Australian Biography: Neville Bonner
Born on Ukerebagh Island in northern NSW, Neville Bonner (1922–1999) started his working life as a ringbarker, canecutter and stockman.
He spent 16 years on the repressive Palm Island Aboriginal Reserve where he learned many of the skills that would help him later as a politician.
Bonner became the first Aboriginal person in Federal Parliament, representing Queensland as a Liberal Party Senator from 1971 to 1983.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
I was born on a little island in the mouth of the Tweed River on the New South Wales side of the border.
My mother was Julia Rebecca Bonner. Before she was married she was Julia Bell, Julia Rebecca Bell. I don't remember my father -- he left -- he deserted when [I] was just a little tiny tot. I don't remember him.
There was an older boy than me, my eldest brother Henry, and then I came along and my father as I said deserted Mother, and then later Mother picked up with another chap, another Aboriginal chap, and she had three ... four children to him so that there's only myself still living, and my sister. The three brothers are all passed on.
No, my mother's from here. My mother was born at an Aboriginal community just outside of Ipswich called Deebing Creek. That was the first Aboriginal community established by government in this area, back in 18 ... something-or-other. My grandmother was from Beaudesert and she came across here as a young girl, and married my grandfather who was from this area.
My grandfather. Yes, he was one of the surviving Elders of the Jagara tribe. Jagara's tribe was from the mouth of the Brisbane River to the foot of the Divide -- Great Dividing Range. My grandfather and his brother Stanley were two of four surviving members of that tribe. There were two others: Willie McKenzie and Bobby Hagan. Now, my grandfather and his younger brother Stanley were raised by the Lumley-Hills who owned Bellevue Station. They were taken out of the tribe as young teenagers and raised by the station property owners.
Well, in the days when my ... I was born, Aboriginal women were not admitted into hospitals. They were treated at the dispensary, as they called it in those days, and sent home, and when my mother gave birth to me it was in a gunyah at the foot of a palm tree that is still growing on Ukerabagh Island, in what was termed as the 'blacks' camp'. So the circumstance of my birth was pretty hazardous and pretty horrible for my mother; that I and she both survived is a miracle, when I heard the stories of what was happening at Ukerabagh Island in those days.
... It was standard for Aborigines throughout Australia practically, dispossessed, detribalised, living in shanty towns on the edges of towns and cities, not allowed into the towns after sunset or before sunrise of a morning. That was the norm in most cities and towns around Australia. Queensland was no better than New South Wales nor New South Wales better than Queensland -- they were all much the same.
Well, my mother worked for a time until we moved from Lis ... from the Tweed to Lismore where she met the man that she lived in a de-facto relationship with, Frank Randell and he provided the funds and I also helped, when I was old enough, helped my grandfather and my stepfather and when they took scrub-falling, cutting scrub trees down and digging out the lantana bushes and things like that, for people to use for cultivations and things like that. So we all had to do something -- some work. My mother worked for hotels as a washwoman and I often helped her because in those days we, Aboriginal children, were not allowed to go to the normal schools, and for a long time there was no Aboriginal school anywhere near where we lived, so I grew up as a young child mainly helping Grandfather or helping Mother with the copper boiler, keeping the wood up to the fire, so she could do the boiling of the white men's clothing and bed clothing, sheets and things like that, and for that she was rewarded a whole five shillings for two days' work.
I had a very short spell at a small school that was on the bank of the Richmond River near Lismore ... now known as the old Robert White Bridge. It was in an old dairy, a concrete floor and blackboards just standing up against the wall, and then when a lot of the Aboriginal people -- excuse me [INTERRUPTION].
