|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: January 14, 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.
After your mother died, your grandmother took over the main care of you kids. Tell me about her, what was she like?
Grandma was a very highly educated person, she was raised by a station owner family, and she spoke English as English is spoken. If my grandmother was talking in this room and you were out there, you'd say that she was an English lady speaking. And she was a lovable person, a big lady, a wonderful big heart to go with it, and she loved her grandchildren, and while she never spoiled us, she certainly took wonderful care of us, and continually made sure that we spoke correctly, and as Grandma used to say -- two things, very important things I believe: she always said that 'courtesy and respect cost nothing, but paid great dividend', secondly she always impressed on us and me particularly, I think I was a bit of a favourite with Grandma, that if you spoke correctly, people would not question your education qualifications, and I think that's quite a wonderful truism.
It stood you in good stead.
Has, certainly has.
And then you married your first wife, and she was really instrumental in your going to Palm Island?
Yes, Mona and I were married in 1943 on Palm Island, it was ...
That was her place, was it?
Mona was the first baby born on Palm Island after it was established as a settlement, a government settlement, and she worked, I think I mentioned once before, on a cattle station and we got together, and then she decided that rather than getting married away from her family at Hughenden, that she'd prefer to go home to Palm Island and married amongst her family, and this we did. And then we went back and we worked on various properties, we worked on a sheep station for some time, Mona was working for the owners' wife in the house, she did the washing and the ironing and the cooking and things like that. I worked as a general hand, and then we worked on a cattle station as well for some considerable time, and then we went to live in Hughenden and I took on a job cord woodcutting. It was from there that Mona was forcibly taken back to Palm Island. I visited with her for some time and she became pregnant, I went back to work and our son, oldest son, was born on Palms, and after he was born I got both her and the baby back out onto a cattle station where I was head stockman. We worked on there for some time until my son became very ill, and Mona decided that she didn't want to live on the mainland any more, she wanted to go back to Palm Island, so I joined her and we did.
That was her place, that was where she thought she belonged?
That was her home, her birthplace, all of her brothers and sisters, mother and father and all the different relatives, lived there so she wanted to go home and live with her relatives, and I gave up my freedom to live there for about 16 years.
What was she like? What kind of a person was she?
She was very talented in some things, she was a very good artist, the painting hanging on the wall is one sample of some of her work. She was a very good guitar player, she had a very good singing voice and generally she was a very nice person. We didn't have a very good marriage unfortunately, the last few years we separated and lived our own lives, and Mona went back north and went back to work on a station -- I think she, at that time, would have been close to 50. I think she tried to turn the clock back and think that she was still a young girl working on a station, and she had a heart attack and died.
Why do you think you had problems in your marriage?
I suppose it was a number of things, Mona was a girl from a government settlement and I had lived free for so long, I had some advantage I suppose, because I'd lived for so long in the normal community and I saw things differently to what Mona did, and there were other things, there was ... a problem that I'd prefer not to ... discuss.
And then you finally separated but you didn't remarry until after she died. Was that because of your Catholic faith? Or because you felt some feeling that you needed to stay ...
No ... we had not lived as man and wife for about ... close on 12 years, nearly 14 years, we lived separately in the same house, and I kept the family together because I believed that was my responsibility regardless of our estrangement, and ... I believed that when your mate dies you have an obligation to respect that over a period of time, and this I did and so it was two, almost three, years before I decided to remarry.
And you married Heather, who ...
... I did indeed, yes ...
... had been your secretary. Tell me about Heather and her place in your life?
Well, we worked together for quite a considerable time, even when Mona was still alive, in an organisation, first the Ipswich Coloured Welfare Council which eventually became part of an organisation, a state-wide organisation, called OPAL. We both became members of the Board of the OPAL organisation, I became its president and when I became president I asked Heather would she take on being my confidential secretary. And we worked and got to know each other extremely well, it was a close friendship in the beginning, which developed into something much more than that. Heather was devoted to working to assist the Aboriginal people, she became confidante, mother figure, grandmother figure to a whole lot of Aboriginal children and confidante to a whole lot of adult Aboriginal people here in Ipswich and Brisbane, and we enjoyed working together, and I think she's one of the greatest blessings that God has ever given me, is bringing us together, I truly believe that.
