Neville Thomas Bonner was the first Aborigine to be elected to Australia’s federal parliament.
He lived in poverty in the New South Wales outback before joining the Liberal Party and winning his parliamentary seat. As a politician, he worked to improve conditions for Aborigines and became a voice for his people.
Australian prime minister John Howard described him as a trailblazer and a source of inspiration to aborigines throughout Australia. He was an elder of the southeast Queensland Jagera people.
Bonner’s childhood was marked by hunger, discrimination, and dispossession. During the 1950s and early 1960s, while living on an Aboriginal settlement called Palm Island in northwest Queensland, he took an interest in changing the way his people lived.
He later joined OPAL (the One People of Australia League) which helped Aborigines with welfare, housing, and education – and served as its president from 1967 until 1973.
Bonner joined the Liberal Party in 1966, and in spite of his underprivileged background and formal education of only one year, he filled a Senate vacancy in 1971, becoming the first Aboriginal member of the Australian parliament.
The following year, standing for the Liberal Party, he was elected as a representative for Queensland.
For 12 years Bonner represented his people and helped to change the face of Aboriginal rights in Australia, becoming known as the elder statesman of Australia’s indigenous peoples. He stood unsuccessfully as an independent member in 1983.
After his 12-year service as senator, Bonner held a series of prominent positions, serving for several years as a director on the board of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), as the senior official visitor for all prisons in Queensland, and as head of the peak indigenous advisory body, the Indigenous Advisory Council, whose task it is to advise the Queensland Government on all indigenous issues.
At times, Bonner’s particular approach to politics was criticised by Australians across the ethnic communities. He supported Aboriginal land rights in the 1970s but was opposed to any illegal means used to obtain such ends.
When the native title debate was raging in the 1990s, he warned against a confrontational approach to the issue, urging negotiation, which he believed to be the best way to reach reconciliation.
He often spoke of the goal of ”togetherness” for Australians of all ethnic backgrounds and political and religious beliefs, yet confessed that he often felt torn between two worlds and that he had often been faced with difficulty and pain in pioneering the road between two cultures.
In 1998 he attended Australia’s Constitutional Convention on behalf of the group Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy.
He continued to speak out on issues which divided Australia racially until shortly before his death.