National Reconciliation Week: Neville Bonner’s worry for his children
Neville Bonner was our first Indigenous parliamentarian and his legacy is one of commitment to principles of reconciliation, but also awareness of the barriers to it.
Neville Bonner became a Senator for Queensland in 1971, making history when he took his place in the red chamber of Old Parliament House in front of his family. He made headlines after his maiden speech when, challenged to show his boomerang-throwing prowess, he shimmied up a tree in the adjacent Senate rose garden to rescue an errant boomerang in front of incredulous journalists. His work in the Senate, however, was serious and focused. He frequently crossed the floor of the chamber on matters of principle—for example in November 1975 he was so uncomfortable with the Coalition’s blocking of supply that he was on the point of crossing the floor to help end the deadlock when the Whitlam government was sacked.
Bonner’s time in parliament ended in 1983 when he was placed in an unwinnable position on the Liberal’s Senate ticket. He resigned from the party to stand as an Independent, but lost at the election. He returned to Old Parliament House in 1998, when he spoke passionately at the Constitutional Convention against the proposal for Australia to become a republic. Again his passion and dignity were on display when he argued:
My heart is heavy. I worry for my children and my grandchildren. I worry that what has proven to be a stable society, which now recognizes my people as equals, is about to be replaced. How dare you. I repeat, how dare you.
Neville Bonner is remembered in various ways at the museum. A remarkable collection of objects that belonged to Bonner is now cared for and at times displayed in the museum’s exhibitions, and an oral history interview with Bonner’s wife Mona and one of his son’s is also held in the collection. Two recent acquisitions, artworks by Indigenous artists, also pay tribute to the life and work of Neville Bonner.
The first, by a relative and fellow activist, Bill Congoo, is a bark painting that celebrates Bonner’s life. Painted in the 1970s, it charts Bonner’s birth and early days in northern New South Wales, his years on Palm Island, where he raised a family, his increasing interaction with white Australia through politics, and finally his entry into formal politics. Bonner gifted the bark painting to his son Alfred, who then generously donated the painting to the museum early this year. At a moving handover ceremony in January Alfred sat in his father’s old Senate seat, flanked by his daughters, and recounted stories of his father’s life.
A second artwork, by Queensland artist Michael Cook, celebrates Bonner’s work through photography. His work Majority Rule (Senate) shows the Senate chamber at Old Parliament House full of Indigenous senators, imagining a world where Australia’s parliament was 95 percent Indigenous, rather than 95 percent white. Cook deliberately referenced Bonner in the model he uses as his Indigenous senator, paying a silent but visually potent tribute to Bonner’s legacy.