|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: January 15, 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.
Is it possible to imagine what Neville Bonner would have been like if he hadn't been born Aboriginal?
No. I can't imagine ... you're asking me, of course, no I can't imagine what it would be like not to be an Aborigine, nor would I want to not be an Aborigine, but I suppose there would have been a certain sympathy from the non-Aboriginal people for an Aboriginal person who was running for parliament. There would be some sympathy. secondly, because as an Aborigine I was involved in an organisation called OPAL and I'd become reasonably well-known in Queensland because of my involvement in that as an Aborigine, and I suppose again, there would have been people who would have said, 'Oh well look we've known Nev, he was with OPAL, give him a go, he's worth a try,' and then after I got in there and started to do things and mix again a lot, and travel a lot amongst people, they realised that I had something to contribute. But I don't think it was wholly and solely because I was an Aborigine that I got into parliament.
But your culture shapes the way you think about things too. Do you feel that you think differently because of the fact that you were raised an Aborigine with Aboriginal values?
Yeah, I'm sure so, that my experiences of growing up and living as an Aborigine, and knowing all of those various things that we spoke about earlier, certainly would have ... had a great influence on the way that I thought, and the way I acted, and the issues that I got involved with -- rather than getting involved in the high economic debates and things like that, I left that to those who were more involved and better able to handle that type of thing. I tried to confine myself to issues that I knew and understood and was able to make a contribution in those areas. I felt that it was unwise of me to step out of character, and get involved with things and perhaps make myself look a little bit silly in trying to contribute on issues like that. No, I think that's a wise way to go. Everyone should know what their parameters are, and act within those parameters.
So, you avoided complicated technological or economic problems, what kinds of strengths do you think you brought? Where were the areas that you felt that maybe you had the edge on the others?
Well, I suppose in the whole area of education, welfare, our aged citizens, and I will always be opposed to this terminology of talking about 'how much more do we have to do for the pensioners', and we're talking about senior citizens who have contributed through their life towards this country and made tremendous contributions, and what they're receiving in their twilight years is being compensated for all the things they did while they were able to make those contributions. [With] Aboriginal Affairs, naturally I had an expertise there that was lacking in parliament because there was no Aborigines there, and whilst a lot of Members of Parliament may have acted in the best interests, they felt, of Aboriginal people, they could not ever hope, I believe, to understand and realise the position, and the things that affected Aboriginal people, because they weren't Aborigines and they would not have experienced the things that we experienced. So I brought that expertise to Canberra I believe.
Aboriginal culture is said to concentrate particularly on developing spiritual awareness, on bringing a better understanding of the way the mind works and the what's significant in spiritual terms to human beings. Do you think that's correct? And have you used that?
Yes ... I understand what you're saying. Whilst the rest of the world was involved and busily involved with the various sciences and technology, we the Aboriginal people lived a lifestyle where we did not feel that we needed to expand or to develop those areas because we were happy in our life, our relationship with nature and with the land and all of those things, but what we had developed was the science of the mind. We'd developed that science to such a degree that it is impossible for non-Aboriginal people to comprehend and to accept that we, a so called primitive people, could have achieved those things, but we did ... Certain things happen to me. If one of my children, one of my sons or one of my grandchildren, one of my grandsons or granddaughters, has an accident or is ill, or passes on, I know. I can tell my wife that I will receive some disturbing news about one of our family within a few... a reasonable time, and I do. So that is part of the development. I haven't developed it, but it is part of something that I've inherited from my ancestors. I have an ability to commune. I can go out into the bush and sit quietly in the dusk of the afternoons or the evenings and I can commune with the Elders who have gone on before me, and I believe that I can hear them, that they talk to me, and I can commune with them, and that's part of this development of the mind I suppose, or the science of the mind that we've been able to have develop. We're losing it fast, because ... it's like a lot of our culture has been lost. We've been forced in some way to leave it behind because we're not accepted in the community, the broader Australian community, and people scoff and laugh and ridicule these things that we talk about, and so we don't talk about them any more, and a lot of the suburban Aboriginal people have lost so much of it. It's still very strong within the isolated Aboriginal communities, particularly in the Northern Territory and the north west of South Australia, the Kimberleys of Western Australia, the Cape York Peninsula, and some of the isolated communities like Arakuan, Mornington Island, Mitchell River, Edward River and places like that, Doomadgee -- it's still very strong amongst the old people up there, but the young people are losing it unfortunately, because of education, because of the introduction of television and radio, and their being able to get into the towns and seeing the bright lights and things like that, you're no longer wanting to carry and revive or hold on to those valuable things, that I believe are valuable anyway, and I know our old people believe are valuable. The young people now don't believe that, and they're more now looking for the bright lights of the cities and things that are much more easy to handle and to link with.