Has she helped you in a practical way with your political career?
No ... no. Not in the beginning. Heather was totally opposed to my becoming involved politically. I became involved politically through her oldest daughter, who's now my step-daughter, Robyn, and her young husband Noel. But Heather was opposed to it, I suppose mainly because Heather grew up in a political family, her grandfather was one of the first federal members for this locality -- Hugh Sinclair was a Member of Federal Parliament when parliament was meeting in Melbourne before Canberra was established, and so she wasn't very attracted to the political scene. Secondly, she felt that getting involved politically would take me away from the work that I was doing in OPAL, particularly the work that I was doing amongst my own people, the Aboriginal people, and of course she was so devoted to assisting and working and helping Aboriginal people that she felt politics would take me out of that area, but I continued my political career as it were, and eventually when I finally became a senator, Heather then took on the mantle then of a senator's wife, and did it extremely well. Better, as well and better, than most political wives in my opinion. I'm ...
... saying that with a certain amount of bias, naturally.
You actually met over a political argument, didn't you?
Well yes, at The Coloured Welfare Council, Heather was expounding her views about Aboriginal people and what should happen, and she used a word that always heckles me, she talked about Aboriginal people becoming assimilated into the broader Australian community. Well that's like showing a red rag to a bull, when someone brings that up to me, because I'm totally opposed to the Aboriginal race being totally and absolutely absorbed into the broader white community. I believe in integration, integrating into the broader Australian community, retaining where desired, ethnic and cultural identity, and I believe that for all people regardless of where they come from. New Australians who come here, I believe they bring a lot with them in their culture and traditions and language and all of those things, and they -- I believe like me -- should integrate into the broader Australian community, retaining where desired, and I use that word very properly, where desired, ethnic and cultural identity. If they want to become assimilated, that's an individual choice, but I don't believe it should be a policy of government to force people to become assimilated rather than integrated.
Did you manage to convince her that you were right?
Yes, yes, I think so yes, I think I did.
Do you always win arguments with Heather?
No. No, I do not. I win some. I win my fair share I think. But whilst we do have differences of opinion, it is just that. We don't get into any heated arguments about things, but we do disagree on a number of issues, political issues, racial issues, but one of the wonderful things about our relationship is that we stop in the middle of an argument often, say, 'Hold on a minute, are we arguing this from a rational point, or are we arguing this because of our differences in cultural background?' and we stop and have a second look at where we're discussing what we're arguing about. And I think that's a good thing to do. Sometimes we find yes we are. I'm looking at that argument purely as an Aborigine. Heather's looking at it purely as a non-Aboriginal person, so when we say 'Hold on, is this a cultural thing that we're involved in or are we looking at this in a more, you know, sensible rational way?' And so we don't get into any real problems there.
When you became a senator and you went down to Canberra, how did you cope with the trappings of office? You said that you went down with five dollars in your pocket, you were then obviously on a much higher income and with cars and all sorts of things associated with your position. How did you deal with that?
Well, let me say first and foremost I enjoyed it. I thought this was great -- you know, to go from here to the airport ,all I had to do was ring the pool, or have my Secretary ring the pool, and have the car pick me up here, take me to the airport, and then when I got to Canberra, there was always a car there to take me up to Parliament House. I thought that was pretty good stuff. My income of course had -- wow, that had just gone from a bridge carpenter's salary of about $40 a week to quite a substantial amount more than that. But it was great in this sense that even though we didn't get married immediately -- I became a senator in June 1971, we didn't get married until July 1972 -- Heather was still able to guide and help, council me about the use of the money, and so if I hadn't have had Heather there, well most of the times I think I'd have been home with the seat out of my pants because being an Aborigine I have an obligation to share the kangaroo as it were, but this happened to be a financial kangaroo, with those less fortunate than myself, in my own community. But of course Heather being a person that understands the ramifications of wasting or giving money away when you had an obligation and a responsibility to do the things that you had to do. I had to dress properly, I had to have dry cleaning and laundry done and all that sort of thing so all this cost money and she was able to help and when we got married Heather then, at my request, took over the management of our joint finances, and she's made a darn good job of it ever since.
