Australian Biography

Neville Bonner - full interview transcript

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You were in parliament at the time that the Tent Embassy was set up in Canberra?


Could you tell us about your part in that?

Well, ye , I didn't play a very prominent part in that ... I had no objections to the Tent Embassy when it first set up, but I think that they allowed it to go a little bit long. But a couple of things did happen, there was moves afoot by the government of the day, under the Prime Minister the late William McMahon, to have the Embassy moved, by force. Parliament was closing for the winter session, and I had an interview with McMahon on and I also spoke in the parliament that the Embassy should not be forcibly moved while parliament was in recess. I was let down by that because immediately parliament closed down, the police moved in under the instructions of the government. I had very great, grave concerns about that and I spoke my mind and felt that I was badly let down by the Prime Minister of the day because he promised that he would not move against the people ... everybody has a right to protest. I don't quite agree that the lawns of Parliament House is the correct place to do it by setting up a very ragged looking Tent Embassy. But the people did do it and I supported their right to protest. But, as I said in the beginning, they focused attention on a number of problems facing the Aboriginal community, I felt that they overplayed their hand because they shouldn't have gone on as long as they did. I think it became an eyesore, and I think they were turning people off rather than turning people on.

But you were criticised at the time because when they first set up you spoke in a critical way about the setting up of the Tent Embassy. Later you came in and defended them but at the beginning you had criticised them?

Well ... if I said the things that I said during these few minutes, that I didn't ... believe that the front lawns of Parliament House were the correct place to have that Embassy. I said that. But having it being established and the number of people, non-Aboriginal people, who were visiting there and listening and talking to the people made me then think well, 'Hey, they have a right to be there, they have a right to put their problems to the people, they're doing it well, now they should be left alone, until they realise that they have achieved what they wanted to achieve, and then fold up and go away.' And I was criticised, well of course I've been criticised for a lot of things in Aboriginal Affairs, unjustly in lots of cases because I don't think the people totally understood my motives, and that whilst I may have criticised, it didn't alter the fact that I'm an Aborigine and I feel the same emotions as my fellow Aborigines do about certain issues, but I have a different way of approaching the problems.

You've been called an 'Uncle Tom', you've been called a 'tame cat', you've been called many names by people who felt that you were in fact half on the other side, that you were in some ways too sympathetic with the white man's view. How does this make you feel when these names are ...

... Well it ...

... applied to you?

Look, anyone who is called harsh names like that are hurt by it, and I certainly was hurt by it. But by the same token I can understand their frustrations and their annoyances. If they really felt that I was selling them out, I wasn't selling them out but they didn't understand what I was doing and the reasons why I was doing it. I was a new boy in parliament, I was the first Aborigine ever to go into parliament, and I had to consolidate myself within that parliament in the eyes of my colleagues, both in government and out of government, by my Party colleagues, by the Opposition colleagues and I had to establish myself as a person who was able to make a contribution towards parliament as a whole, not just on single issues. Having consolidated myself, and established my bonafides as it were, I was then able to come out on different issues in a more forceful and a more ... if you want to use the term, a little more radical, than I was when I first went there.

Was that a conscious strategy or was it a bit of protecting Neville Bonner too?

No, I don't know if it was protecting Neville Bonner, but protecting the position that Neville Bonner held, more than just Neville Bonner. I held a position of responsibility, an Aborigine held a place of responsibility within the Federal Parliament of this nation. Now to have acted unwisely or presumptuously, I could have very well been thrown out of parliament; that would achieve nothing. So I had to continue to be in that parliament, to have an Aboriginal voice in that parliament for as long as was humanly possible, or possible for Neville Bonner to do it. And create an impression on the total Australian population that an Aborigine was capable of doing those things.

Did you ever at any stage of your political career, ever feel that you were used? Manipulated?

There was plenty of people tried it, I don't think they were successful. They may have felt they were, but I don't believe they were. Sure, I would imagine that a large percentage of Members of Parliament would have felt that some way at some time there were people who were trying to use them.

I mean being used as a token Aborigine, as someone who was wheeled out as window dressing?