You were given from your grandfather a certain power and responsibility, weren't you?
Yes, yes, passed down.
In what form did that come to you?
Well, first and foremost, I was given the Tjuringa that's come down through my grandfather's family for numbers of generations.
That's the object you have hanging on the ...
That's right, yes. None of my sons have shown any great interest in the Aboriginal culture, they have just become suburbanites, they don't have any desire to want to learn or to understand the things that I'm able to pass on, so the Tjuringa now will not be passed on by me to any of my family. It will be interned at the same time as I am.
What is the meaning of the Tjuringa?
Well, I can't give you all of the meaning, but I'll give you a sort of brief overview of it. It's something that is belonging -- belongs to a family group and comes down from the Elder of each family -- in the family tree. And there is markings on it depicting the life of each of those people in the various generations as it comes down. I have not made any marks on it because I didn't learn how to make those marks. There are certain marks that tell a whole range of sentences, with one little mark made in a particular design, and so my life story could well have been told on that, as was with the previous holders of it.
What is the power and responsibility that comes with it? What does it enable you to do?
Well, that again is something that we do not make known to non-Aboriginal people.
And you've decided that ... will this go to your sons?
No, as I said, it will go into the grave when my time comes.
... Could you say that without saying 'as I said' because we missed it before because of the noise?
Oh well, when I pass on, the Tjuringa will be buried with me, because as I said my sons have not shown any great interest in preserving the culture, the language, well none of us can speak the language now, but they're living now a life of a suburban person, rather than being involved with the deep meanings and understandings of the Aboriginal culture. Now I say that with a great deal of sadness.
Yes, this represents quite a loss of faith and hope for the future of the culture of the Aboriginal people.
Well, not in the totality no. But as far as my Jagara tribe is concerned, yes. But fortunately there's still [knowledge] being held in a lot of isolated communities, but even there, some of it is passing unfortunately.
What do you think is the future of the Aboriginal people? Do you feel that the culture, as it is being eroded on the spiritual side, will remain in some outward form?
I don't ... no, I don't know. It's very difficult to predict what will happen to the Aboriginal culture. There is a lot of young Aboriginal people now, as an urban Aboriginal people, who are now trying to relearn and recapture some of it, and they're going into the isolated communities where it is still being preserved. Maybe they'll have success in preserving it, I don't know, I tend to think that the answer to the Aboriginal question is a total integration into the broader Australian community, accepting the same responsibilities, having the same opportunities as other Australians. I think that is the ultimate in as far as we the Aboriginal people are concerned.
Where does land rights fit into this?
Well, land rights is a one off, and the time is close to where there will be no more areas that can be claimed by Aboriginal people. My concern in that is, and was during the debates on the land rights action that was taken by the Fraser Government in relation to the Northern Territory, one says that the land should be given in a form that it could never ever again be alienated from Aboriginal people, so the land rights in the Northern Territory is freehold in escrow which means that it cannot be leased, it cannot be sold, it cannot be lost again by Aboriginal people, under that Act. But there are people who disagree with that, and say that land, Aboriginal land given to Aboriginal people, they should be able to do whatever they want with it. Well as I began by saying, land rights is a one off. You can't demand land rights over a certain area today, and sell it in 20 years time, and in 30 years time come back and want land rights again. That's just not on, as a famous Australian used to say. So ... but again, no legislation by any government is set in concrete. It can be changed by parliament in debates at a future date. So, where do we go? I don't know whether land rights is going to be a continuing ever-growing thing or whether the time is going to come when it's cut off and legislation is changed, where Aboriginal people have a right to do whatever they want with that piece of land.
What do you hope will happen?
Oh well, it's a bit difficult, it's a bit foolish for me to want to hope for anything because I'm in my twilight years, but I would hope that the legislation would never change, and that the land rights would stay as in escrow], so it could never again be alienated from Aboriginal people. But I think it's a forlorn hope unfortunately.
What do you think about the idea of the Treaty?
Well, it's all very well to talk about a Treaty, a Treaty of what? A Treaty of saying the non-Aboriginal people agree that we were dispossessed, we were badly and harshly treated for 200 years, we now come together and say, 'Hey, we're sorry for what we did to you blacks,' and blacks saying, 'thank you very much,' and then we sign a piece of paper saying the war is over. Well, what does that do for Aboriginal people? What I want to see is someone spell out --when there is an acceptance by a majority of Australians -- to the parliament, the Federal Parliament, that we were dispossessed, that now we're coming to this Treaty, but out of that will be a whole range of benefits to assist and help we the Aboriginal people, to become what I said once before, respected, responsible citizens within the Australian community, having the same opportunities, accepting the same responsibilities, but there's a whole range of things needed to be done in the interim period to bring us up to that particular place. Now unless that kind of thing is spelled out, in the ultimate Treaty, then it's not worth the paper it's written on.
