Acrylic on Stretched Canvas
400 mm x 500mm
Neville Thomas Bonner AO (28 March 1922 – 5 February 1999) was an Australian politician, and the first Aboriginal Australian to become a member of the Parliament of Australia. He was appointed by the Queensland Parliament to fill a casual vacancy in the representation of Queensland in the Senate, and later became the first Indigenous Australian to be elected to the parliament by popular vote.
Neville Bonner was born in Ukerebagh Island, a small island on the Tweed River in northern New South Wales. He never knew his father and had no formal education. He worked as a ring barker, cane cutter and stockman before settling on Palm Island, near Townsville, Queensland in 1946.
In 1960 he lived in Ipswich, where he joined the board of directors of the One People Of Australia League (OPAL),a moderate Indigenous rights organisation. He became its Queensland president in 1970. He joined the Liberal Party in 1967 and held local office in the party. Following the resignation of Senator Annabelle Rankin in 1971, Bonner was chosen to fill the casual vacancy and he became the first Indigenous Australian to sit in the Australian Parliament. He was elected in his own right in 1972, 1974, 1975, and 1980.
While in the Senate he served on a number of committees but was never a serious candidate for promotion to the ministry. He rebelled against the Liberal Party line on some issues. Partly as a result of this, and partly due to pressure from younger candidates, he was dropped from the Liberal Senate ticket at the 1983 election. He stood as an independent and was nearly successful. The Hawke government then appointed him to the board of directors of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Bonner was almost unique in being an Indigenous activist and a political conservative: in fact he owed his political career to this combination. In the face of often savage personal criticism from left-wing Indigenous activists, he often denied being a “token” in the Liberal Party. In 1981 Bonner was the only government voice opposing a bill put forth that would allow drilling in the Great Barrier Reef. He regularly “crossed the floor” on bills, a characteristic that has endeared him to politicians today but is often considered the reason for his political career coming to an end.
In 1979 Bonner was jointly named Australian of the Year along with naturalist Harry Butler. In 1984 Bonner was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia. From 1992 to 1996 he was member of the Griffith University Council. The university awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1993. In 1998 he was elected to the Constitutional Convention as a candidate of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy.
The Neville Bonner Memorial Scholarship was established by the federal government in 2000 and is now considered Australia’s most prestigious scholarship for Indigenous Australians to study Honours in Political Science or related subjects at any recognised Australian university.