So, you think that that really had a significant affect on your ability to be able to deal with this overwhelming change in your life?
Oh yes, if I hadn't have had Heather with me, even while she was my fiance before we got married, it would have been much, much, more difficult for me to have been able to handle that because Heather is one of my greatest critics. If she sees a television program that I've been interviewed on or reads an article that I've had an interview by someone in the press, she is always able to analyse the whole thing and point out to me where perhaps I could have done better or said something different, or whatever, and so she's been a wonderful person in helping me in my career.
Were you ever in danger of the status and the prestige of the office going to your head, do you think?
I don't think so, no. No, I think I was more conscious of the responsibility that was cast upon me because I was the first Aborigine ever to enter a parliament in Australia. I was the first ever to be travelling ... the various towns would be examining everything I did, the way I walked, the way I talked, the way I dressed, the way I ate, the way I drank, everything would have been totally under scrutiny. I think I was alerted to that with a television interview that we had with a chap in Sydney, on one of the television stations, and his parting remarks to both Heather and I was, 'Well good luck to you both, in your fishbowl life.' I think that alerted me to the fact that I was in a fishbowl, as it were, under total scrutiny by both black and white citizens of this nation.
Were you ever in danger?
Yes, I was in danger during the change of government after the McMahon Government was thrown out and the Whitlam Government came in. There were three people who were under threat, which was discovered by the Commonwealth Police. It was Lionel -- the late Lionel Murphy, senator Jim Cavanagh who was then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and myself. And for quite a considerable time I was accompanied by a Federal Police officer everywhere I went in Queensland, and when I did my tours around Queensland, I had to always book a double room and the officer slept in the same room as I did. He was always armed, and when we travelled in aircraft, of course, he had to hand his heavy equipment to the pilot so as they carried the equipment, then it was returned to him when we arrived at the next airport.
You were under threat from whom?
Well, they never discovered from whom, but there was ... [INTERRUPTION]
Under threat from whom?
Well, I never learned from whom and I don't know whether the Federal Police actually learned from whom, but there was allegedly to be a threat against my life and both the other two Members of Parliament. I understand there was a bounty of something like 35, 40 thousand dollars, for my hide as it were, and so the Commonwealth Police had a police officer travel with me to keep me under protection.
And you never found out who it was that was threatening ... ?
No, I did -- I ...
... Did you have any theories about who would think your hide was worth that?
Well, it's a ... no, I don't know who it was and I don't particularly want to know who it was, they didn't carry out their threat or they weren't able to carry out their threat, and I had no intentions of going into hiding, I accepted the Commonwealth Police's putting someone with me, but I never wanted it because I believed that when you're in a position as I was, then you allow yourself to become frightened or scared of a threat like that, well you might as well give the whole game away, because I don't believe that ... an instruction was kept in my office, and Heather kept one here, that if ever I was taken as a hostage or something like that, there was never to be any ransom paid for me, that I was prepared to give my life rather than have someone extract something from my nation or from whatever for my life. I don't believe that that is the way to go. I'm not brave, I'm as big a scaredy cat as anyone else, but I stand by that even to this day; if anything happened, no ransom must be paid for Neville Bonner. I don't believe that that's the way to go.
That was the sort of dark side, if you like, of political life, but you brought some light moments to Parliament House, didn't you, by demonstrating your Aboriginality?
Yes, I suppose one of them was the ...
... Some famous incidents.