Well, my first attempt at school ... my stepfather Frank Randell was working as a tracker for the police station, and I used to go in and help him clean out the stables and that of a morning, and the Inspector of Police was possibly there one day and asked Frank why I wasn't at school. Frank explained that we weren't allowed to go to the schools, so he said, 'How many children have you got of school age?,' and Frank told him that there was my older brother Henry, myself, and the next in line was my sister Eva and we were all of school age. So the Inspector spoke to the Head Teacher at the North Lismore School and -- oh sorry, the South Lismore School -- and he very kindly said, 'Look we'll give it a go, they can come along.' So, Mother was very handy using cotton and needles and she had some second-hand clothing that she had cut down and made nice pairs of trousers for Henry and I, and she dressed us up and sent us to school on the Monday morning. We arrived at school at about eight o'clock in the morning, half past eight, and by the time school started, we were the only three children left at school because the white families learned that we black kids were there, and they came and took their children out of the school until finally the Head Schoolmaster said, 'Look, I'm sorry children, you'll have to go home.' That ended my first attempt at acquiring an education. Then a lady, a Mrs Hitchcock, talked the New South Wales Government into giving her sufficient finance to start a little school, which she did on the bank of the river at a little dairy, and we were in the old cow bales, with a concrete floor, and the whole bales were still there, and for about three or four weeks I attended that, and then they moved that school out to a place called Tuncester about three miles out of town, and for a short time I went to that school for about six months, and that was all the schooling I had until after Mother died when Grandma took over the responsibility of raising myself and my younger brother Jim. She brought us into Queensland, and at the age of 15, they took me into the Beaudesert State School. I'm sorry at 14, and let me go on until I was 15. I did one year's formal education at the Beaudesert State School. I jumped three grades in one year.
That's right, yes.
I owe a lot to my grandmother, she was a very well-educated lady. She was raised by station owners outside of Beaudesert before she was sent across here to Deeping Creek, and she spoke flawless English, and one of the things she assisted us with was teaching us to speak English as English is supposed to be spoken. Because she always said that if you didn't have an academic education, and you were able to speak well, people would not notice whether you were educated or not, and it would get you, you know, get you through life. And I think she proved that quite well.
In my case anyway.
In 1933. I was about eight, eight or nine, years of age. My grandma ... [INTERRUPTION]
Oh yes. Yes, I remember. Mother was in hospital for quite a considerable time, and we lived on the bank of the Richmond River in ... in very shocking circumstances in those days. Grandfather cleared out under the lantana bushes and went to the rubbish dumps and got pieces of iron and sort of built a shelter underneath the lantana bushes and that was where we lived. And I used to walk into the hospital to see Mother every afternoon, it was quite a distance -- it would be at least four miles I suppose or better from where we were living, and I was with her right up until the night before she passed on. And when I left she took her wedding ring off her finger that afternoon, and put it in my hand, and we got the word the next morning that she had passed on.
It was very ... I don't know, I was too young to understand the ... the kind of illnesses people suffered ... all I knew was that mother was ill and she passed on.
Oh yes, to be able to go to school, that there was other than black kids, was quite an experience for me, although there were a number of Aboriginal children going there, it was predominantly a white children's school, and I made some very wonderful friends amongst the white students as well as the Aboriginal students. I had relatives there of course, Grandma's relatives, and the teachers were very kind to all of us, and there was no discrimination as we understand it today, there was no difference whether you were black or you were white, you were all children at school and I had just as many white friends in the school as I had Aboriginal friends.
Not that I can recall, not in the school. [Coughs] I'm sorry, I'll have to get a drop of water I think. [INTERRUPTION]
Did -- I beg your pardon?
No, no, there was -- oh sure, there was arguments and there was sometimes fisticuffs too but you were just treated like any other kid.
No. Not in a racial sense. Oh yes, you were called names by other kids when you got into arguments and fights and things like that, but no, there was nothing in a racial way. Not that I recall anyway.
Well, Grandma died just before I'd finished my 12 months, and I was staying with my grandmother's nieces. There was two nieces there, lived there, and then I got a job after I left school, on a dairy farm, and I worked on that for a few months, and then my oldest brother had stayed in New South Wales, and I was kind of lost in a sense, because all the people that I really grew up with and knew well, were still back in New South Wales. Whilst I was living with family, that I'd never known because they were still in Queensland and we were over in New South Wales, I decided that I would leave my job, and I did in the early hours of one morning, rolled my few belongings up in a hessian bag and headed back to New South Wales. I went back and I worked around in New South Wales on banana plantations ... the Indians and Italians had banana plantations and bean farms and things like that, so I earned some money working for them, and during the summer months I cut paspalum grass and got the seeds and sold that to the seed merchants, so I could you know ... I knocked around for about 12 months doing that, and then my mother's oldest brother came down from way up in Central Queensland looking for the children of his sister -- that was my mother -- and found me and took me back to ... brought me back through into Queensland, and up to an Aboriginal settlement called Woorabinda outside of Rockhampton. And I lived there for quite some time, and I worked on a dairy farm there -- of course I'd been accustomed to working around dairy farms and that, and they had dairy farm there -- and I worked there as a dairy hand for quite some time; as well going out every now and then to jobs out outside the settlement, working for ringbarking contractors and things like that.
