Neville Thomas Bonner AO was an Australian politician, and the first Indigenous Australian to become a member of the Parliament of Australia.
In 1960 Bonner moved to Ipswich, Queensland, where he became associated with the One People of Australia League, or OPAL. The group formed in 1961 to facilitate Queensland Government assistance to areas of aboriginal need. In 1965 Bonner was elected to OPAL’s state committee and he served as its president from 1968-74.
OPAL was extremely important to Bonner and he counted his work with the League, such as the opening of hostels for aborigines to live in, as some of his greatest achievements.
When Neville Bonner was working with OPAL (One People of Australia League) he met the woman who became his second wife, Heather Ryan, as well as her politically minded daughter Robyn and son-in-law Noel. Neville and Heather were married in 1972 at OPAL House in Brisbane. She was his rock who helped him through many difficult periods, especially once he moved to Canberra to take up his Senate seat.
Neville Bonner joined the Liberal Party in August 1967. Bonner was partly prompted to join the Liberals during the 1967 referendum which amended the constitution to give the Commonwealth government the power to make laws in relation to Aboriginals.
In 1971 he he was chosen to fill a vacancy in the Senate caused by the resignation of a Liberal senator for Queensland. He was subsequently returned at elections held in 1972, 1974, 1975 and 1980.
Although he achieved much in his role in federal parliament until it ended in 1983, Neville Bonner remained a humble man and one who was alone for much of his time there. He always felt the responsibility of being the only Indigenous Member of Parliament. He said: ‘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’.
Years later he remarked of his time in this building and he said ‘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”.’