lot black men and white men that loved him as a man, for what he was, for the things that he achieved in his life," he said. 

From poverty to Parliament 

But beyond Canberra, Neville's hard work didn't go unnoticed.

In 1979, he was honoured as Australian of the Year and a few years later, in 1983, he was awarded the Officer of the Order of Australia medal. 

Today there are numerous buildings, bridges, schools and even a suburb in his name.

But the journey to becoming the nation's very first Indigenous parliamentarian was no mean feat. 

Neville Bonner: Remembering Australia's first Indigenous Parliamentarian
The man who was driven by an ‘all-consuming burning desire to help my own people’ was born 95 years ago today.

Born on the banks of the Tweed River to an Aboriginal mother and English father during the 1920s, Neville's life from very the beginning broke boundaries. 

His mother gave birth to him under a lone palm tree on Ukerebagh Island in 1922. It was a time when Aboriginal people were not allowed into town centres at night. 

Like many other Indigenous children at the time, Neville had little to no education, working as a rural labourer across Queensland. 

He worked as a woodcutter and dairy-hand in the early years before settling into the Aboriginal community of Palm Island off the coast of Queensland. 

He remarried when he returned to the mainland and soon became involved in business and politics. 

In 1998, shortly before Neville's impassioned speech at the Constitutional Convention, he announced he was suffering from lung cancer, but vowed to continue working for his people.

Those who knew him say it was typical of the man, and the way he should be remembered.

"I am Neville Bonner, proud to be an Aborigine, and proudly a member of this Australian community. I am no token for no person."

Today, the proud Jagera man's remarkable legacy is being remembered and celebrated in a new exhibition at Old Parliament House. 

Dedicated to the act of preserving and collecting, 'Finders Keepers' tells stories about the ideas, movements, individuals and events that have shaped the nation, through five personal collections donated to the museum.

Libby Stewart, exhibition curator, says the Neville collection is unique. 

"These are everyday items not necessarily deliberately collected, but kept by his family - items he used and kept when he was in politics, but also before he became a politician, so it covers a large span of his life," she says. 

His son Alfred couldn't be more proud.  

"I am proud of what he achieved and what he's left for the next generation." 

Related reading
Australia's first federal Indigenous politician remembered in new exhibition
'Finders Keepers' explores the lives of five fascinating Australians and their personal collections, among those, Australia's first federal Indigenous parliamentarian, Neville Bonner.