Produced for Australian Biography, this is a fascinating and inspiring interview with Neville Bonner, the Liberal Party Senator from Queensland who became the first Aboriginal politician to enter Australian Parliament in 1971. Interspersed with stills and archive footage, Bonner recounts his childhood in northern NSW in the 1920s, where he lived in impoverished conditions on the banks of the Richmond River in Lismore.
Bonner met his first wife Mona on a cattle station, with Mona subsequently taking a domestic job with the ambulance superintendent’s wife. After a racially provoked altercation with the superintendent’s wife, Mona was arrested by the police and sent to the Palm Island Aboriginal Settlement, which Bonner says was regarded by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs as a penal settlement. Living under strict rules, curfews and long days of hard work, Bonner and his wife spent 16 years on Palm Island.
Bonner had started his working life as a ringbarker, canecutter and stockman, stating that he had worked at every laboring job known to man. This, he felt, provided him with an understanding of what it meant to work manually and raise a family, allowing him to relate to Australian workers. Prior to entering politics he believed that the Labor Party was for the working class, however he recounts how he came to view the Liberal Party as more aligned with his political ideals. During the 1967 Australian referendum, which addressed indigenous matters, Bonner remembers being reprimanded by Labor politician Bill Hayden for giving out Liberal how to vote cards at a polling station. Hayden told Bonner that the Labor Party had done more for aboriginals than the Liberal Party, which greatly annoyed Bonner, since no one had the right to assume he would be handing out Labor how to vote cards just because he was Aboriginal. He joined the Liberal Party the next day thanks to Bill Hayden.
Over footage of Neville Bonner entering Parliament in 1971, we learn that he had only received one year of formal schooling, with white parents threatening to withdraw their children if he returned. Borrowing $5 from family to go to Canberra, his swearing in was a tremendously emotional event for him as he recounts how he could hear the voices of his ancestors and grandfather and how he felt like the “whole race was on my shoulders”. Bonner had a burning desire to help his people become respected and responsible citizens within the broader Australian community, while retaining their aboriginal identity and receiving the opportunities that white Australians took for granted. Bonner criticises the way in which white people make decisions for the Aboriginal community instead of asking them to come up with solutions to their own problems.
There is footage of Bonner demonstrating his principled law abiding approach at the 1974 Aboriginal Tent Embassy protest outside Parliament House, the 1978 Monday Conference and the 1982 Land Rights march at the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane. Pushed aside by the party and disillusioned with its efforts to adequately address the issues of aboriginal people, in 1983 Neville Bonner resigned from the Liberal Party to run as an independent. Fiercely guided by his own conscience, Bonner had voted against the party line on 23 occasions, prompting him to remark, “political parties don’t need people with a conscience. They want bottoms on seats and hands in the air at the right time.”
Produced by Film Australia.
Author: J Bird, 2023