What would be the principal things that you would want spelt out? What would be the main things?
Well, a finalisation of land rights, where that is humanly possible and where it's practicable, where it is just, and there is a just cause. Improvements in all of those important areas of employment, or education first, or perhaps health first, I'm not sure, health, education, employment, housing ... all of those things need to be attended to. The deaths in custody, the number of Aboriginal people who are in prison who shouldn't be in prison, all of those things need to be attended to first and foremost, before you can say, 'Oh it's great. We're all now equal. We're all now playing our part in the building of this great nation, to become one of the greatest nations in the world.'
So, you would see these as needing special arrangements, that discriminated in favour of Aborigines to make up for the years in which the Aborigines were discriminated against?
Oh absolutely. Absolutely and totally yes. You know, if you look at the national budget for Aboriginal people, my estimate is that whatever amount it is, 70 per cent of it is used up in paying for administration, 30 per cent of it is getting to Aboriginal people. So if someone looks at the budget and figures off the top of my head, say a hundred million dollars, the government of the day sets aside for so called Aboriginal development and advancement, 30 per cent of it in my opinion gets to where the area of need is -- or less. The rest of it is eaten up in some form of administration. Now I don't care what you're looking at, whether you're looking at Aboriginal Affairs, or whether you're looking at health, or whether you're looking at education, or all of those areas when the Federal Government has to put in money, the percentage would be very close to being the same. How many people does it take to administer your social security? How much does it cost in administrative costs to administer the department and how much money does actually go to the people? Now, the budget would probably come out with, you know, a thousand million dollars, but you give ... just for the sake of argument it's 200,000 unemployed, I'll bet you don't give a hundred-hundred million, or a thousand million dollars to them, but the administrative cost would eat up a whole percentage of that amount of money, only a small amount gets to the people. And that's only in Aboriginal Affairs. But people will keep throwing at you, 'The government's spending a hundred million dollars on the blacks!' Well, they are in a sense, but how many non-Aboriginal people are being paid to administer that department? You have your federal department, you have your state departments, you have your regional departments, they're all being paid, big offices, furniture, telexes, videos, electric lights, motorcars, all of those things are paid out of that one budget. They don't give a hundred million dollars to Aboriginal people, and another hundred million dollars to administer it; all that comes out of that one hundred million dollars. So it's a lot of nonsense when people say a hundred million dollars is going to the blacks -- of my taxes.
Now you've had a very controversial political career, and there have been some celebrated incidents throughout your political life, that I thought we might just take a bit of a look at. Some of them were associated with your relationship with the state, that you were there as a senator to represent, and as a Commonwealth senator with certain sort of state connections and affiliations, particularly your relationship with Joh Bjelke-Petersen which changed in the course of your career. Let me begin asking you about that area of your life by asking you what do ...
... I don't think my relationship with Joh changed, I think there were certain things that were happening, maybe my attitude changed somewhat from those issues. [INTERRUPTION]
I suppose, inevitably, because you were the first Aboriginal senator, your life in parliament was really marked by a number of controversies, they were quite celebrated incidents at the time, and I was wondering if we could have a look at those with a bit of hindsight, to hear what your perspective on them is now. There was the occasion, for example, of the Springbok tour, where you came in for a lot of criticisms for the fact that you were seen to side with Joh Bjelke-Petersen in that issue, against a number of black people who were criticising that tour. Could you tell us a little bit about your thoughts and feelings and your perspective on that now?
I don't think it would have mattered who, whether it was Joh Bjelke-Petersen or whoever. My attitude towards the Springbok tour was that there was a group of sportsmen invited into our country on good faith by the Australian sporting body. As guests in our country they should have been treated with respect and courtesy, the same as we would expect if we visited their country. Secondly, I was opposed to people saying that they should have only come if they'd have had black Africans with them. Now knowing the situation in South Africa, of the apartheid situation, if that would have happened, they'd have come to Australia, and allegedly according to the oppositions to them being here, with the same respect and courtesy as the white members of the team. That would have been great for the people who opposed what was happening. But what about the black people who would have been brought here, then returning to their own country, back to the apartheid situation, and the horrible things that the South African people do to their black people. I would suggest that would have been a very cruel thing to do to any people, therefore, I was opposed to the demonstrations against the Springboks first and foremost, as they were guests in our country, invited by a sporting body, and secondly I disagreed with the idea that was proposed that they should have brought black people with them anyway.
