|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: January 13, 1992
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
What made you go into politics?
Well, I told you earlier I belonged to an organisation called OPAL, and most of our work was involved with Aboriginal people in health, education, employment, housing and all those sorts of things, and I realised that we, the Aboriginal people, were really having enormous problems in these areas. Then I became involved with a political Party, I was a member of a small branch of the Liberal Party, and then I became a member of the area of the Liberal Party and was elected as the president of the area, the Oxley of the Liberal Party, which gave me a position on the state executive of the Liberal Party. Now on the state executive there were a number of people like myself elected, and then there was also two federal politicians and two state politicians on the state executive as well, which meant that I was meeting with people at meetings on equal footing, first-name terms and all of this type of thing. And I began to think ... here's an area where I can do something for my own people, and I achieved quite a lot by bringing problems and the needs of my people to the attention of state politicians and federal politicians like Sir Alan Hulme and Dougey Tooth from the state parliament, who was Minister for Health, and people like that. I did a lot for OPAL. We acquired the big motel, what was the Brisbane Motel, as a home for -- through Billy Wentworth, who was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, and through Vic Sulllivan, who was the State Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, got the money to purchase that building for deserted wives and orphaned children. Then we got the headquarters in Ann Street, we bought the big building there with assistance from the government, and so because of my being involved with these people, I started to learn something about politics and how the whole thing worked, the whole system of branches and areas and state executive and politicians themselves. And because I was fairly well known as President of OPAL, I had a lot of television coverage and newspaper coverage and I travelled around a bit for OPAL in Queensland ... The Party used me a lot at election time, manning polling booths, and so there was a bi-election on the Gold Coast at the seat of Albert, and a Liberal candidate was running for that seat, an old chap by the name of Bill Heatley who died since, and they invited me down to man a number of polling booths for an hour here and an hour there and somewhere else because I was well-known and fairly popular, and attracted some votes. That evening whilst we were watching the votes being counted, there was a fork dinner on the Isle of Capri at the President's residence -- our Eric Robinson -- I was standing with a group of half a dozen people, there was Fred Campbell and Ruth Lines and Len and myself standing around eating, and Ruth said to me in a joking manner she said, 'Nev! When are we going to be doing something like this for you?,' so to be in the swim of things I said, 'Oh Ruth,' just off the top of my head, 'Ruth, sooner than you think.' And of course there was sort of a silence, they said, 'Why, what are you going to do?' I said, 'Oh I'm going to nominate for preselection for the next half senate election.' I had no intention to doing it but just to be in the swim of it ... The news went around like wildfire, and everybody was coming up and congratulating me and saying they'll support me at preselection, and I of course came away from them. They sent me a nomination form which I forgot about. I left it with Heather who was then my private secretary as President of OPAL. Every afternoon home from work I'd pull up at Heather's place to do the mail. So I came home one Friday afternoon, I'm sorry one Monday afternoon (Monday night was state executive meeting which I'd be going to) and Heather and a friend of ours who worked in the post office said my nomination form hadn't been sent in. I said, 'Oh well, that's it, forget it,' and Dudley said, 'No, what we'll do, we'll word a telegram and send the telegram in to Liberal Headquarters which will get there before five o'clock.' Well, I went out to the meeting that night, and Eric Roberts, then president, happened to pull up in front of the building and park just behind when he said my telegram wasn't acceptable, so I said, 'Oh well, that's okay, forget it.' Well, the young Liberal President who was Greg Bickery said, 'What's this all about?,' so we explained to him, he says, 'Have you got your nomination form with you?' I said, 'Yes', he said, 'Give it to me, I'll sign it for you,' so we took it in and Eric said, 'Oh look, that won't be acceptable because nominations closed at five o'clock.' Just before the meeting all the folders were handed around of the Minutes of the previous meeting. So perusing it whilst everybody was, you know, chatting before the meeting opened, I happened to look at the Minutes concerning the half senate election, where it said nominations would close on Monday [at] such and such a date, didn't give a time, it just said Monday whatever date it was. So when the meeting opened I drew the attention of the president to something on the agenda that I wanted to bring out, so he gave me the right to speak, and I said, 'What I want to ask is ... who and on what authority was the notice put in the paper that nominations for the half senate election would close at five o'clock on such and such a date because, according to the minutes, it closes on Monday and Monday doesn't end until midnight.' So the president said, 'Well look, this will be thoroughly discussed by the state executive, who is affected by it?' I said, 'I am', and there was another lady affected on the state executive as well, so we were sent downstairs while they discussed it, came back upstairs and it was overturned, so my nomination stood. I was preselected, that was in 1970, campaigned for the election, I missed it because Vince Gair was coming up and he won the fifth seat, and then in 1970--71 when Annabelle Rankin, the late Dame Annabelle Rankin, was appointed High Commission to New Zealand, causing a vacancy in the Liberal ranks, I again nominated and won preselection. The rest is history.
