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Neville Bonner Neville Bonner i(A61613 works by) (a.k.a. Neville Thomas Bonner; Senator Neville Bonner)
Born: Established: 28 Mar 1922 New South Wales, ; Died: Ceased: 5 Feb 1999 Ipswich, Ipswich area, South East Queensland, Queensland,
Gender: Male
Heritage: Aboriginal
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Neville Thomas Bonner was born on Ukerebagh Island, in the mouth of the Tweed River, New South Wales. Bonner's mother was Aboriginal, and he never knew his father, an Englishman who went back to England before Bonner was born. By the time Bonner was ready to begin schooling, Aborigines had to attend segregated schools. As there was none in the Lismore district, it wasn't until his family moved to the Brisbane area that he had a chance to go to a state school in Beaudesert. 'I actually reached third grade in that short period of time and that's the only formal education I've had.'

In the 1930s in New South Wales, Bonner worked around the Northern Rivers district on banana plantations and as a bean and corn picker. When he was 18 he joined ring-barking and scrub felling camps in Queensland. He became well known as a rough-rider and took part in rodeos, buck-jumping and bullock riding. He moved on, working as a stockman on stations in north-western Queensland and eventually became head stockman at the Mount Emu Plains station. He met his first wife, Monda Banfield, and married in 1943. The couple had five sons and two foster daughters. In 1946 Bonner decided to move the family to join his wife's people on the Palm Island Aboriginal settlement in north Queensland where they lived for 17 years.

It was during this time he took an interest in changing the way his people lived. He formed a number of committees and rose to the position of Assistant Settlement Overseer responsible for the administration of works. In 1960 the Bonner family left Palm Island to settle in the Ipswich area in south-east Queensland. In 1965 Bonner became a member of the board of directors of the One People of Australia League (OPAL), which helped Aborigines with welfare, housing and education. He was Queensland president of the organisation from 1970 to 1976. In 1979 OPAL awarded him life membership and he became president of the league in the early 1980s. A major breakthrough came in 1967, when a referendum changed the way Aborigines were treated. Australia's Aborigines were given the vote and allowed to be counted in the census. Bonner decided it was time to enter politics and joined the Liberal Party. He was for a time vice-chairman of the eastern suburbs branch of the party in the Oxley area, and was for a year on the Queensland State executive of the party. In 1970 Bonner made history by becoming the first Aborigine to contest a Senate election. He was number three on the joint Liberal-Country Party ticket but was not elected. By June 1971 he was picked by the Liberals to fill a Senate vacancy created by Dame Annabelle Rankin's resignation. In August 1971 Neville Bonner was sworn in as Australia's 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, I made people aware, the lawmakers in this country, I made them aware of indigenous people. I think that was an achievement.'

Bonner became the first back-bencher to introduce a Government Bill (the Aboriginal Development Commission Bill)and carry it through all stages. In 1979 Bonner was chosen as Australian of the Year. His 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 Party's 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's 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 university's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Committee. The university honoured Bonner with an honorary doctorate on September 25, 1993. From 1990 to 1997 he was Senior Official Visitor for all Queensland prisons, and in 1997 he became the chairman of the Indigenous Advisory Council. In July 1998, in another first, the Queensland Premier invited Bonner to address the opening of the 49th state parliament ahead of the State Governor's speech. Bonner's tribe were traditional owners of the land on which Parliament House was built. He said delivering the address was a great moment of pride.

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

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Last amended 26 Feb 2020 14:06:59
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