Published at The Menzies Research Centre
This month marks 50 years since the first Indigenous Australian – the late Senator for Queensland Neville Bonner – sat in the nation’s parliament.
This was a triumphant achievement from Bonner, serving as a Liberal Senator from 1971 to 1983.
Yet most Australians won’t quite be able to pinpoint what makes Bonner 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, his 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. His eloquence and refined pronunciation, he’d say, was guided by his grandmother after his mother passed away.
In 1947, Bonner moved to Palm Island settlement with his first wife Mona, where 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 the settlement power dynamics, and the importance of cooperation and limits of belligerence – a distant approach to the way some play their cultural identity today.
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. Bonner simply 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.
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.
Bonner’s philosophical home in the Liberal Party is a compelling study. When Bonner was asked why he became a Liberal, it is common to hear that it was because of Bill Hayden – former Governor-General, Senior Minister in the Whitlam Government and Leader of the Labor Party.
The story goes that, in 1967, Bonner reluctantly agreed to help some Liberal Party friends handing out how-to-vote cards. Hayden, hopping out of a car at an Oxley polling booth, was stunned to see Bonner handing out Liberal how-to-vote cards. Here, according to Bonner, is the exchange that followed:
“What are you doing handing out those how-to-vote cards? We do more for you bloody Aborigines that those bastards do.”
I said, “Excuse me, but who the hell are you?”
He said, “I’m Bill Hayden, I’m the Member for Oxley.”
I said ,“Are you?” What went through my mind was how dare someone come up to me and presume that because I was black I had to support one particular party. So I said “Look, Mr Hayden, it’s like this. I’d look bloody silly handing out your cards when I’m a member of the Liberal Party.”
“Hmmph!” he said and he … walked off.
Later that day, Bonner caught up with his Liberal friends. “Give me a nomination form and I’ll fill it in,” he told them.
This account is a favourite of mine. But it only partly explains Bonner’s belief in the Liberal Party and its core principles. Bonner revered Robert Menzies and the five principles that Menzies said that “an intelligent, free, and liberal Australian democracy shall be maintained by.”
Menzies listed: Parliament controlling the Executive and the Law controlling all; Freedom of speech, religion, and association; Freedom of citizens to choose their own way of life, subject to the rights of others; Protecting the people against exploitation; Looking primarily to the encouragement of individual initiative and enterprise as the dynamic force of re-construction and progress.
To each of these principles Bonner was firmly aligned. First, he had cultivated a fierce respect for Parliament. In 1973, when confronted by hundreds of riled Indigenous protestors marching toward Parliament House, he pointed to the Chamber and responded, “That is Australia’s Council of Elders, and you would not dare walk into an Aboriginal Council of Elders, so why should you want to march into that one?”
“We do not want an Aboriginal parliament,” he’d also famously say. “We want to be part and parcel of the Australian community. We want to see more Aborigines in this chamber.”
Like any legislator, he was critical of specific legislation but knew the fundamental importance of equally applying the rule of law. It provided certainty and stability, for example, when it came to property rights. But it also meant, when deployed to its full extent, a stiff ‘street level’ application. He was a firm believer in capital punishment. And during the 1971 South African Springbok tour Bonner, although firmly opposed to apartheid, sided with the Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen in supporting special legislation to prohibit protesting.
Second, Bonner was a determined Catholic and faith, overlapping with his deep cultural convictions, had a central place in his life. He held a strong respect for the views of others. His first priority, he said when going to Canberra, was to God, then nation, state and party. Queensland Presbyterians and missionaries had, like Bonner, supported assimilation and a path to education and building skills.
Third, he knew that freedom to choose one’s own way of life – like he had done himself – entailed a careful balance of liberty and responsibility. It is hard to detect Bonner being cynical about those who disliked him, from activists to fellow Coalition members whispering terse things – racially motivated things – behind his back. Bonner’s ‘live and let live’ attitude was governed by a good sense of civic responsibility, which he encouraged not simply in fellow Indigenous Australians but in all Australians.
Fourth, Bonner knew that protection against exploitation was achieved by building resilient and strong individuals – another of Menzies’ firm beliefs. Halfway through Bonner’s Senate career, he designed the Inadmissibility of Confessions Bill. A private members’ bill, it aimed to ensure Indigenous Australians – with a limited command of English – understood their rights. The Bill dictated that a witness of standing was to be present when an Indigenous person was questioned by police relating to serious crimes. This was personal for Bonner, after his son was arrested and charged by the Queensland Police after allegedly – and strangely – begging in public. Bonner believed he’d been ‘verballed’ and his Bill, if enforced, would limit these instances for future Indigenous Australians.
Finally, as far as Menzies’ Liberal principles went, Bonner understood that free enterprise was a lynchpin of a good economy, and that sound fiscal management created a positive commercial environment replete with opportunity. Bonner told the Chamber, as a young father and labourer with the Moreton Shire Council just prior to being elected to the Senate:
I would remind honourable senators on both sides of this House that until four and a half years ago I was a bridge carpenter – and proudly one – bringing home a pay packet from which I provided the then accepted everyday necessities of life, admittedly with a few luxuries for a family that I had to rear. I was by no stretch of the imagination wealthy. But under a Coalition government and the stable economy which it engendered I provided – and, I submit, provided adequately – for my family.
Most important, Bonner’s legacy offers us 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 83 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.