Yes ... My grandfather and grandmother taught me quite a lot of our own culture and customs, but because of the racial discrimination and actions of non-Aboriginal people towards us, we didn't put our mind as kids to learning the language, because if you spoke your language in the streets amongst the white kids or white people, you were told you know, 'Oh you blacks, if you want to talk your language you're back on the bank of the creek where you belong' and things like that. So we were kind of forced to become ashamed of our own culture, our own language and our own history and the whole works, and so unfortunately we lost a lot of it. I still remember a few words of my grandfather's tongue and my grandmother's tongue, that I retained a lot of the stories and parts of the culture that they passed on to me. I still retain them.
Oh yes, Grandfather taught us how to hunt in the bush for our own natural foods, and we did quite a lot of that, chasing wallabies and various kind of animals and, you know, getting the various types of fruit that grew in the bush and all that. We learnt all that. We learned how to track and where -- how to find water -- and all those things that were necessary to survive in the bush. Grandfather taught us all that.
I do indeed. Grandfather taught us to make boomerangs, not in the manner that we do today, of course, we didn't have the modern machinery to help us in those days -- you had to cut the roots of the trees out with an axe, and then out of one root you'd probably only make one boomerang. Today, out of the same root, you'd cut it up with a band-saw and get, say, six, five or six boomerangs out of it. But yes, Grandfather taught us to make boomerangs and to throw them, and how to make them return, and I retained that all my life.
Oh yes. Grandfather taught us all about the tribal customs and laws, and I've retained all that.
Yes. My grandmother was a ... was a Christian, well she was raised as I said by station property owners and embraced the Christian faith, and she taught us of course, the Christian faith. But Grandfather also taught us our own spiritual beliefs and the Aboriginal spirituality was handed down through Grandfather more than Grandmother.
Well, I find that there is no conflict in my Aboriginal spirituality, as with my Christian faith, for there's a lot of our ... our laws are based much similar to what the Christian laws are. We believed in a supreme being, we believed that some supreme body created everything, and we believed that you shouldn't take something that belongs to someone else. So a lot of the laws in Aboriginal culture are -- have very little -- have little or no conflict with the laws which are based -- our laws are based on Christian faith anyway.
... Well, I don't recall any conflict in it. The only conflict that I detected was that what we were told by the missionaries, and the Ministers of churches and that, about the God that we worship -- a loving, kind, considerate, all-forgiving God -- where in his kingdom all people are equal, but it seemed odd that the white man was much more equal than we blackfellas were. And so it seemed to me that the white man put himself up higher than the God that we were all supposed to worship. Because he thought he was better than -- not only thought, he acted and believed that he was better than we because we were black and he was white. So there was a conflict there, but it didn't conflict with my embracing the Christian faith and still retaining my own Aboriginal spirituality.
And what they practiced. Yes.
Well, I suppose the next big thing was that I met my first wife as a young woman. She was working on a cattle station and so was I, and the cattle station that I worked on ... when we were coming into town we came through the same property to get to the main road as um Mona worked on, and of course we got together and we finally got married and had a family and we lived at a place called Hughenden and we worked on cattle stations for some time, then we decided to live in town, and I worked as a woodcutter, cutting wood for bakeries and things like that. I was subcontracting to a bloke who had a wood depot, and I'd be camped out in the bush from Monday till Friday afternoons. Mona was living with ... well we were living in a house with friends, another chap and his wife, and Mona was -- instead of sitting around the house all through the week, she found herself a job with an ambulance bearer's wife, and one week while I was out at work she had an argument with the lady that she was working for, and the lady -- Mona was ironing and she burnt a hanky or something with the hot iron -- called her a stupid black bitch, and of course she slapped her, and under the Act, the Aboriginal Government Act in those days ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well, my wife and I were living in a rented house with another young couple and whilst I was out working, Mona didn't like just sitting around the house, so she got herself a job with the ambulance bearer's, superintendent's, wife, as a domestic. And one day she was ironing some clothing ... scorched a hanky as she was... [INTERRUPTION]
Yes, Mona had got a job with the ambulance superintendent's wife, as a domestic. Her job was washing up and ironing, washing clothes and things like that. One day she was doing some ironing, and she happened to have the iron a bit hot or something, and she scorched or burnt one of the hankies that she was ironing, and the superintendent's wife grabbed hold of her hanky and said, 'You stupid black bitch. What did you do?' And of course Mona slapped her. Well, under the government regulations and rules pertaining to Aboriginal people, that was very, very naughty, and so she was picked up by the police, held in the police station and escorted ... sent back to Palm Island under escort. I came home -- that happened about Tuesday, Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday -- I got back to the house on the Friday afternoon, there was no-one at home so I went downtown thinking that Mona and our two friends were downtown somewhere, found my two friends and they told me that Mona had been sent home to Palm Island. So, you know, the laws pertaining to Aboriginal people wasn't very kind in lots of ways. But we survived that. Mona was ...