So, we have this period after you came back from Palm Island, your own district, and you built up a political base really, and you grew and grew in ... the fact that you became well-known, the fact that you took on more responsibility and that you achieved things for your people, what was happening to Neville Bonner during that time? He was somebody who had been under a very authoritarian regime on Palm Island, who'd learned to keep his mouth shut, how did this person ... become ...
... No, don't think you quite ... I didn't learn to keep my mouth shut, I learned to manoeuvre and work things to achieve what I wanted to achieve, and I achieved much on Palm Island. I improved the conditions under which Aboriginal people lived with housing and all of those things, the Social Welfare Association, putting on shows, exhibitions at the Brisbane Exhibition. All of those kind of things, I was achieving those things, not by being abusive, not by being discourteous to those in authority, but playing the authorities at their own game, and beating them. I've always said, for Aborigines to achieve, we've got to play the white man at his own game and bloody well beat him. I've been doing that all my life.
So there wasn't ever a time when you really lacked confidence?
Oh yes. Yes, manys a time.
Because it seems to me that there must have been a lot of confidence built up for somebody like yourself to decide that you were going to have a go at that senate?
Oh, no, there was lots of, lots of, disappointments in life. I didn't always win the battle, but I won enough of them to keep me going and achieving, or trying to achieve better. [INTERRUPTION]
It sounds as if you almost surprised yourself when you threw your hat into the ring for the senate?
Did I ... ?
You almost surprised yourself when you decided to have a go at the senate?
Yes, I think I did, I opened my mouth too big at the wrong time -- after the reaction I got. I didn't intend to go ahead with filling in the nomination form I ...
Why? Why was that?
Well, I didn't think ... it was time for me to do it.
Were you nervous?
Yes, I was nervous about it, but I don't think I had sufficient quantities to feel that I should have been going at that time. I felt I needed more experience at the organisational level, to learn more about what politics was all about. When I finally made it, I think I was pretty naive when I first went to Canberra, matter of fact I'm sure I was, but it took a while to sort it out ...
... What were the consequences of your naivety in Canberra?
Well, it has been said by other people that I was a kind of person that wore my heart on my sleeves, I was susceptible to a hard luck story and things like that, but I don't think that that was quite true. I am a compassionate person, sure, but I'm not naive enough to be taken in on some trumped up hard luck story. I think I'm capable of working those things out, but there were people who felt that. But I think I was naive in the sense that I saw myself as a parliamentarian, I never saw myself as a politician, and I think there's a vast difference between being a politician and a parliamentarian.
Could you explain what you mean by that?
Well, I went down there feeling that there was things to be done, that I felt that I had the ability to make a contribution towards. I felt that I could do more for my own people by the fact that I was down there, that I was rubbing shoulders with people who were making decisions and I was part of the decision-making because we were in government at the time. I saw my responsibilities as a parliamentarian representing a state and representing the country in these orders of priority. My first responsibility was to God because I'm a Christian, my second responsibility was to my nation because I'm an Australian, my third responsibility was to my state because I'm a Queenslander, my fourth responsibility was to the Party that I was a part of and who gave me the opportunity to get into parliament, but interwoven through the whole sequence was my almost all-consuming, burning desire to help my own people, the Aboriginal community, to become respected, responsible citizens within the broader Australian community, retaining where desired ethnic and cultural identity. But having all of the opportunities that every Australian, other Australian, white Australian take for granted: education, employment, health, housing and social and economic standing within the community. Those are the things I wanted for my own people, I still do. We've come a long way in the last 20 years, but there's still a long long way to go, and even though I'll be 70 in two months time, I hope I can still make a contribution somewhere along the line towards helping our people to achieve those things that most Australian white people take as their right. Not something they have to continually work at and prove themselves at, but it is their right to expect those things to be there for them. We as Aboriginal people still have to fight to prove that we are straight out plain human beings, the same as everyone else. You know, I grew up, born on a government blanket under a palm tree. I lived under lantana bushes, I've seen more dinner times than I've ever seen dinners, I've known discrimination, I've known prejudice, I've known all of those things ... but some of that is still with us, even today in 1992, and it's got to be changed. It can only be changed when people of non-Aboriginal extraction are prepared to listen and hear what Aboriginal people are saying, and then help and let us work together to achieve those ends.
What is the worst thing that's happening now that you think that the people who are listening should be aware of?
Well. There's a number of things, all of those things that I mentioned in health, employment, housing and all those things, Aboriginal people are still suffering, we still have the highest infant mortality, almost worse than some third world countries. Now if that was happening in the general community, all hell would break loose, but it's happening in the Aboriginal community and very few people give a damn. We still haven't ... a large percentage of our people still are not living in decent housing. Our unemployment in the Aboriginal community is up around 50, 55 per cent; in the broader Australian community it's about eight or nine per cent. Now if the rest of the community was over 50 per cent unemployment, all hell would break loose in the country. But it's there amongst Aboriginal people, and very few people give a damn.
