Australia’s Booker T Washington: Senator Neville Bonner

The late Senator Neville Bonner (1922-99) was Australia’s first federal Aboriginal Parliamentarian, serving in Australia’s federal Senate from 1971 to 1983.

I decided to dust off Bonner’s story in a recent Australian magazine because his life and political success is a classic conservative example of rallying around principle over complexion. What’s often brushed aside in the reflections of Bonner is that he was a member of Australia’s Liberal Party – Australia’s equivalent of the GOP.

While the political contexts in the United States and Australia clearly differ, Bonner’s journey has familiar appeal to black conservative politics in America – facing early racial and economic hardship, working hard to evacuate poverty, and rising to serve for over a decade at the highest levels of office.

Like Booker T. Washington of an earlier era, or Condoleezza Rice of the present, Bonner was animated by that common idea of ‘smaller government and bigger citizens’ that cuts across time, national borders and race.

When Bonner became a federal Senator in the early 1970s, Australia’s Aboriginal rights movement was in full swing. Australian race relations had, like the U.S., seen its troubled passages. The movement was dominated by radicals seeking ‘self-determination’, which meant returning black Australians to a museumized notion of life away from mainstream Australia.

In seeking this goal, the U.S. civil rights tactic of ‘agitate, agitate, agitate’ had found keen advocates in Australia. Street protest, public belligerence and intimidation were the dominant medium for many Australian groups and individuals who saw themselves as custodians of black advancement.

Bonner’s approach, however, contrasted vividly. He had the common sense to see that a life apart from mainstream Australia would not only spell misfortune for Australia’s black population but also fracture social cohesion. He in fact warned that applying the U.S. Black Power Movement in Australia ‘would pit coloured against white, white against coloured, Australian against Australian.’

In attempting to promote mobility for blacks in Australia, Bonner saw more value in straddling existing political institutions over radically creating new ones. ‘We do not want an Aboriginal parliament,’ he would tell the Senate in his maiden speech. ‘We want to be part and parcel of the Australian community. We want to see more Aborigines in this chamber.’

In not just these words but in every aspect of his life Bonner typified Booker T. Washington’s ‘cast down your bucket’ approach immortalized in Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech. In working through a series of physically difficult jobs in the Australian states of Queensland and New South Wales, Bonner said he achieved ‘not by being abusive, not by being discourteous to those in authority, but playing the authorities at their own game, and beating them.’

Where might Bonner’s lessons apply today? I feel there are two broad takeaways that have application in the U.S. and in Australia. First, self-agency and persistence are key. In his early years Bonner was hurt deeply by racist taunts from other young boys. But he learned over the years to cast aside perceptions of inferiority and see the fundamental decency in people while treading his Washingtonian path of compromise over confrontation.

Today it’s not hard to see many young people tangling their early setbacks with feelings of racial inferiority. As Condoleezza Rice wrote in her 2010 family memoir: ‘I have always worried that there are many young people, particularly minorities, who might internalize negative messages… and simply give up.’ Persistence is a worthy lesson in an age of instant gratification.

Second, Bonner is a timeless example of being ‘walking your own way’ which, in turn, means offending assumptions. As put by Shelby Steele, being black in America now carries ‘a reflexive devotion to the Democratic party’ and it’s not uncommon to find this assumption in Australia. Bonner was, until the end, his own man – against the politics of the warm inner glow, always in favor of what works and practical improvement.

Being an individual of course does not mean belonging to one side of politics or the other. But it does carry an obvious affinity to self-agency and persistence, as well as ideas of free enterprise, tradition and responsibility.

As Washington and Bonner’s legacies show, these values have universal charm because they apply not only throughout generations but regardless of skin color.

Published at Hip Hop Republican

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