Australian Biography

Neville Bonner - full interview transcript

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You were sometimes criticised by your own people, not for supporting the Commonwealth Government of which you were part, but for opposing it. For example, there were a couple of notorious times when you opposed the Commonwealth Government and supported the State Government of Queensland in a couple of cases. One of them had to do with the repeal of the Queensland Aborigine Act, which the Commonwealth Government moved for and Bjelke Petersen opposed. You supported the state in that matter, could you tell us a little bit about that time and about your thinking at the time?

Well, I opposed it on the grounds that I didn't believe that the Commonwealth had the right to interfere with State Government policies. They're two separate governments, one is a Commonwealth Government, the other is a State Government. What they should have done, rather than try to oppose it from Canberra, was to negotiate with the State Government, the ministers should have got together in consultation with Aboriginal leaders and to work it out on a negotiating basis rather than a confrontation. I didn't believe that there should be a confrontation between the Commonwealth Government and a State Government on state legislation. I still don't believe that, that that is the correct way to do it. You negotiate and get the best deal you possibly can.

Did you understand the feelings of those who opposed you from your own people in that matter, given that the change that the Commonwealth was trying to bring about was one that was going to make a big difference to people in Queensland?

But the Commonwealth didn't have the power to do what they were threatening to do at the time. Therefore they were boosting the expectations of a group of people, that they could do something that was the responsibility of the state. Now, when we were further down the track, when the State Government was taking away the rights of the people of Arakuen, I opposed the state on that issue, and supported the Commonwealth because the minister, the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, and I both visited the community, we discussed the whole situation with the Aboriginal people there and then we tried to negotiate with the State Government with very little or no success. But it was a negotiation situation, not a confrontation one. That was my stand at that time. Maybe I was wrong in retrospect.

Yes, with hindsight, do you think that you would have acted differently with what you know now?

I don't think so, no. I don't think I would have acted differently because I was part of the Commonwealth Government, I was in the government at the time, I think it was ... yes it was under Fraser when that was happening.

I think it actually happened in the run up when you were actually seeking pre-selection, in the period before the senate election, I think you had your hat in the ring at the time and were being looked at rather closely?

No, no, no, you're referring to another situation altogether. When I was running for the seat there was a group of people, Aboriginal people, who wanted to adopt and negotiate with the American black movement. People were coming out here to visit, and I did make a statement that I regretted because I said that the Aboriginal people who were wanting to go negotiate with the Americans were a mob of ratbags. I should not have used those words, I regretted it and I apologised at the time. That was when the FCATSI (Federal Commission for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders) conference was being held in Townsville, and they came out and opposed me because I called them a mob of ratbags, and they were right in opposing me at that time because I should not have used those terms. I could have said irresponsible or something like that, but to call them a mob of ratbags was wrong, and I have no ...

Did you think they were a mob of ratbags?

I thought they were irresponsible, but I used a word that was quite commonly used in the bush about someone who is opposed to what you were proposing. ' you're only a ratbag!,' and I used it in that sense, but I should not have. I regretted it and I apologised for it at that time and I still do.

When Gordon Bryant went to visit Palm Island, then a Minister in the Whitlam Government, and condemned the conditions that he found there on Palm Island, again that was a time when you supported Bjelke Petersen in defending to some extent the conditions on Palm Island, and you visited there. You were criticised very severely for that too.

You'll recall if you will, that the Act had changed and Palm Island was not the Palm Island it was when I lived there. It was open and people could leave, they had a form of self-government, they'd already elected their own council on the island, and things had changed considerably to what it was under a Labor Government in the days when I was there. The changes that occurred in the Aboriginal communities changed when the government from a Labor Government changed to a Liberal National Government in Queensland. So when Gordon went there, it was after the change. Had he gone there when the Labor Government was in power in Queensland, he would have had a lot more to say about the conditions on Palm Island, because I lived there then.

So in defending it you weren't saying it was a good thing, you were just saying it was better than it had been?

That's right. Okay? [laughs]

Did you feel the criticism that came from your own people over that, was unfair?

Well, no, it doesn't matter what I think. I believe that everyone has a right to express themselves and someone else can oppose that expression, and I made my statement, they opposed it and they criticised me for it; that's their right. I've criticised other people, and that's my right so whilst I felt that perhaps their criticism was unjust, it doesn't alter the fact that I defend their right to do it.

When you went to Canberra, and you were faced with the whole bureaucracy of Canberra, the way things were done in Canberra ... [INTERRUPTION]

It must have been rather overwhelming for the first Aboriginal senator in Australia to go down and face Canberra with all the white institutions, bureaucracy, the pomp and the ceremony and all the other things that are part of the trappings of government. How did you cope with all of that?