Well, there was nothing I could do. I couldn't stop us... I couldn't reverse the decision, it was a decision made by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, so I got myself a job on a cattle station and I worked on the cattle station and then I went down and spent some time on Palms for a couple of weeks holiday, and Mona fell pregnant whilst ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well, I got myself a job on a cattle station, and having worked on there for a short time, I took a couple of weeks off and went down to visit Mona at Palm Island. I was down there for a week or so, and when I went back to the station to work, Mona had got in touch with me by letter and told me she had fallen pregnant. So, Mona ... the baby was born on Palm Island, and after the baby was born of course Mona came back, and by this time I'd become Head Stockman on the cattle station, and so I had that Head Stockman's quarters and Mona came and lived with me out on the station. But my son was about six or seven month old, and he contracted an illness, amoebic dysentery, and we very near lost him before we got him into town, he'd almost you know, from dehydration, and the roads were bad and by the time we got to Hughenden, he'd almost died, so that frightened Mona, and she decided that living on the mainland, on cattle stations and things like that with a baby wasn't for her, so we decided to go and live on Palm Island. So for 16 years I lived on an Aboriginal community called Palm Island, just outside of Townsville.
Yes, it was set up as a penal island where Aborigines from various towns or from other communities who, according to the authorities, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs Authorities, misbehaved themselves, they could be sent there and would have to remain there at the pleasure of the government and the department, which was set up by the government, and as to whether they got back on the mainland again were determined by the superintendent and his officers as to whether they were regarded as worthy of being allowed to go back and live on the mainland. I went in there voluntarily to keep the family together, my wife and my son Patrick, and whilst the rules and the laws of the community laid down by the department were harsh, I managed to survive there, and a lot of other people lived of course as well. We had four or five sons altogether and as they were growing up the education, according to the department on the government's laws, was only up to fourth grade, and I didn't feel that that was all the education my children needed, so I decided that I'd come out onto the mainland, come back onto the mainland, and give my children a chance with a better education. So I came down here to Ipswich. Well, I came to Brisbane, and friends of mine got me a job outside of Ipswich at a place called Mount Crosby, managing a dairy farm, and I brought my family down and we lived there from 1960 and [then] I left that job and worked for the Brisbane City Council at the Water Works at Mount Crosby and the family all grew up and there we are. [INTERRUPTION]
Well, when I first went there, the health of children was pretty bad, and a lot of it was -- the responsibility of it came down to hygiene, bad hygiene. So the superintendent set up a kind of hygiene gang and I was given the responsibility of being in charge of it. I was a kind of a Health Officer, in the days when the DDT was the great thing for killing flies and pests and things like that, and my responsibility was to go around to the homes and make sure that people cleaned up their yards, had a gang of men who dug pits and all the rubbish was thrown into the pits, we sprayed houses out for cockroach and flies and things like that, and I did that for quite a considerable time. A doctor that came there at the time, Doctor Ben Short and his wife, they set up a baby clinic and of course all this sort of dove-tailed in with what we were doing. They set up a clinic where babies were ... had to go to the clinic every week and be examined by the doctor and they were given special foods and things like that. I did that for quite a few years, and then was given the job -- sort of as an experiment -- given the responsibility of making concrete bricks. I was given a gang of five, six including myself, and we made these ‚ our superintendent at that time, George Sturges, was a very capable fellow, he made up these special moulds where we made these concrete bricks, and we made quite a number of them, and -- he then said to me, 'Well look, we've got enough bricks for what I wanted, now we'll just leave it stand at that.' So there were a lot of out-houses, you know what an out-house is, the old wooden building out the backyard, and they were in a pretty bad state, so George Sturges asked me if I'd ever laid bricks; well I hadn't. He said, well it seems simple, it's a pretty easy job, so they put down a concrete base, and gave me a stack of bricks and some cement and sand, and I built my first out-house out of bricks, which started off at the right size at the bottom and finished up you know coming out like this ...