What would you like to see done now to improve that situation?
I don't know that I have any specifics, except that industry and governments have got to come together and ensure that there are positions where Aboriginal people can go into, that the education of Aboriginal people has to be not just something that's just available. You know people say, 'Oh but there's schools everywhere, they can go to school,' but you've got to ensure that they are going to school, that they are learning, and if they need special education apart from what they're getting at school, then that should be provided. But industry has to open their doors and start employing Aboriginal people, giving them the opportunity of work, but you know I've been in the situation myself, where you go to an industry looking for employment, you walk up and they say oh yes, well give us your name, leave your name, we don't have any vacancies now. You walk down the road, and there's a white chap walks up behind you and you wait down the road till he comes out. 'How'd you go mate?' 'Oh I got a job and I'm starting tomorrow.' When I was up there they said, 'Oh leave your name, we'll get in touch if anything comes up.' That's still happening. I did, and I still do, quite a lot of guest speaking engagements to various organisations and schools and high schools and colleges, particularly to organisations like Lions, Rotary and things like that, and it often comes up in question time about employment, and you'll have a bloke stand up and say, 'Oh yes, no that's alright senator,' -- or when I was a senator or since I've been a senator: 'That's alright Mr Bonner, but I had an Aborigine working for me once and he was absolutely useless, so I wouldn't employ Aborigines ... ' and I say, 'Oh that's fine. But how many whites did you have that did the same thing?' or 'Did you have whites that did the same thing?' 'Oh yes.' 'Would you stop employing whites?' 'Oh no, you can't do that.' And housing is the same. Aboriginal people apply to rent a house. The knock on the door and the bloke says, 'Oh no sorry, the house is gone.' The house is not gone at all because you see it advertised in Courier Mail again the next day. Now you can't say that he didn't give it to you because you were black. Of course he could say, 'Oh yes, but we had someone who was going to take it but at the last minute they didn't so we had to advertise it again.' There's always a way of getting around those kind of issues by smart people.
Many people were surprised that you chose the Liberal Party as the vehicle through which you entered politics. It sounds from the way you were talking that your Party wasn't as important as just going to parliament?
No. I was a member of the Liberal Party ...
Well a number of things ... I suppose ... I was interested in politics, Party politics, because of a couple of young wonderful people. One became my step-daughter and the other is her husband. We used to have lots of discussions about politics and I suppose all my life, being a working man, I felt automatically that I should support the Labor Party because they're supposed to be for the working class. But in discussions with Robyn and Noel over a period of time, they encouraged me to come along to one of their branch meetings which I did. I attended two or three of them. But in 1967 the referendum was coming up -- one of the questions was about Aboriginal people: would they be counted in the census and should the government make special laws for Aborigines? And they invited me to hand out how-to-vote cards at one of the polling booths, and I said, 'Oh look, I couldn't do that, I couldn't hand out Liberal how-to-vote cards,' and they said, 'But all parties are in accord with the question on Aborigines.' 'Oh,' I said, 'That's different.' So they put me on a school here called the Leichhardt School out at West Dempsey, and I was on the polling booths from eight o'clock in the morning till about four o'clock in the afternoon, and a big flash car pulled up and two men stepped out of it. One was the member for Oxley at that time, Bill Hayden, and the other was his campaign manager. Bill walked up to me and he said, 'What in the hell are you doing handing out those cards? We do more for Aborigines than they do.' Well, there was no Labor person handing out how-to-vote cards there, nor anyone else except me. And I said, 'Well, who the hell are you anyway?' He said, 'I'm Bill Hayden, the Member for Oxley' or something ... 'Well look Mr Hayden, I'd look silly handing out Labor how-to-vote cards when I'm a member of the Liberal Party.' Because it annoyed me to think that anyone could come up to me and assume that I would be automatically handing out a particular set of how-to-vote cards. No-one had that right.
Were you a member of the Liberal Party?
No, not at that time. But I was the next day.
So the Liberal Party owes Bill Hayden ...
A vote of thanks.
... for me joining, becoming a member of the Liberal Party. But you know that's fact and Bill Hayden remembers it and he's mentioned it to me a couple of times over the years.
Were you ever sorry that you joined the Liberal Party?
No. Including 1983 [where] the Party dropped me to an unwinnable position. It wasn't a pre-selection, it wasn't a normal pre-selection, because a pre-selection for a senator in the Liberal Party, the members for that pre-selection [INTERRUPTION].
When you were finally elected to the senate, you were the first Aboriginal senator ever ...