Oh, no problems. No problems at all. The bureaucracy never bothered me unduly, yeah sure I had arguments with them, I had my brawls with them, whatever you like to call it, but I really had no problems with it, I was able to handle it. The trappings and ceremonies and that, well, they're all part and parcel or par for the course as it were when you get into a situation like that, I had no problem with it. I deliberately did not get myself caught up too much with visiting with embassies and things like that, there was a couple that I did attend their functions, but I didn't allow myself to get caught up too much with anything like that, because most of those things are small talk and drinks. And one of the things I had to be terribly careful of is that there is a general attitude by non-Aboriginal people that Aborigines are all a mob of drunks and can't handle the liquor. So I had to be very careful in the way I handled the drinking situation down there, I got to be known down there as the one-beer-senator, because every time we went down past the bar into the dining room we'd all stop off and have a drink on the way through. I always got into the chair and had the first shout so as I could leave whenever I wanted, so I'd shout first and then walk off into the dining room. Oh you know, there was a lot of things that prevented me from getting too much involved with that pomp and splendour that you refer to, the embassy roundabouts and things like that.

Did you feel a big responsibility as a sort of personal representative of your people, that you were under scrutiny?

Well ... yes. My whole political life was under scrutiny. The way I walked, the way I talked, the way I ate, the way I drank, everything I did was being judged, and the whole race was being judged on it. That happens with all Aborigines who ... start to climb the ladder, whether it's economically, whether it's socially, whether it's employment wise or whatever. We're always totally under scrutiny.

And yet you say that you took it in your stride. You didn't find this too much of a pressure?

No, I didn't find it too much pressure, I was conscious of it all and acted accordingly, and just was careful of how I behaved.

It wasn't a bit of a strain?

Not really because I'm not a person that's terribly fond of excessive use of alcohol, so that didn't worry me unduly, but I felt that I had a responsibility as the first Aborigine to make that breakthrough, to prove that we the Aboriginal people had the ability and the power, willpower, to be able to handle any situation, because if I failed, then my whole race would have been judged accordingly. Therefore I was determined that that was not going to happen, and I say it not boastfully, I say it factually, that I think I achieved that.

Did you feel that you were accepted as an absolute equal with all the other senators down there? Did you feel that you were not discriminated against?

No, I can't say that I did feel that I was totally an equal. In the chamber, yes. On my feet in the chamber I was given no quarter and I asked none. I was treated totally as an equal on my feet in any speeches that I made, criticism I made of the Opposition, either in government or out of government. But I do believe that there was a -- not so much a form of discrimination, but I think there was a feeling that I was a lesser person than some of the other Members of Parliament. They didn't quite see me as an equal intellectually, academically, and they were right academically. I don't think they were right intellectually, but they were certainly right academically. I was certainly not equal to them academically, but intellectually I think I was as good as anybody there. And ...

... What hap ... [INTERRUPTION]

... What happened to make you feel that they didn't see you as a real equal?

Well, you perhaps would never have experienced what I'm about to say. You know the old Parliament House, of course, with all its hallways and whats-er-names around the chamber, well you'd come down the hallways towards the chamber, there'd be a group of your colleagues standing up talking, and you pull up and you join them. Have you ever been in a situation where people were talking to each other and over you but never to you? It's a very eerie feeling ... and that has happened to me. It happened to me on a number of occasions. Then you get another situation where you join a group of your colleagues, sometimes from both sides of the House, and they're talking about Aboriginal Affairs, and one says to the other, 'How much bloody more have we got to do for these bloody boongs.' and I say, 'Hey, hey hey, hold on a minute. Hey, I'm an Aborigine.' 'But Nev, you're different. You're one of us.' They add insult to injury. That's been said to me in the Halls of Parliament. So you get the idea that somewhere along the line that whilst they say, 'Oh ye , but you're one of us,' are you? Or are you still one of those 'boongs' that they're talking about? You can never tell. But you get that distinct feeling that you are different, or looked upon as different, to the others. Now I had some very wonderful friends on both side of the House, from all political parties, but there was some there that I couldn't stand a bar of, and there was some that couldn't stand a bar of me so what the heck.

What do you think was your main achievement while you were down there?

