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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Neville Bonner (1922–1999)

by Bruce Juddery

from Canberra Times

Neville Bonner, by Greg Barrett, 1993

Neville Bonner, by Greg Barrett, 1993

National Library of Australia, 11637944

Neville Bonner learnt on the job. The job was that of Senator for Queensland 1971-83. (First Aust. Aboriginal in Fed. Parliament) as his Who's Who entry put it. 

And when he had learnt enough, enough to stand up for himself, enough to acknowledge the special responsibilities which that sub-text (not parenthesised in every entry) carried with it, he was dumped. 

Neville Thomas Bonner, who died last week at 76, after a long battle with cancer, sought to serve, and was used. 

Used first by his own side of politics, the Liberal Party, later, perhaps to a lesser extent, by Labor. 

But the autodidact Bonner he had barely a year's formal education behind him developed in his middle years a stature that earned him acknowledgment as Australian of the Year in 1979 and acceptance even by fellow-Aborigines (he detested the use of Aboriginal as a noun) who once had denounced him as an Uncle Tom. 

Jacky was the Australian version of that obloquy. In 1978, in what was probably Bonner's defining moment, he said he had been so treated when the Fraser Government backed off on an undertaking, which he had guaranteed on its assurances, to intervene to ensure the rights of Aborigines on Queensland's Aurukun and Mornington Island council areas. 

Just why Neville Bonner chose to carry the Liberal banner rather than Labor's was a mystery that conflicting accounts of his political origins never made plain. One was that, during the 1967 Aboriginal powers referendum campaign he was outraged when Bill Hayden, his local member in Ipswich, expressed outrage that Bonner was handing out Liberal how-to-vote cards. 

Given Hayden's quirky humour, the fact that Labor and Liberal parties for once were on the same side and it was an all-hands-to-the pump situation this might not have been a serious situation. But, as Bonner later intimated, the suggestion that he was taken for granted as a Labor spear-carrier, if anyone's, got up his nose. 

In fact, there is some suggestion that he had then been of, if not in, the Liberal camp for six years or so. And he already was president of the One People of Australia League (OPAL), an assimilationist organisation within the black community. 

In later life Bonner asserted himself the only recognised elder of the Jugarah [sometimes rendered Jagera] tribe of the Ipswich region. In fact he was born in northern NSW, where allegedly his mother had taken herself to avoid the long arm of Queensland Aboriginal legislation. 

She died young and he was brought up by his grandparents, in some poverty but not ignorance; for all the lack of formal schooling, perhaps engendered by a white-kids' walkout when he and his brother and sister turned up for class, his grandfather was an actor, his grandmother a martinet for the proper use of English. 

Bonner's young adulthood was usually attributed to carrying his swag in western Queensland, working at a variety of jobs, rising to foreman on an (unspecified) cattle property. 

More reliably, in 1946 he relocated to Palm Island, the home territory of his first wife, Mona, and spent more than 15 years there before, after her death in 1969, moving back to Ipswich and a brief, unsuccessful career as a boomerang manufacturer. 

In 1970 he sought Liberal preselection for the Senate and was given the unwinnable third place on the ticket. 

But when, a year later, Senator Dame Annabelle Rankin was named High Commissioner to New Zealand, he demanded the vacancy. The party felt obliged to deliver. 

Bonner's attitudes to race and related issues were always complex. Early in his senatorial career, four girls boycotted a debutante ball at Nanango, a peanuts-and-cattle town, rather than curtsy to a black senator. In Mt Isa, in 1975, he was refused a beer (We don't serve but stood his ground until the manager served up. He detested apartheid, yet firmly defended the right of the Springboks to tour Australia in 1971. 

In 1972, he was remarried, to Heather Ryan, sometimes described as a white divorcee; it was not a description that appeared to worry the decidedly non-racist Bonner. 

As his political career burgeoned he was easily re-elected in 1972 and in 1980 was given top place on the Liberal ticket he became increasingly critical of Joh Bjelke-Petersen's state Government on Aboriginal land rights, and of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser's apparent accommodation of them. Much of 1978 was spent in squabbling over Aurukun and Mornington Island. 

In 1983, with another election in sight, the Liberals perhaps fearing a white backlash dumped him again to third position on their ticket. He ran, instead, as an Independent, not quite making it. His erst while party later, shamefacedly, attributed their miserable Queensland performance at that poll to Bonner's dumping. 

The Coalition parties, in fact, lost that poll to Bob Hawke's Labor Party. Labor had an offer for Bonner: a slot on the board of the revamped Australian Broadcasting Commission (now Corporation). 

Despite (perhaps because of) being totally ethnically and politically balanced, the new board proved quite dysfunctional. Bonner (and several other people) had been used again. 

In his retirement Neville Bonner issued occasional cautions about excessive post-Mabo and-Wik land rights fervour. He remained much as he had been: conservative, yet proud of his ancestry, a little anomalous in an Australia that had changed as he had grown from a different mould. Neville Thomas Bonner, born March 28, 1922; died February 5, 1999.

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Citation details

Bruce Juddery, 'Bonner, Neville (1922–1999)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 16 April 2024.

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