... a bit, but I improved, and I was given a gang of chaps. I carried out building all these out-houses out of bricks, and every house on Palm Island -- Aboriginal home that is -- had a brick toilet. Then the superintendent acquired a machine to make bricks, so he put me back on the brick machine with a gang of blokes, and we made four or five thousand of these bricks, and I was living in an old wooden house at the time and George Sturges asked me if I'd like to have a go at building a house out of these new type of bricks. So I said, 'Well, yes I'd like that.' 'Well,' he said, 'You can build the first house for yourself.' So I built a brick house, four bedroom, lounge, kitchen ... house, out of these bricks.
Yes, my mother was married to an Englishman who jumped ship. He and a mate of his, Tommy Beach, and both Tommy and Henry Bonner married two sisters. Tommy Beach married my aunt and Henry married my mother, and Henry my eldest brother was blue-eyed, blonde and very fair. I was born a lot darker than Henry, I don't have blue eyes, I have brown eyes, and black hair, so I'm not sure whether -- it was never explained to me whether I was truly Henry's son or I was the son of another chap in between.
Why ... Neville Thomas Bonner, child ...
Yes, there was some [laughs] doubt about that. I was always under the impression, I don't know why or where I got it from, that I was born in 1918. But I wasn't, I was born in 1922, and I went ... I was never sure of how to get my birth certificate because I tried Tweed Heads, and there was no record of it, and I was talking to an elderly lady who knew my mother as a girl, they both grew up together, and she knew where I was born, but she knew also where I was registered. I was registered at Murwillumbah, so after getting into the senate -- just before Heather and I got married, we went for a trip around, and we stayed at a motel at Murwillumbah and I got up early in the morning and knocked on Heather's door to wake her up, and we drove up to the registrar office, and it was closed, and it was too early in the morning, so we enquired from the police station, and they told us it would be open later, and I walked in and an elderly gentleman wanted to know what we were looking for, and I said I wanted to find my birth certificate, and he asked my name, I gave it to him, and he said, 'When were you born?' I said, '1918', so we started looking through ... [INTERRUPTION]
I found that I was born in 1922, four years later than I first believed I was. I thought I was born in 1918. The birth certificate said born on the 28th of March, 1922.
[laughs] No, I'd stolen four years, in my young -- younger, younger years.
Hmm. From what age did it become apparent that you had something that was going to make you stand out and eventually take you to a position of leadership? Were there any signs earlier on, that one day you would become the first Aboriginal senator in Australia?
No, I was interested in politics, and I became involved with a political Party, but never had any ambitions to get into parliament.
... Oh yes, I became involved with the Palm Island Social Welfare Association, I became the President of the Society, which ran a kind of country show, with all the different types of exhibits and that every year, and I also worked my way up the ladder in employment from hygiene officer to the head of the carpentering business, and then to become assistant settlement overseer. So I became sort of a leader in that sense that I worked my way up the ladder to become a settlement overseer.
I don't know actually, a bit difficult for one to assess that about oneself, I was articulate, and I was never afraid of work. I always had an attitude towards work, you did a fair day's work for a fair day's pay, and -- I suppose that was noticed by the authorities on the island, the superintendent George Sturges recognised that, that I was a chap that was prepared to work and progress and so he gave me more and more responsibility, until finally I became the Assistant settlement overseer. As it was on all of the Aboriginal communities under the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, a white man always had to be over the Aborigines, so whilst there was the superintendent, there was an assistant superintendent, there was a storekeeper -- they all had Aboriginal people working under them -- and there was a white settlement overseer who came and opened the office in the morning and then I didn't see him again till afternoon time when closing up. I handled all the workforce, detailed ...
Yes. The settlement overseer, the white settlement overseer, was on at that time about seven or eight pound a week, and I was on two-pound-ten a fortnight. Now there was a vast difference between the salaries of Aboriginal workers on the communities and the white staff.
