Neville Bonner AO

Neville Bonner AO

In his own words New South Wales-born Neville Bonner was educated in the school of hard knocks and he certainly came up the hard way, with a minimum of formal schooling.

Yet the quietly spoken, articulate Neville Bonner became a polished speaker, a capable administer and a respected politician.

Bonners mother was an Aborigine, and he never knew his father, an Englishman who went back to England before Bonner was born.

"I was born on Ukerebagh Island, in the mouth of the Tweed River because there was nowhere else for my mother to go. In those days, people wont know too much about it, but in those days, Aboriginal people had to be out of the towns before sunset," he said of his birth.

"And they couldnt get back into town again until sunrise the next day, my mother was not allowed to go to hospital to give birth to me. She gave birth to me in a little gunya under the palm tree, that still lives down there, on a government-issued blanket.

"Those are the kind of things that we had to cope with when I was born and when I was a small child, right up into my teenage years and into my manhood."

In August 1971 Neville Bonner was sworn in as Australias first Aboriginal Senator.

"For the first time in the history of this country there was an Aboriginal voice in the parliament and that gave me an enormous feeling of overwhelming responsibility," he said.

"I made people aware, the lawmakers in this country, I made them aware of indigenous people. I think that was an achievement."

Neville Bonners first wife Mona died in 1969. In July 1972, he married his long-time secretary, Heather Ryan, of Ipswich. Their marriage at the time was described as the unique union of "a white Presbyterian and an Aboriginal Catholic".

Throughout his political career Senator Bonner fought strongly against racial discrimination, and himself suffered a number of indignities because of his colour. Death threats were made against him in 1971.

Early in his career Bonner was not in favour of any law against racial discrimination but later, after he became a Senator and had traveled around Queensland, he changed his mind and said such a law was necessary believing it should cover migrant groups as well as Aborigines.

Bonner was elected Senate Deputy Chairman of Committees in July 1974 and also served on the Joint Parliamentary Publications Committee, Senate Standing Committee on Social Welfare, Regulations and Ordinances Committee and the Joint House Committee. He was also a member of the Senates Aboriginal Affairs, Federal Affairs, and Health and Welfare Committees.

In November 1973 Bonner strongly attacked the formation of the National Aboriginal Consultative Council, claiming it would lead to "auto-apartheid" and an Aboriginal bureaucracy.

In August 1976, Bonner presented the final report of the Senate Select Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders on the environmental conditions of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Bonner was chairman of the committee and five years of work had gone into the report. The Government accepted 82 of the committees 86 recommendations.

Bonner became the first Aborigine to introduce legislation into the Australian Parliament on September 15, 1976. He introduced a Private Members Bill -- the Aborigines and Islanders (Admissibility of Confessions) Bill. He became the first back-bencher to introduce a Government Bill and carry it through all stages, with the Aboriginal Development Commission Bill.

Bonner must be the only politician in the world who listed among his activities "boomerang throwing". He astounded his fellow Senators when, soon after making his maiden speech, he gave a boomerang throwing demonstration on the Senate lawn to silence criticism that authentic Aboriginal boomerangs were not as good at returning as those made for the tourist trade.

In 1979 Bonner was chosen as Australian of the Year. Bonners outspokenness on Aboriginal issues both won and lost him many supporters. He crossed the floor to vote with the Labor Opposition on Aboriginal issues. It was his criticism of the Liberal Partys Queensland state branch which cost him his parliamentary career.

After 12 years in the Senate, Bonner was eventually relegated to the unwinnable third position on the Liberal ticket in 1983. He quit the party and took to the road as an independent but lost.
Bonner served on the board of directors of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from 1983 to 1991.

In 1984 he was awarded the title of Officer of the Order of Australia. He became patron or member of a number of organisations including World Vision Australia, the Ipswich Womens Shelter, the Coloured Youth Soul Centre and Amnesty International. He became involved with educational institutions across Australia, lecturing in an honorary capacity.

His publications include Black Power in Australia, Equal World - Equal Share and For the Love of Children, the last two written for World Vision.

From 1992 to 1996 he was a member of the Griffith University Council and the chairman of the universitys Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Committee. The university also honoured Bonner with an honorary doctorate on September 25, 1993.

He was Senior Official Visitor for all Queensland prisons from 1990 to 1997. Since 1997 he has been the chairman of the Indigenous Advisory Council.

In early 1998, he ventured back to Canberra for the Constitutional Convention, as a monarchist. In July 1998, in another first, the Queensland Premier invited Bonner to address the opening of the 49th state parliament ahead of the State Governors speech.

Bonners tribe were traditional owners of the land on which Parliament House was built. He said delivering the address was a moment of great pride.

In 1998, shortly after the Constitution Convention, Bonner announced he was dying of lung cancer but vowed to continue working.

"Nothing would be, I think, more appropriate than if I was working down here and leant on that desk and went off to sleep and didnt wake up," he said. But increasingly frail, he spent his last days at home with his wife Heather.

Neville Bonner will be remembered for his political acumen, his sincerity, for his kindly good humour and ready smile - and for being a gentleman in the best sense of the world.

He is survived by four of his five sons by his first marriage; his second wife Heather; and three step-children.

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