I think the fact that I was there. That an Aborigine was there, an Aborigine was speaking on issues and as capable and as well as other people. I think it gave a lot of the people down there time to have a second look and a second thought about the whole race, because one of them was their colleague. I think in the political Party room, of the Party that I was a member of, I could imagine before I went there, when Aboriginal issues were coming up, the kind of things that I said were being said in the hallways, would have been said in the Party room, but when there was an Aborigine sitting in the Party room as a fellow colleague, the language was much more ... subdued. They talked about Aborigines rather than boongs and blacks. So you know there was a lot of things like that, that made I think quite an impact and a difference on the attitudes and thinking of people. When Aboriginal issues came up in the Party room, I had some very good and wonderful thought, particularly after the change of government in 1975. Malcolm Fraser and Philip Lynch, Margaret Guilfoyle, Bernie Kilgariff, Fred Chaney, Ian Viner, Peter Baume, all of those guys were totally in support of the things that we were endeavouring to do, in particular in relation to Aboriginal Affairs. If you look at the land rights issue, strangely enough in every state it was the conservative governments who gave land rights to Aboriginal people. The Northern Territory: Malcolm Fraser; South Australia, Pitjinjara people was by ... oh I can't think of the Premier's name but he was a Liberal Premier; in Victoria, Lake Tyers and places like that by Dick Hamer -- all conservative governments. No land rights anywhere in Australia has been given to Aboriginal people by a Labor Government. Not to my knowledge. Strange thing that, isn't it?

You've always taken the view ... that ...

... Pardon?

You've always taken the view and you've said several times while we've been talking, about the importance of working within the system, of making the system work for you?


What do you think is the role of the agitation that goes on outside the system, the political action that happens at the grass roots?

Look I think ... if you're referring to the Aboriginal activists as so called, the people that speak out, the Mansells, and the Porcos and the Gary Foleys and the Denis Walkers, all of those people have a place in our society. I may not agree with their methodology, but I agree that they have a right to express themselves and draw attention to the problems that are faced by Aboriginal people, and Island people. I don't think that they change things as well as they could if they were in the system, at least they draw attention to it, by the rest of the community, outside of the people responsible for whatever action is taken in parliament. And they gather support from the ordinary average Australian. And things can happen because then non-Aboriginal people start to support them and earbash their own particular Member of Parliament. So in a sense it does have an effect, but the best way to change it is getting into the system. I don't think that land rights in the Northern Territory would have got through parliament, through the Conservative Party Room, as well and as quickly and as easily as it did, had I not been there. I might be boastful in saying that, but I firmly believe that.

In policy terms, what do you think was your greatest achievement?

In ... ?

In policy terms, what was the greatest achievement of your period in parliament, do you think?

I don't think I can point to any specific thing really, no, I don't think I could really pinpoint any specific thing.

You had a few failures, didn't you too, with things that you tried to do that you were unable to push through?

Well yes. I think all politicians experience that, I don't think that's anything from me as an Aborigine to be ashamed of, because a lot of my colleagues had wheelbarrows that they wanted to push but didn't get very far. But I think I won more things than I lost.

There were a couple of things that you tried to do, one in particular relating to the treatment of Aboriginals ...

Under the law ...

Under the law which ...

Yes I ...

... might have made a big difference if it had got through?

Yes, I think I was I was fobbed on that one. That was the Admissability of Confessions Bill, Private Members Bill, that I introduced in parliament. I was fobbed off because I was told that there was another Bill being introduced that, [had] that Bill gone through, it would have made it easier for my Bill to go through because ... time ran out on me.

Could you tell us a little bit about how you came to introduce that Bill?

Well, I had a friend who was a barrister, oh he's still a friend of mine, and he was very much involved with the Aboriginal Legal Service and I was always concerned that a lot of young Aboriginal people are in gaol because of what is commonly called 'verballing' by police officers, signed confessions by police officers and things like that. And I know how some police officers work because I've been a victim of some of their nasty attitudes.

In what way?

Ah ...

... had you been a victim?

Oh, a couple of times I was beaten up. I was beaten up once in a place called Turinga many years ago, and I had two police officers come to my home out at Mount Crosby when I lived out there, break my front door down and pull me out of bed, shine a torch in my face and I managed to get away from them so I know some of the tactics they can get up to.

Why were they doing that to you?

Well why do police officers do it ... nasty police officers do anything? Sometimes you put a uniform on some people and they think they have the right to do anything they want. But my concern was that a lot of young people and a lot of Aboriginal people are in gaol because of verballing. So I talked to this barrister and I said, 'I'd like to do something about it,' so between us we put together the skeleton of a Bill whereby no Aborigine being arrested could be locked up until an independent witness was called by the police to be beside the Aboriginal person and take down everything that that person or the police officer, takes down everything that that Aborigine says, which would be used in evidence at any court case that they came up to, and put in charge of that independent person. That was basically how it was. I took the framework down to Canberra and took it to the parliamentary people, and they put the whole Bill together from about three pages. It finished up a Bill of about 20 or 30 pages with all the parliamentary jargon that goes with introducing legislation. And I put it up for its first ... reading speech, and I waited to put it on for the second reading speech and that's when I was told that there was another Bill coming in that would have made it much more simpler and easier for my Bill to go through, but it never eventuated. That's the only one that really I had grave regrets that that never got through. Of course the Queensland Government was examining the same type of thing here in Queensland long after my Bill went through.