I guess so, yes. Well it came out my maiden speech when I tried several times in the Party, the Liberal Party, to have the boomerang copyrighted to the exclusive use, exclusively to the Indigenous people, because it is an Aboriginal art, it is unique to Australia, it's never been used by any other race of people and it is being exploited, I believe, still is to some extent, by non-Aboriginal people. I had a small boomerang factory at one stage where I was making boomerangs and I went broke because I could not compete against the imported Japanese boomerangs made out of plastic and various other compositions, so I wanted that to happen. Now I was told it could not happen because the boomerang had been in common use for so long, that it could not be copyrighted. I mentioned it again during my maiden speech, and I had several letters from non-Aboriginal people who were in the boomerang manufacturing, making, throwing business, criticising and condemning me for my attitude. And saying that Aborigines couldn't make boomerangs come back anyway. So I was challenged to then prove that my boomerangs did come back. So I invited the press to come into the senate gardens and the first boomerang that I threw -- see my boomerangs don't just go out and around and straight back, my boomerangs go out, around, right back behind me and circle, and come back from behind me. I forgot that there was a jolly big bushy tree behind me, and the first boomerang I threw got caught in the tree. The rest of course, and then I realised what I was doing, and so I got out and all the boomerangs were coming back. Then when I finished throwing them, I asked the young men of the press, would one of the young fellows be kind enough to climb the tree and retrieve my boomerang. Well they were a little bit smarter than I thought they were, because none of them offered to do it. They realised that here was a coup, they could catch this new Aboriginal senator climbing a tree for his blasted boomerang, and they got some darn good shots at it, and it hit headlines quite a lot throughout Australia. That was a very humorous thing.
Why didn't you leave the boomerang where it was in the tree?
No way. Not one of my boomerangs, I can't leave one of my boomerangs behind, no. As a matter of fact I've still got the two boomerangs in that spare room. So that was one of the exciting, funny, sides of the situation I suppose.
Did you sometimes pinch yourself and wonder what this boy from the banks of the river in Lismore was doing there?
Yes quite, I did quite often. I often questioned myself, what are you doing here? You are amongst lawyers, barristers, doctors, farmers, station property owners, agriculturalists, you have no profession of your own, you had a fourth grade education , and you have the audacity to be sitting in here, debating issues of national importance against people like that? But then again I realised that I had a unique position because I was that little boy from the bank of the Richmond River. I knew discrimination, I knew hunger, I knew cold, I experienced all of those feelings, I also grew up as a an ordinary, an average Australian, black albeit, but I worked at every labour job known to man, so I knew what it was to raise a family, to work ... manually, to earn a living and to know all the problems that are faced by people at that level in our society, so I was unique and I had, I believe, something to contribute, so I consoled myself by saying, 'Hey listen fella, you may not have all those degrees below, behind your name, but remember whilst you did not have a very high formal education, you attended the university of hard knocks with experience as your tutor,' and I think that's not too bad.
The fact that you are an Aborigine has brought discrimination and many problems to your life, but it's also had another side to it, hasn't it? Do you think that if you hadn't been an Aborigine you would ever have been elected to parliament?
I don't see no reason why not ... there were other men in there. Do you remember the 'little digger' Billy Hughes? he wasn't a man with a lot of letters behind his name and he became Prime Minister of this country. So there are other people who have got into parliament without being one of the top, from the top echelon.
But you did make a point of your colour in your campaign, I remember you had a ...
... Why not!
... slogan called, 'Put a little colour into Canberra.'
Well, why not? Why not? That's a part of politics, you use everything, you can use all of those things to get yourself where you want to go, and it was catchy. , 'put a little colour into Canberra' and one of my humorous experiences at the double dissolution in 1974, after Whitlam won back government with the double dissolution, we had a joint sitting, and it was the first time parliament was televised. And we had cameras, and it was just after colour television came in, so we had cameras in Kings Hall. There was a whole group of parliamentarians who weren't in the chamber, including myself, who were looking at this colour television outside and they were terribly excited because there they were all in colour and I said, 'What are you guys all excited about? I've been giving you colour for years since I came down here.' There was a humorous side to the whole thing.
I suppose I'm really trying to ask you, is the fact that you're an Aborigine -- has that been, given that you've been involved in politics and that it's had such an influence in the shape of your life, has it really been the single most significant thing in your life? Is it possible to imagine Neville Bonner not as an Aborigine?
Now you're asking me that, I can't imagine me not being an Aborigine, I would have no desire not to be an Aborigine [even] with all the problems and all the things that we've spoken about, but yes of course, my being an Aborigine would have had an effect on a lot of people ... [INTERRUPTION]
[end of tape]