The 1970s were a turbulent period in Australian politics and a high-point in the struggle for Indigenous rights and justice. Huge political energy pulsed through the Aboriginal movement following the success of the 1967 Referendum. But the first Indigenous person to sit in Federal Parliament didn’t come from the radical urban Aboriginal activist movement. He came from Queensland.
Neville Bonner rose up through the ranks of the Queensland Liberal Party around the time Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen began his epic reign as premier. Bonner became Liberal senator for Queensland in 1971 and held on to his seat until 1983.
As a conservative politician in radical times, Neville Bonner’s position was not a comfortable one. Complex tensions played out in his political career. He had to juggle often conflicting loyalties against a dynamic political backdrop as Queensland and the Commonwealth came to blows over Aboriginal affairs. Then there was the hostility he copped from other politicised Indigenous people who accused him of being an Uncle Tom.
But in the end Neville Bonner surprised both his conservative sponsors and his radical detractors.
Though Bonner was a proud Jagera man with strong ancestral connections to the area southwest of Brisbane, the context for this portrait of Neville Bonner is the Australian political landscape rather than Bonner’s Indigenous cultural context.
Listeners are advised that the program contains the voices of Indigenous people who have died.