Was the enquiry into Aboriginal deaths in custody ... it must have made you remember this, think how things might have been different in some respects?

Yes, it would've, yes. Quite true. And yet, I'm not happy with the whole issue of the enquiry into deaths in custody.

Why is that?

Well, I think far too much money was spent on something that we knew was happening. I think the whole thing should have been in three stages. Instead of spending eight million dollars on proving that there are deaths in custody when we could have proved that without spending that kind of money, the second step should have been spending some money in trying to devise some preventative measure, once we've achieved that, then we can spend some more money on find some curative measures. So it should have been in three parts. [INTERRUPTION]

You said that you were academically less well-qualified than most of the other people that you found in parliament although ...

... Yes well, you know ...

... not intellectually less well-qualified, did you find your lack of education a problem to you?

Yes and no ... I felt that, personally, to myself I felt, I had less education than my colleagues did, and because of that it should be an impediment to my doing my job, but then after being there for a while, I felt that most of the things I was involved with was about people. The aged population, the handicapped people, the people in distress, the families, the person unemployed looking for work and a whole range of welfare issues. I didn't need to be academically brilliant to handle those things because I know what that's all like, I've been one of them, you know, I'm a person that worked at all different types of labouring jobs known to man. I've been a ringbarker, a scrub faller, I've been a fencer, I've been a yard builder, I've worked for the main roads, and there was the PEI and all of those things: I knew what it was to be a battler and I could relate to those people. I didn't need to be academically as brilliant as my colleagues. They worried about those finer things, I was worried about people. My forte is in the welfare of the Australian citizens.

Did you feel ever that your lack of education meant that you didn't get the respect that you might have got?

No, but it probably was one of the reasons why I was never promoted in the parliament, into the ministry or something like that.

You were never Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, which surprised some people.

Well, I think if it had been offered to me, I would not have been willing to accept it.

Is that correct? Why not?

Well, two things, first and foremost, my own people would have expected miracles from me which I would not have been able to produce, and secondly I think the white population would have said, 'Okay we've got a blackfella there now, he can wear the blame for all of the ills that are besetting the Aboriginal people,' so I think it would have been disastrous for me. I think it would have killed me because the emotional drain on me would have been enormous. Any other portfolio I think I could have handled. It would have been hard work, but I would have been able to handle it.

Do you regret your lack of education?

Do I regret ... ?

... Your lack of education.

Not now, I did -- for a lot of my lifetime, because as I explained to you, I've known every labouring job known to man. I didn't have the academic qualifications to be employed in an office or that kind of work, because people were looking for academic qualifications. But I didn't have that piece of paper. Now I've one. At one stage I told you I was in charge of the building and construction on Palm Island. When I came out from Palm Island I couldn't get a job as a carpenter, because I didn't have a piece of paper.

You speak so well though. A lot of people must assume that you had an education?

Well, I think I said to you earlier, my grandmother once said to me, 'If you learn to handle the Queen's English, people will not question your education,' and I think I've fooled a lot of people for a long time.

Have you ever found that people are fooled, that they assume?

Are they ... ?

Do you ever find that people do assume that you must be much better educated than you are?

Oh yes, people have asked me lots of questions about that. I was once asked what did I major in at university, I said I majored in taking the cartload of manure up for the garden.

Well, that's quite a useful major I imagine [laughing]. So ... in relation to your work down there as a senator, you must have had a lot of writing to do, a lot of speech writing, letter writing and so on, did you feel confident about carrying that out?

Yes, I had no problems with that because I had a brilliant young person who was my secretary, Christine was absolutely brilliant. And because of my lack of education, my spelling is not really good, I spell most words as they're spoken, but Christine was able to understand that and I'd do my speeches out in long hand, and Christine would then knock them into grammatical order and I'd deliver them. Then of course after they gave us another person to work with us, as members of the Backbench, I had a research assistant working for me, John Hogg, and he was a brilliant man, and of course the same thing applied there. I'd just make out or sit down and talk to John, and John would make notes then knock that into a speech, Christine would type it up, I'd go through it two or three times until I got exactly what I wanted and away I'd go and deliver it. But you didn't have that in the chamber, you could not read a speech in the senate, only ministers could read speeches, Backbenchers couldn't. You had to speak from the top of your head. You could have ... as Magnus Cormack once had his attention drawn to a person who was allegedly reading his speech, and Magnus said, 'The honourable senator is speaking from copious notes, except that some copious notes are more copious than others.'

Okay, okay that's great. Thank you [INTERRUPTION].

[end of tape]

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