Most Australians can still recall the late Neville Bonner – Australia’s first Indigenous parliamentarian, serving as a Queensland Liberal Party Senator from 1971 to 1983.
Many, however, won’t quite be able to pinpoint the elements that make him a truly ground-breaking Australian – his centre-right disposition at a time of overbearing radical politics, a denial of cynicism despite a tough life, the unique blend of Indigenous culture with character. Indeed, Bonner’s story reveals not just a great Indigenous Australian but a great Australian.
Born in 1922 under a tree on the Tweed River’s Ukerebagh Island, Bonner knew tough starts. His first day at Lismore school with brother Henry was a matter of minutes, not hours or days – asked to leave after white parents came spiriting their kids away, unhappy that two black boys were in the school.
It didn’t stop him. It didn’t embolden him. Bonner – like many of his era – simply kept going.
He worked his way throughout northern New South Wales, and southern and Central Queensland, working ‘every job known to man’ – scrub-feller, chaff cutter, lantana clearer, dairy hand, meat and plantation worker, stockman.
In the early 1940s, keen to fight for Australia, he’d twice attempt enlistment and, with his Indigenous mates, expressed collective disappointment in being turned down. Bonner said he fronted up to job interviews and for the jobs to mysteriously disappear after employers saw his complexion. His early years offered both sad and difficult times. “It was a hard life, but good training,” he told his biographer Angela Burger in the late 1970s.
His early years, however, weren’t without good memories. Bonner’s first trip riding a bicycle from Southern to Central Queensland with his Uncle Jack, he said, was a delight – earning decent money picking gooseberries and clearing lantana before arriving up north. At Padua Station, he’d use the pseudonym ‘Tommy Bell’, comprised of Bonner’s middle and maiden name, after illegally jumping trains. Decades later, as a Senator for Queensland, the station owner contacted him to ask if he could track down ‘a lovely young man named Tommy Bell?’. An embarrassed Senator Bonner had to admit that the young Mr Bell was, in fact, him.
In Hughenden, inland from Townsville, Bonner met his first wife Mona Banfield before moving to Palm Island in 1946. It wasn’t entirely what Bonner would have wanted. He seemed to enjoy the freewheeling years on Queensland’s frontier. While not prospering in the modern sense of great wealth, he had earned and worked hard enough to look after himself.
But on Palm Island the seeds of his political life began to grow. Today ‘hierarchies’ – synonymous with patriarchy and excessive masculinity – can receive a harsh reception. But learning to work within a hierarchy can offer a gateway for professional success.
Bonner knew this and he rose to deputy overseer by understanding power dynamics and the importance of cooperation and the limits of belligerence – a distant approach to the way some play their cultural identity today. Bonner knew it was better to work within ‘the system’ and not in spite of it. “If you want to beat the system,” he said, “you do it in a sensible, quiet way.”
This philosophy did him well. In 1960, he was eventually noticed for a government job and sent to Brisbane. Here he became more involved in the Indigenous assimilation and integration movement, heading up the pro-Christian and anti-communist One People of Australia League. After Mona passed away, Bonner met his second wife Heather – an Ipswich-born champion for Indigenous welfare.
In the late 1960s, annoyed at how he was presumed to be a Labor man – simply for being Indigenous – Bonner filled out Liberal Party membership forms and began to make connections. He read Robert Menzies and believed deeply in the Liberal philosophy, especially that of being an individual first and foremost, which reflected Bonner’s personal and professional life. This isn’t to say he relegated his Indigenous identity – far from it. He wanted what was best for Indigenous Australians to prosper and do well in a modern world.
Filling a Senate vacancy in 1971, he stepped into the national parliament – the nation’s ‘Council of Elders’, he’d call it. His deep belief in Australia, despite the imperfections of segregation and discrimination, put him at odds with the Indigenous rights movement of the era. He was called a ‘black Judas’ for supposedly betraying Indigenous causes, despite a long track record that proved otherwise.