... in Australia.
What did you feel about that?
Well, the night I was selected by the Party, which meant that then I had to be endorsed by the State Government, I was on cloud nine. It was an enormous exhilaration, I'd finally achieved what I'd set out to achieve in the political arena. When I went to Canberra, my first trip to Canberra -- realising of course that I was a bridge carpenter, raising a son on my own because my first wife had died, I had a lot of problems and things like that, and I left the bridge carpentering with my last fortnight's pay, which paid all my bills and then I was going down to parliament, down to Canberra at the invitation of the late Kevin Cairns who was Minister for Housing at the time, to have a look at Parliament House. Before I left here, I had to borrow five dollars off my young man who is now my stepson, young Roy, to go to Canberra; that's all the money I had. But having had a look at Parliament House, I was still kind of excited about the whole thing, but the day I was sworn in was a very emotional day for me. Sitting in the gallery was my wife -- well my fiance at that time -- and the girl who was to be my stepdaughter, Robyn, and two Aboriginal women. There was only two Aboriginal people in the parliament the day I was sworn in. The custom for a new senator coming into parliament is that two of your colleagues from your side of parliament are supposed to grab you, one on each side and drag you up to sign in to be a senator. As they were leading me up, I looked up and around the galleries and I could feel the whole Aboriginal race, of those who had gone before, were all up there, and I could visualise, I could hear voices and amongst those voices was the voice of my grandfather saying, 'It's alright now boy, you are finally in the council with the Australian Elders. Everything is now going to be alright.' It was tremendously emotional for me, I became a little scared, because there I was, and with those thoughts in my mind, the whole race was on my shoulders -- where we were going from there. Now that may not be true, but that's what I felt at that time. And then I signed the register and I was finally fully fledged, a senator for Queensland, representing the whole of Australia. It was an emotional time, a very emotional time. I don't think anyone except my wife, or my fiance at that time, and the two Aboriginal ladies and my daughter realised what I was going through; I don't think anyone else. Everybody was sort of , 'Hey, we've got a blackfella into parliament at last' or whatever, but I don't think anyone realised what I was going through, except particularly that lady out there.
You were the first Aboriginal senator ...
And the only ...
And the only.
Does that make you feel sad?
Yes, when I lost my seat in 1983, and since I've been very, very sad about the fact that whilst we the Aboriginal people, the first Australians, make up two per cent of the Australian population, there is not an Aboriginal voice in the Federal Parliament, and I, rightly or wrongly, feel that there'll never be another one in my lifetime, because I don't think the mainland, the mainline political parties, are prepared to give an Aborigine an opportunity where an Aborigine can make it.
Why do you think that is?
It may seem ... a bit presumptuous of me to think this but I don't think the mainline political parties want another Neville Bonner down there.
And what did you do to frighten them so badly?
Well, I suppose I was a bit of a rebel. I voted against my own Party, in and out of government, on 23 occasions. I didn't toe the Party line. I was a member of the Party -- fiercely, proudly, a member of the Party, but I was not blindly a member of the Party. I had a conscience, and political parties don't need people with a conscience. They want bottoms on seats, and hands in the air at the right time.
And yet many of your own people have accused you of towing the Party line too well.
Only in the early stages because they didn't understand what I was all about. When I went down there, I had to consolidate myself within the Party and within the parliament. If I'd gone down there from the beginning, in 1971, fighting only the Aboriginal cause, I would not have survived in the pre-selection. I had to present my bonafides as a senator representing all people. As I became more sure of my standing within the Party, I then started to speak out on Aboriginal issues. But in the beginning, Aboriginal people felt that I was in the wrong Party for a start because I'd say 98 per cent of Aboriginal people, up until that time anyway, voted Labor. So in the first place I was in the wrong Party, I was in the Tory Party rather than in the Labor Party, and secondly I didn't go down there blasting everybody about Aboriginal affairs. Because if I had have, in my opinion anyway, whether I was right or wrong, it doesn't matter but that's what I felt, that I would have not lasted so I consolidated myself first, and then I started to speak out. But I believe that my stand on Aboriginal affairs was the thing that finally brought me down, and it was the reason why the Liberal Party dropped me to an unwinnable position on their ticket. And I think that the 1983 election proved me right and the Liberal Party wrong because if you recall, the vote I'd lost by .05% of a quota in my own right, and had the major parties given me, well the Labor Party in particular, given me their preferences, I'd have still been in parliament. I was beaten by preferences. See what happened was, the Democrats put me 35 on their ticket, the Labor Party put me behind the Democrats, National Party and the Liberal Party, and the Liberal Party and the National Party put me behind each of them so preference-wise I had no hope. I had to get a quota in my own right, and I lost that by .05%. So I think ...
It was very ...
... My stand was vindicated.
[end of tape]