And I came into a lot of criticism, sure, but criticism is not unique to me . Everybody has their fair share of criticism in one form or another so I was able to wear that.
Did you maintain the same attitude right through your career to apartheid, or did you get to understand more about it as you became ...
No, I'm still opposed to apartheid being forced on any people. If there is a group of Indigenous people who want to live separate from the rest of the community, that I suppose is a form of apartheid, but it's not a form of apartheid that I would oppose. I would not do it myself, but I would not oppose a group of people, as I've never opposed some of my tribal people in Australia, in some of the communities in the Northern Territory and other places, who want to live in their own communities, develop under their own systems and carry on. That's fine, but when an authority says you will live there, you cannot live here, you will drink in that hotel, you cannot drink in this hotel, you cannot ride in the bus because that's for whites not for blacks, then that type of apartheid is totally abhorrent to me. And it's against everything I believe as a Christian. So no, my attitude towards the apartheid system as practiced in South Africa has never changed, and never will.
You also created waves after you came back from a visit to East Timor. Do you remember that?
I doubt that I created waves, what I did: I went to East Timor with two other Members of Federal Parliament, Ken Fry from the House of Representatives, and Arthur Gietzelt from the senate. They first invited Andrew Peacock, who was the Shadow Minister at the time for Foreign Affairs, he wasn't able to go, and he suggested that they contact me. Which they did and I accepted. I went to East Timor, and we the three of us met with the group of people -- there were three groups in East Timor at that time, there was Apodeti, UDT and Fretilin. Fretilin appeared whilst we were there to be in control. We talked with the person who was claiming to be the President of Fretilin and President of East Timor at the time. We spent several hours talking and listening to them. And I felt, and so did Arthur and Ken Fry at the time, that what was happening there was not the fault of the East Timorese people, it was the fault of the Portuguese authorities who'd vacated and gone out and left them squabbling over who was going to run the place. Now, some of the things that they told us was that they needed, and they would hope that Australia would give them, some humanitarian aid and send up their advisors to help them to establish themselves as to how and the way that they should run that colony. When I came back -- I came back before Arthur Gietzelt and Ken Fry -- and I made a telephone call from Darwin to Canberra to request to meet with the Prime Minister who was at the time Mr Gough Whitlam. Mr Gough Whitlam's response to my request was that he didn't have time to talk to me about East Timor, but I could talk to one of his staff. That to me was an insult, because I felt that I'd visited this colony, I'd spoken to the Apodeti, UDT and the Fretilin group, I had an amount of information that I wanted to pass on, and I wasn't prepared to talk to the block. I wanted to talk to the butcher, but the butcher didn't want to talk to me. I came out and said this in a press conference. The person who responded to that, who was then the Treasurer, Mr Hayden, his response was to the effect that: who was going to take any notice of Neville Bonner? He was inexperienced in Foreign Affairs, and he had nothing to contribute. Mr Whitlam knew what was happening in East Timor more than I did, despite the fact that Mr Whitlam had not visited there, had not spoken to people, nor seen the conditions under which they were living. So if that's causing waves, well then yes, I caused some waves. I also went to parliament, I went to Canberra and had an interview with the leader at that time of the Opposition, who was Malcolm Fraser, in company with the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Andrew Peacock. Malcolm Fraser listened to me for quite a considerable time as I told him what I'd learned, and his response to me was, 'Nev, they're a bunch of coms -- forget 'em.' So both of the leaders of this country at that time were not interested one iota in what happened to the East Timorese people. I made a speech in the House, and I challenged Australia to do something to assist the East Timorese people for a number of reasons. One of them was that during the Second World War, when a lot of our troops were retreating against the onslaught of the Japanese, and they finished up in East Timor, a lot of East Timor's wonderful people sacrificed their own lives to ensure that our Australians got home. And I believe that the RSL and the returned soldiers who are still alive had a responsibility, and an obligation to come out and support me in my endeavours to get some help for the East Timorese people. It never happened. It is kind of bittersweet to me now to hear men like Bill Hayden coming out and supporting the East Timorese people after this last massacre that took place, Gareth Evans and the former Prime Minister Bob Hawke and a few others making these noises they're making now concerning the East Timorese people. It's a bit late now to think about what is happening in East Timor. Now, another part of that was that the Premier of Queensland at the time, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, had an article in the press when he was alleged to have told Suharto that they were a bunch of coms and he should take them over anyway. So now ... it's a sad day. It was, and it's been, a sad time for the East Timorese people. I think they were a ... lovely people: kind, friendly, and they deserved a better deal than they got.
[end of tape]