• Neville Bonner was the first Aboriginal person to enter parliament in 1971. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Neville Bonner was the first Aboriginal person ever elected to the Australian Parliament, and paved the way for proud Indigenous representation at the national level.
By
NITV Staff Writer

Source:
NITV News
24 Aug 2021 - 12:13 PM  UPDATED 24 Aug 2021 - 12:13 PM

Neville Bonner was a proud Jagera man, born on Ukerebagh Island at the mouth of the Tweed River in 1922. 

Despite receiving little education in his early life, he went on to carve a path of self-determination, eventually becoming the first Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person elected to the Australian parliament. 

Humble beginnings

After his mother was deserted by her partner, Bonner and his family lived in desperate conditions. His grandfather constructed a home from sheets of corrugated iron. The whole family lived there, beneath a patch of lantana by the river in tropical Lismore. 

Bonner left school at 15, with the equivalent schooling of a year three student, and worked on various farming properties in Queensland in his early 20s, before finding employment on the Palm Island Aboriginal Settlement. 

He spent 14 long years on the island. It was a brutal place which had been established as a mission in 1918, as many thousands were across the country.

Bonner nonetheless found some personal success there, rising to the position of assistant settlement overseer, and learning many of the skills that stood him in good stead in his political life. 

A political streak

In 1960, he moved back to the mainland, and settled in Queensland's Ipswich. It was at this time that he joined the One People of Australia League (OPAL), a moderate Indigenous rights group. He would later become their president from 1968-1974. 

Becoming increasingly politically active, Bonner joined the Liberal Party in August 1967, just a few short months after the historic referendum which removed discriminatory sections of the Australian constitution. 

He rose quickly through the ranks of the Liberals, becoming part of the party's executive in 1969. 

Parliamentary life

Upon the resignation of Queensland senator Dame Annabelle Rankin in 1971, Bonner was chosen to fill her vacancy in Canberra; in doing so, he become the first Indigenous person to sit in the parliament of Australia. 

In his maiden speech, he spoke of the plight of First Nations people:

"For far too long we have been crying out and far too few have heard us... It would be an understatement to say that the lot of fellow Aboriginals is not a particularly happy one... Less than 200 years ago the white man came. I say now in all sincerity that my people were shot, poisoned, hanged and broken in spirit until they became refugees in their own land."

 

It was the beginning of a career that saw him advocate on a national stage for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: he sat on various senate committees, became the first Aboriginal to pass a government bill (Aboriginal Development Commission Bill 1980), and campaigned against the extreme numbers of First Nations people languishing in prisons. 

It was an issue that saw him frustrated time and again by the inaction of the body politic. Towards the end of his long parliamentary career, he opined:

"This chamber has been deluged by noble words and sentiments which have hung heavily on my ears and then, sadly to say, like some hot air, have drifted upwards, to be dissipated and blown away on the winds of indifference. Today I am issuing a challenge to all senators to put these thoughts and expressions of concern for the Aboriginal and island people into positive and effective action."

A maverick exits

Bonner made friends and enemies on all sides of politics. Those on the left of politics felt that he had betrayed them with his entry into the conservative party; but he often confounded his own side, crossing the floor and voting against the Liberals on many issues that mattered to him.

After winning his senate seat in five consecutive federal elections, Bonner was dropped from first place on the ticket by his own party before the 1983 ballot. He ran as an independent, and very narrowly lost on preferences. 

Legacy

Bonner was awarded the title of Australian of the Year in 1979, the only sitting parliamentarian to have received this honour, and in 1984 was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia.

He continued to be politically active for the rest of his life. He sat on the board of the ABC, became a patron of World Vision and Amnesty International, and accepted John Howard's 1998 offer to become a life member of the party he had served for so long. 

He died in 1999 at the age of 76. 

The Queensland federal electorate of Bonner is named after him. 

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