Oh look, that's been said about the Liberal Party, but it doesn't alter the fact that the Liberal Party did -- maybe in 1970 when I ran on an unwinnable position on the Liberal ... no, at that time, Liberal Country Party ticket. There may have been some of that in the minds of some of the people then. But no, I don't believe that when I got the 'plum' as it were, in 1971, that the people on pre-selection really felt that they were using me as a gimmick, no I don't believe that. They were ordinary, average, decent, wonderful Australian people in the pre-selection, and I got a large ... I won in on the first ballot. Now you don't win a pre-selection on the first ballot because you're black. You win it because people have faith in you and believe that you have the capacity to do something. I can't be pursuaded otherwise.

There's a very fine line between the concept of a token and the concept of a symbol, and the question remains for some people, which were you? Were you a token black? Or were you the symbol of the ability of the Aboriginal people to take their place in the council ...

... You get -- you are, young lady, in a very safe position. You are an interviewer. If someone said that to me, they would be ... they'd find themselves flat on their back on the floor. I am no token. I never was, and I never will be for anyone, in a political Party or in any other situation. I am Neville Bonner, proud to be an Aborigine, and proudly a member of this Australian community. I am a token for no person. And if they thought I was, then they were thinking wrong, and let them not ever express that opinion to me. Because don't let the old grey hairs fool you, I still pack a decent sort of a wallop.

The idea that -- rather than that -- you were in fact a symbol of what Aborigines could achieve was certainly given a boost in the whole strong position you took in relation to the Arukun people. Could you tell us about your role in working for land rights, in relation to the people at Arukun?

Well, it wasn't actually a land rights issue at that time. What happened was that there was apparently some problems on Arukun. You must realise of course at that time, the community was run by a Presbyterian Church, they had Presbyterian people as manager and in various areas of responsibility. The Queensland Government decided that the church wasn't doing its job so they decided that they would take over the community and in plain English they sacked all of the church leaders. The Arukun people did not want that to happen. They wanted the Presbyterian Church leaders to remain with them, they had a Christian faith, they were Presbyterians and they wanted their leaders left alone. I came into it because I believed that they were right. They had a right to remain as a Christian community if they so desired. I didn't believe the Queensland Government had any right at all to take the action that they did, and I fought them all the way. A number of the Aboriginal leaders of the community paid their own fares to come to Canberra and discuss the whole matter in Canberra with the Prime Minister. We spent a lengthy meeting in the Cabinet room with the Prime Minister and some of his senior ministers. Unfortunately, there were promises made by the Prime Minister that were never kept -- that the Commonwealth Government would ensure that the State Government did not take over Arukun. But they never ever prevented it from happening. At the time, Prime Minister Fraser made some statements that I totally disagreed with, and you might recall that on television -- I was interviewed on television -- and I said that in due of some of the statements that were made, I would have to consider my position within the Liberal Party. In other words, I was inferring that unless something better came out of the negotiations between the Commonwealth, the State and the people of Arukun, I would probably sit on the cross-benches. It didn't pan out that way, there was a bit of compromising going on on all sides of the field, I rethought my position, and felt it was better that I stayed in parliament because I could do more there and it would be a waste of time my getting out and letting the position go. [INTERRUPTION]

As a consequence of some of these differences that you'd had with your own Party, you were actually dropped from the position that you'd held on the senate ticket in the 1983 election. Did this come as a shock to you?

Well, yes and no. I think both Heather and I sensed that something was not quite right. We attended the Young Liberal convention in Toowoomba early in the year before the double-dissolution was called, and we got a general feeling that things just weren't quite right. When I attended that pre-selection night for the first time, Heather decided, or put the proposition to me, that instead of driving down to pre-selection then driving home that night, that we book into the motel in Brisbane, and after pre-selection I'd only have a short drive down to the hotel. We did that. Now, you've got to understand how pre-selections are carried out in Queensland by the Liberal Party, normal pre-selections for a senate seat, the people attending that pre-selection are made up of members of the branches of the Liberal Party throughout Queensland, a number of members depending on the numbers within that branch. If it's a big branch then we have three, three representatives, if it's a small branch they may only have one --making up about two -- 115 to 120 people. Now, we were again alerted when the Party decided that it wouldn't be a normal pre-selection, what would happen [is] it'd be all of state executive plus the chairman of each of the areas in Queensland, which cut the numbers down to about 60. And they met and decided in favour of Cathy Martin taking number one position, Senator McGibbon taking second position and Neville Bonner taking last position, which was an unwinnable one, and that's how it finished up that night at pre-selection.

