• Neville Bonner was the first Aboriginal person to enter parliament in 1971. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
From under a palm tree on Ukerebagh Island to the corridors of power, Neville Bonner was a trailblazer with an enduring legacy.
Sarah Collard

11 Jun 2021 - 4:18 PM  UPDATED 11 Jun 2021 - 4:25 PM

On the 50th anniversary of Neville Bonner first entering parliament, we reflect on the journey of Australia's first Aboriginal parliamentarian.

Neville Bonner was born under a palm tree on Ukerebagh Island, in northern New South Wales in 1922.

He only received one year of formal education - but through grit, determination and a ‘burning desire’ to help his people he made it all the way to Parliament House.

Mr Bonner was nominated by the Queensland Liberal party for the senate in 1971 - making history as Australia's first Aboriginal senator. just a few years after the historic 1967 referendum which led to First Nations people being counted in the census.

“We as Aboriginal people still have to fight to prove that we are straight out, plain human beings — the same as everyone else." 

By his own admission it was his desire to not only be a voice for his people but also Queenslanders in his electorate.

"My whole political life was under scrutiny. The way I walked, the way I talked, the way I ate, the way I drank, everything I did was being judged," 

"I felt that I had a responsibility to prove that we Aboriginal people had the ability and the willpower to be able to handle any situation, because if I failed, then my whole race would have been judged accordingly".

Senator Bonner at the time of his election said it was a ‘wonderful’ feeling but he knew he would be more heavily scrutinised than his peers.

“We as Aboriginal people still have to fight to prove that we are straight out, plain human beings — the same as everyone else." 

The Senator’s journey to power was perhaps less likely than his modern counterparts - working as a carpenter, dairy hand and labourer before working to improve the lives of his people on Palm Island. 

A lonely life in Parliament

The Jagera man would not live to see the next Indigenous politician enter parliament - just months after his death in 1999 — Aden Ridgeway entered Parliament as a member of the now defunct Australian Democrats party. 

Senator Bonner spoke of his profound loneliness — treated like an equal inside Parliament but he had lonely days and nights. 

"There were hours just sitting in my office, and I went home alone to my unit at night. There was never one night where someone said, 'Hey, let's go out together."

He said he often felt like an outsider among the elite politicians he walked and worked alongside for more than a decade. 

"I often questioned myself; What are you doing here?" while being interviewed for a documentary."

He served as a Senator for almost 12 years but resigned from the Liberal party in 1983; striking out on his own as an independent and famously campaigning on the road from his ute driving through regional and remote Queensland - narrowly missing out on securing victory. 

He voted with his feet often - crossing the floor and voting against his own party 34 times when he felt the policies didn't reflect personal convictions or constituents. 

An ‘extraordinary legacy’

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said Mr Bonner's journey was remarkable and inspiring.

"All of a sudden with have gone from one to many... I'm much more fortunate than my brother Neville. He did it alone, he was tough but he was good." he told NITV News.

Mr Wyatt, the first Indigenous person to sit in the House of Representatives, said Mr Bonner left a powerful legacy and was not afraid to show the chasm that existed between Indigenous peoples and the rest of society. 

"He showed Australians, that there was an injustice, and they were wrong, that there were gaps in every aspect of our lives that Australian government hadn't improved." he said.

 'A magnificent and dignified man'

On the other side of the floor, Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians, Labor’s Linda Burney remembers Bonner as a trailblazer who must have felt an enormous burden of responsibility.

Fifty years on since his historic moment, Ms Burney said there's been some progress for our people.

“I think we’ve come some distance but boy is there a long way to go,” she told NITV News.

“The sorts of inequities that Neville was talking about back then remain the inequities today and that is a salient point.”

Ms Burney said it must have been an isolating experience for Bonner back in those times.

“I cant imagine just how challenging and lonely it must have been but what a magnificent and dignified man," she said.

“There is now a good number of First Nations people on both sides of the parliament and of course in the cross bench in the senate so it does make it a — a very different atmosphere.”

Mr Bonner also has the distinction of being the first sitting politician to become Australian of the Year in recognition of his work.

His death in 1999 at the age of 76 was marked in Parliament with colleagues paying tribute to his contribution to public life.

Nine other First Nations people have been elected to parliament since Mr Bonner first paved the way.

You can't be, what you can't see.