Mar 28, 1922 - Feb 5, 1999

Neville Bonner

Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House

Neville Thomas Bonner AO was an Australian politician, and the first Indigenous Australian to become a member of the Parliament of Australia.

Neville Thomas Bonner AO
Neville Bonner was born on Ukerebagh Island on the Tweed River, New South Wales, in 1922. Like many Indigenous children of his age he had little formal schooling, and spent much of his youth working as a rural labourer on properties across Queensland. In 1940 he and a group of young aboriginals went to Brisbane to try and enlist in the army so they could serve in the Second World War, but they were rejected because of fears that, as Indigenous Australians, they would be too susceptible to the different climatic conditions in the countries that soldiers were being sent to. He married his first wife Mona Banfield in 1943 and with her moved eventually to Palm Island. He joined the Liberal Party in August 1967 and in 1971 he was chosen to fill a vacancy in the Senate caused by the resignation of a Liberal senator for Queensland, becoming the first Aboriginal person to sit in the Commonwealth parliament. He was subsequently returned at elections in 1972, 1974, 1975 and 1980. Bonner was a respected commentator on Indigenous issues and served on numerous Senate and Parliamentary Committees, and as the parliamentary representative on the Council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. Neville Bonner continued to be a strong advocate for Indigenous rights until his death in 1999.

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.

Handwritten note from Heather Bonner to Neville Bonner which reads: ‘My body’s life and strength alone thou art. My heart and soul art thou, oh soul and heart. Your Heather xxx’

Boomerang made by Neville Bonner from roots of the black wattle tree.

In 1966 Neville Bonner established his own boomerang manufacturing business, which he called ‘Bonnerang’. This was a nickname he had been given because of his boomerang throwing ability.

Neville Bonner successfully contested elections in 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1981. His political career ended in 1983 when he was placed in an unwinnable position on the Liberal’s Senate ticket and he resigned from the party to stand as an Independent.

Treasured personal effects 
A selection of personal items in the Museum of Australian Democracy's collection are some of Neville Bonner's treasured mementoes from the years he served in the Australian Parliament. They are touchstones for remembering Bonner's life and work, including the briefcase seen here.

Black briefcase with internal file compartment; brass plaque fixed to front of briefcase carrying the hand-engraved inscription: ‘Senator Bonner, From Workmakes of Moreton Shire Council, 5-6-1971.’

Neville Bonner spent much of his life working in rural Australia, something reflected in his choice of R.M. Williams boots as footwear for Parliament.

This dark brown, pin-striped suit was worn by Neville Bonner in later years. Bonner came from humble beginnings and his clothing was never very expensive or elaborate.

Although Neville Bonner’s suits were mostly browns and greys, he liked to enliven his look with elaborate and colourful ties, such as this one.

This handkerchief was possibly a gift from Bonner’s devoted wife, Heather.

Bonner’s grandmother, Ida, was his primary carer for much of his childhood. A devout Christian, she passed her faith onto Neville, who was a committed Christian all his life.

Liberal Senator Neville Bonner recalls some of his experiences working in Australian politics.

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”.’

Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House
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