How did you feel?

I was in a state of shock I think even though the antennas were starting to wiggle a bit prior to it happening, but I think the reality of it happening was -- I was left in a tremendous state of shock. I returned to my hotel and told Heather what had happened, and I think in the early hour I didn't get any sleep that night, I was just sort of ... I was so stunned with it all, and the early hours of the morning I think I finally came to the decision that a man's got to do what a man's got to do. And I wasn't prepared to take that first and foremost insult, because I was the senior senator for the Liberal Party in Queensland at the time, I was the longest serving one, and I believe that I'd served my Party well, statewise, nationally and internationally, and therefore I was entitled to a better deal than that. So I decided that I would run as an Independent. I did. And I gave them one heck of a shock because I think no-one expected that I'd get more than a couple of -- two or three thousand votes. I finished up losing by .05% of a quota in my own right. And had I received the preferences, I would have won without any problem at all. What happened was, before I called my press conference to make my announcement, Malcolm Fraser rang me in the early hours of the next morning ... [INTERRUPTION]

How did you feel when they dropped you?

Well, I guess I went into a state of shock ... I was the senior senator and to be dropped to an unwinnable position was just absolutely, totally, a shock to me. I returned to my hotel and explained to Heather what had happened. I don't think I got any sleep that night at all and in the early hours of the morning I made a decision that a man has got to do what a man's got to do, and I decided to run as an Independent. I had two telephone calls early next morning, one from Malcolm Fraser, who was quite shocked at what had happened, and wanted to know what he could do, and I told him it was too late, he couldn't do anything. Then I had a telephone call from Mr Hawke, who was quite confident that he was going to win the election, and he said that if I lost the election, that his government would ensure that my talents weren't lost to the nation. So the next day I had a press conference and made my statement -- oh I'm sorry, I made a telephone call to the Secretary of the Labor Party, Peter Beattie, and said that I was making a major statement that day to the press, and I was going to announce that I was running as an Independent. Could I count on the Labor Party for preferences? And Beattie said, 'No problems Nev, you've got 'em.' So I knew that without the Labor preferences I didn't have much chance, because it would go to preferences. With that assurance I went ahead, had my press conference, made my statement and went as an Independent. I finished up with .05% short of a quota in my own right, but unfortunately Peter Beattie's promise never eventuated, I did not get the Labor preferences and it was Labor preferences that defeated me.

It was a very close thing.

It was a very close thing. I'm extremely proud, and will always be extremely proud, of the support I received from the Queensland people. They thought sufficient of me and believed that I still had something to contribute, that they voted overwhelmingly in favour of an Independent, and I think that's wonderful.

Did you feel bitter about the Liberal Party?

I felt very bitter towards the top echelon of the Party who organised the pre-selection, but for the Liberal Party, no. The people in the Liberal Party, some of the wonderful friends that I made in the Party and who, had they been on that pre-selection, I don't believe would have had the same results. No, I have no bitterness against the Party as a whole. I still am very unhappy and annoyed with the top echelon of the Party of the day that it happened.

Your particular political philosophy, which was to act as far as possible within the system, often placed you in the position of being as it were the man between. Did you find this sometimes a bit lonely when you were taking a position which looked superficially to be against the louder voices among your people and nevertheless placed you sometimes, still, against other people within the establishment of the country?

For me, as an Aborigine, being in parliament was one of the loneliest places I've ever been. You've got to be in that position to understand the feelings that you could have, being the only black and the Aborigine in that whole system of parliamentary procedures. It's a lonely place, and I've always said that loneliness is something that you can have no matter if you were in the middle of the most busiest city in the world ... the environment in which you are. The people around you, all sorts of things that happen that make it lonely for you. I had many colleagues that I was friendly with, but I had no confidantes as it were. And so all of the things that I was concerned about, things I felt hurt about, or the things that worried me, the only person I could discuss those with was my wife, and my secretary and my family, generally. But they weren't always down there, so despite the way you've framed your question, it was a lonely place, despite the things that you're talking about. As well as those things that you're talking about.

