Tribute to the late Senator Neville Bonner, AO

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (22:16): I recently received an invitation from the Board of Directors of the Tweed Aboriginal Cooperative Society to attend the 50th anniversary celebration luncheon honouring a Miss Margaret Kay and to pay tribute to the first Aboriginal senator appointed to the Australian parliament some 40 years ago in 1971. Indeed, that celebration will recognise the birthplace of former Senator Neville Bonner AO. Unfortunately, because of prior commitments I was unable to accept the invitation but I have sent my best wishes.

I do not know Miss Kay, but clearly she is a community leader of note and has obviously done much for the people of her community over many years. However, tonight I want to speak in the Senate to acknowledge the 40th anniversary of the appointment by the government of Queensland, on the nomination of the Queensland division of the Liberal Party of Australia, of Neville Bonner to fill the vacancy in the Senate caused by the resignation of Senator the Hon. Dame Annabelle Rankin, thus marking the first person of Aboriginal descent to become a member of the parliament of Australia.

I knew Neville Bonner reasonably well in those days following his appointment to the Senate. I was always impressed with his ability, his genuineness, his care for others and his determination to help all Australians regardless of background or race. In doing that he helped improve the lives and futures of the people of Aboriginal descent. I well remember Neville always insisting to me as a young Liberal, in the early days of his term as a senator for Queensland, that he was a senator for Queensland and not a senator for any one particular cause or group of people. He was obviously very proud of his Aboriginal heritage and wanted to do everything he could to help that disadvantaged group, but he was always insistent that he was a senator for all Queenslanders.

I assisted Neville in his campaigns for election to the Senate in the years following his appointment in 1971, and I was always pleased to welcome him to North Queensland. I fondly remember one night when he was visiting Ayr, but for some reason did not have any accommodation, and he accepted my invitation to stay in my bachelor's pad for the night. My place in those days was party central in Ayr, and I was always proud and even a little nonplussed that Neville had chosen to stay in my flat, notwithstanding its local reputation.

I fondly remember in later years when Neville, by accident, came into a room in the Innisfail Conservatorium building where the Apex service clubthe young men's service clubwas having its annual zone convention. Neville came in by a side door of the room where Apexians were holding their convention and was so well and favourably known that the convention stopped its business and, as one, started applauding Senator Bonner, who then immediately walked onto stage to deliver his address. It was only after he had been going for a little while that the chairman of the Apex meeting interrupted him and pointed out that he had actually come into the wrong room in the building and that he was scheduled to speak to another group of people in another part of the complex. But having done that he was then invited to speak to Apexians off the cuff about his work to assist disadvantaged people, and he won the hearts of all Apexians with his genuine compassion and concern.

Neville Bonner was born in 1922 in Ukerebagh Island at Tweed Heads in northern New South Wales, and I am delighted that the Tweed Aboriginal Cooperative Society has chosen to acknowledge Neville's election to the Senate with this function on 8 December this year. During his life, Neville had many jobs around Queensland. Even though his formal education was very briefbasically one year at the Beaudesert State School in 1935he was clearly prepared to work. In his life he worked as a dairy hand, station hand, stockman and vegetable picker. He did tree clearing, ring barking and fencing. He worked as a cane cutter around Ingham and as a native policeman. He then managed a dairy farm and worked as a labourer on the Brisbane City Council. He had his own business manufacturing boomerangs under the trade name of Bonnerang. He also worked as a carpenter for the Moreton Shire Council. He attempted to enlist during World War II but at the time, unfortunately, army enlistment was not encouraged by people of Aboriginal descent.

Neville and his wife spent a significant part of their lives on Palm Island off the coast of Townsville, where their children were born and where, apart from a brief stint on the mainland, they lived from 1945 to 1960. Neville is perhaps best known for his involvement in a OPAL, the One People of Australia League, which was formed in 1961 to channel Queensland government assistance to areas of Aboriginal need. As he says in his recorded conversation, 'OPAL's ultimate goal was to weld the coloured and white citizens of Australia into one people.' In 1965 he was elected to OPAL's state committee and served as the league's president from 1968 to 1974. Neville once accepted an invitation by some friends to attend a Liberal party meeting and, although he always considered himself a Labor voter, he went along and was impressed with the party documents and particularly a statement of liberal beliefs by the late Sir Robert Menzies. During the campaign of May 1967, leading up to the successful referendum by the Liberal government to change the Constitution to give the Commonwealth the power to make laws for Aboriginal people, Bonner handed out how-to-vote cards for the Liberal Party. He says in his recorded story that he was challenged by the local MHR, Bill Haydenlater Labor leader and Governor-Generalwho argued that the ALP did more for Aboriginals than the Liberals did. Bonner was annoyed that Labor should presume the automatic support of Aboriginal people and decided to join the Liberal Party, becoming a member of the One Mile Branch in 1967. From there Neville became very involved in the Liberal Party organisation and was elected to the state executive of the party. He stood for preselection for the half Senate election in 1970 but as No. 3 on the ticket was unsuccessful. But in 1971, on the retirement of Dame Annabelle Rankin, he obtained the party's nomination for the casual vacancy in the Senate.

Senator Bonner, whilst a loyal member of the Liberal Party, did not always vote with the party. He crossed the floor of the Senate on some 34 occasions during his term. Of course, as a Liberal he was able to do that. Had he been a member of the Labor Party he would have been expelled after the first show of independence. Senator Bonner had a very auspicious and distinguished career in the Senate and by the power of his argument, and the fact that he crossed the floor on many occasions to get a better deal for the causes he espoused, he was able to implement a number of changes for the benefit of Australians. As Neville Bonner said in his maiden speech on 8 September 1971:

I assure honourable senators that I have not attended a university or a high school and, for that matter, I do not know that I can say that I have spent very much time at a primary school. But this does not mean that as a Senator from Queensland I am not able to cope. I have graduated through the university of hard knocks. My teacher was experience. However, I shall play the role which my State of Queensland, my race, my background, my political beliefs, my knowledge of men and circumstances dictate. This I shall do, through the grace of God, to the benefit of all Australians.

As he concluded his maiden speech:

I look forward to my association with my fellow senators. I trust that our deliberations will be, in fact, for the true welfare of all Australians.

There are many books written about Neville Bonner to which senators may care to refer. Indeed, there is an article by Tim Rouse which describes a great person and a great career.

On 5 February 1999 Neville Thomas Bonner AO passed away. There are very fitting tributes made to Neville Bonner by then Prime Minister John Howard, opposition leader Kim Beazley and the late David Julla good mate of Neville Bonner'srecorded in the Hansard of 8 February 1999. There was an equally significant speech by the then Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Robert Hill, on 15 February. These tributes give a snapshot of the very high regard in which Neville Bonner was held by all sides of Australian politics.

I was very proud to have known Neville as a member of the Liberal Party. Although he fought some tough preselection battles, and did succeed, it was the double dissolution of 1983 that led to him being dropped from first position to third position on the Liberal Senate ticket. This unwinnable spot caused Neville to resign from the Liberal Party and run as an independent, and he only just missed out on being elected. I was ever so delighted in 1998 to be present at a national convention of the Liberal Party held at that time in Queensland when the Prime Minister was able to confer upon him life membership of the Queensland division of the Liberal Party, an honour that he accepted warmly.

Neville Bonner was a great Australian, a great Queenslander and a leader of his people. In my view he started the public push to restore Aboriginal people to their rightful place in this country. Indeed I think his very strong involvement in the One People of Australia League says it all. For me it was an honour and a privilege to have known this fine man, the first Aboriginal person ever to be elected to the parliament of Australia.

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