In the Senate he crossed the floor 34 times, appearing to be on the side of the powerful Bjelke-Petersen government one moment, and then against it the next.
These instances weren’t random. After spending close to a decade studying Bonner’s legacy, I feel there was more philosophy guiding Bonner than he let on. He was a committed federalist, for example, believing in state or local rights whenever a clash over legislation emerged. “They’re two separate governments,” he’d say, “one is a Commonwealth Government, the other is a State Government… I didn’t believe that there should be a confrontation between the Commonwealth Government and a State Government on state legislation. I still don’t believe that, that that is the correct way to do it. You negotiate and get the best deal you possibly can.”
He believed that the people most affected by government decisions – black or white – should have an influence on the outcome. The significant Mornington Island and Aurukun land rights issues of 1978, he said, where the Queensland Government sought to take control from the Presbyterian Church, “wasn’t actually a land rights issue at that time.” “The Queensland Government decided that the church wasn’t doing its job,” Bonner explained, “so they decided that they would take over the community and in plain English they sacked all of the church leaders.” Bonner’s vocal involvement, he said, was because “they had a right to remain as a Christian community if they so desired. I didn’t believe the Queensland Government had any right at all to take the action that they did, and I fought them all the way.”
On Indigenous issues he was committed to a genuine equality and, ultimately, moving away from special privilege. He felt Indigenous Australians had, generation by generation, been severely hard done by. Yet he remained committed to a genuine equality – no settlements, no special legislation and no special funding.
This legacy remains both distant and achieved, with government continuing to dominate the lives of some Indigenous Australians but with many others healthily sceptical of a culture of ‘hand outs’ versus ‘hand ups’.
Bonner found much more time for the belief that reconciliation – now a loaded term in Indigenous politics – was to be found among individuals rather than through national institutions. And on the much milder question of getting more Indigenous Australians into politics, he’d say there was no special formula other than what worked for other Australians – educating oneself on the issues and being more politically aware.
In terms of legacy, and despite obvious lessons of persistence and resilience, Bonner the man also shows us a complete avoidance of resentment and a commitment to empathy. Bonner’s maiden speech, for example, placed a premium on looking after those less fortunate. It is hard to say that this wasn’t, on a very personal level, driven overwhelmingly by his faith. “Don’t look down upon one of God’s children,” he said, “because you’ll answer in time to come.”
Empathy also guided his respect for those not on the same side of politics. He clearly faced ‘heat’ from the protest movement of his era. But he notably still had time for those that didn’t always have time for him, whether he was brokering a deal between Tent Embassy protestors and Prime Minister Billy McMahon in 1971, or much later corralling civil society activists to take a stand against the Queensland Government’s takeover of Aurukun and Mornington Island. To receive praise from someone like Indigenous activist Charles Perkins, which Bonner received on multiple occasions, and despite being a Liberal conservative, illustrated a significant and unusual appeal.
Finally, and perhaps most important, Bonner’s life is a lesson in the importance of community. As many doors would close there would be others that would open. And this was down to good people, he said, whether it was a chance to attend school – albeit briefly – or the offer of a job over decades of doing it tough. Ahead of Bonner’s final election in 1983, he spoke fondly of receiving a donation envelope from an eighty-three-year-old lady who “put a $2 note in the letter and spent half a page of apologising because that’s all she could afford.”
Indeed, in every quarter, whether supportive friends in the Liberal Party, his mother and Grandmother doing their best to get him off to a good start, or the support of wife Heather, Bonner benefitted from having decent people in his life – those that cared for him and those that could get him through. It’s a nice reminder, amid modern rootlessness and our fraying social connections, of the responsibilities we all possess. Like Bonner, we would do well to not only look after our communities. But look after ourselves too.
Sean Jacobs is a Papua New Guinean-born Australian writer, government relations and public policy specialist. He is the author of a new biography on Neville Bonner available through Connor Court publishing, www.connorcourtpublishing.com.au.