What helped you?

Having the most wonderful, beautiful, human being in the world, having had her at the other end of a telephone, and someone to come home to. And, my faith in ... the parliamentary procedures that we live under ... it can work for you, you can make it work for you with perseverance and quietly, continually hammering at the issues that you feel concerned about. You don't always win, but you win some ... things. You don't win everything but you win some things-- that gives you the strength. It's like playing golf: you go out there and you'll hit a ball one day and you drive that ball from the tee, and you get 250 yards, it makes you come back the next day hoping that you'll do the same. I think parliament's a bit like that. You win some, you lose some, you win some, you lose some, but the ones that you win make it worthwhile coming back to have a go at the next one.

What do you feel proudest of in your life?

What was my ... ?

What has been your proudest achievement?

My proudest achievement ... Oh look, I don't know that there's anything really that I could say was my proudest achievement. I suppose winning that pre-selection to become the first Aboriginal parliamentarian was a very proud moment when we came back, we were sent away while the people discussed it and they voted on who they wanted, and as we walked into the room, and the president announced that I had won the pre-selection -- from then I was a senator. I think that was a very, very proud moment, not just for me but for the whole race. The second one was the day I signed in ... in Parliament House on the 18th of August 1971. Again, another very proud moment. I think if I really was honest with myself, the proudest moment was the day Heather signed the dotted line, when she became Mrs Neville Bonner. I think it was my proudest moment.

Have you got any regrets?

Yes I do, I suppose. One of my regrets as far as parliament is concerned is that I introduced a Private Members Bill titled Aborigines and Islanders (Admissability of Confessions) Bill. I never achieved that becoming a law.

Why did you introduce it?

Because I was concerned that far too many, particularly young, Aborigines were going into prison when they should not have been, because of over-enthusiastic (to be kind) police officers verballing them and their making so called confessions that they were guilty of an offence and producing that to the court, and having them put into jail. The Admissability of Confessions Bills would have stopped that from happening.

You've talked about how you see the future for Aborigines. Can we go into a slightly wider perspective and now here you call it your twilight years, but you've lived a long life, and travelled widely, and seen a lot of the world and been involved in debating big issues. What do you feel about the future generally for the world? Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic?

I'm optimistic. We've gone through a great deal in my lifetime ... I was born just after the First World War but I recall a lot that was told to me about it. I went through the Second World War, we went through Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia ... so we've gone through a lot of tremendous things in our lifetime, we saw for the first time an atomic bomb, two atomic bombs being exploded, and the devastation that caused but I'm optimistic because I believe that God has his hands on everything and there are sufficient people in the world to ensure that those things will not occur again. That may be a simplistic view but it's mine, and I am optimistic that things will change for the better and mankind will overcome.

When you talk about God, are you talking about your Christian God or ... ?

There is only one God.

But you also have a view of the way in which that operates in the Aboriginal world?

Yes. Look, God is a name. You're talking about God -- it's a name. It's an English name. Now every other nationality has a name for their supreme being, so we have a name for our supreme being too. But when I study and look at the Christian faith and the 10 Commandments that were handed down to Moses, I find that the laws of my people are no different; maybe in language of course it's different, but the meanings are the same. We had our laws which are similar if not exactly the same but similar to the laws that were handed down. So, the God that I believe in, is the same God as the white Christians believe in -- it's just a different name. He is the supreme being, he is the creator, the God almighty, God all-powerful, God all-loving, forgiving, the God that I believe in as an Aborigine is the same God as I believe in as a Christian, except he has a different name.

And after you die, which we hope won't be for a very long time [Neville laughs], where do you think you'll go? What do you think it means to die?

Well ... I can't answer that question, because that is in the hands of my God, where I go. I think the only fear that I have is that when I do pass on, the God I believe in, will say, 'Depart from me, I know ye not'. I hope that he will say, 'Come into my Kingdom, my son, my good and faithful servant', but I don't know, I can only hope that I've lived my life, and I've pleased my God, and that there is a place in his kingdom for me. I believe that and I'll die believing that. As to whether that will happen, again, is in the hands of my God.

[end of interview]