Yes, there was a chap who got into trouble over not attending to his job, and he had an argument with the -- he was in what they called a hygiene gang, the one that I first started as an Aborigine, but then they got a white officer to come in as the hygiene officer with Aboriginal people working under him, and this chap wasn't doing his work properly, he had a set to with the Overseer, and he was then told that he would have to leave the island, and go out onto the mainland and find his own way, and then take his family with him. And that caused a riot, the whole settlement went on strike and wouldn't do any work at all. I was the Assistant Overseer so I sat in my office and I kept working ... actually there was no work to do but I manned my office ... [INTERRUPTION]
I took an independent position, I had a job to do and I was going to continue doing my work. The argument between the hygiene officer and one of his workers had nothing to do with me. The others went out on strike, supporting this chap because he was going to be put off the island, and I didn't have any position on that, I said, well, the authorities have the right to put a person off the island or not if they so wish, so I kept out of it. The authorities sent for the white police from Townsville, who arrived on Palm Island late in the afternoon just on dark, on a crash launch. There was a whole group of Aboriginal people at the end of the jetty as the police officers were coming off, and the only lights were over the top of the jetty. All the Aboriginal people were in -- sort of in the dark. And they were yelling and carrying on, and as the police officers were coming off I saw some of the officers loosening their pouches with their guns. So I tried to ... I walked to the superintendent, Roy Bartlam, and said, 'Look Mr Bartlam, there's going to be bad trouble here, can we all go up to the picture theatre and put all the lights on so as everybody can see what's happening?' He said, 'They're your people, you go and talk to them.' I went to try and talk to them and they'd closed in around me and got me down and they started to sink the boot into me. They knocked me down and started to sink the boot into me. Two young fellows saved my life, they got themselves over the top of me and dragged me out and got me out of the road. They did finally go up to the picture theatre, open air picture theatre, and they had some talks there but nothing was settled and I tried to talk to the Aboriginal people to try and get things calmed down a bit, but no-one wanted to take any notice of me, so the police stayed on the island for two or three days and they struck in the early hours of the morning, and got all of the so called leaders and handcuffed them and put them on the boat and sent them out to the mainland, and then they transferred them all down to a settlement outside of Rockhampton, Woorabinda.
Well, I was very, very upset about it all, particularly that I was trying to protect the people from any bad instance occurring that night, and for them to have knocked me down and start to sink the boot into me, I was pretty well bruised up around the ribs and back and that from boot marks. I felt that was a little unfair because they or someone could have been shot, because there was a whole group of young police officers coming off a boat into a dark situation where there was literally hundreds of people yelling and screaming. Any one of them could have pulled his revolver out and shot someone. And I felt that even though I went through what I did, I'd at least avoided bloodshed.
Those who were left. Those who were taken away ... I don't think they ever did for quite a long time, but the people who were still on the island, after the so called leaders were taken off, we all got together and demanded that the Head of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs come from Brisbane up and talk to us and get the matters all straightened out, which he did, brought a couple of other politicians and other important non-Aboriginal people from the mainland over, and we had quite a big meeting and had things sorted out and everybody got back to work again. But the people who were sent away, were away for a long, long time.
Yes, I did, because they were forcibly taken away from their home, but they had broken the law and of course the law has to be obeyed. If you break the law then you have to accept the consequences.
Yes. Even if it's an unjust law. The only way you can change an unjust law is get into the system, which I finally did, to help to change what is ... look ... regarded as an unjust law.
... No, I was still concerned about the conditions under which we the Aboriginal people were living and so I, as I said, I came away from Palm Island, brought my family away, and here in Ipswich there was an organisation called the Ipswich Coloured Welfare Council, and I became involved with that, which eventually became involved with a larger organisation called OPAL, and I worked quite a lot within that organisation. The name of OPAL was taken from the gem opal which is a precious gem made up of many colours, and our aim was to weld all people into one as Australians. But most of our work at the time was involved with Aboriginal people because it was Aboriginal people who were down at the bottom rung of the ladder, socially, economically, employment, housing, education -- the whole works. I'm sorry I've got to cough. [INTERRUPTION]
I suppose the misunderstanding would have come about because I was standing away from the mob, when the police arrived, then when I saw the police officers loosening their revolvers, I spoke first to the superintendent and the white staff, then went to speak to the Aboriginal people, and I think that there was a misunderstanding there, that I was on the white man's side rather than on their side, and so I was looked upon as a traitor, because I'd gone to the white -- and spoke to the whites first. But I went to the superintendent because he had the authority to hold the police until everybody had gone up to where the lights were, up at the open-air theatre. So I think there was a misunderstanding in that they felt, because I spoke to the whites first, that I was on the whites' side rather than on the blacks' side.
No, no, I didn't think that at all. What I saw was a very dangerous situation, where a group of young police officers [were] coming out of the light into the dark, where there was a whole stack of howling, screaming, yelling, swearing Aborigines. They were armed, the Aborigines weren't. Now any one of those young police officers could have panicked and shot one of them. My idea was to avoid that happening, and I was prepared to put myself in to a situation where I could have been hurt, because I didn't want someone to be shot. As simple as that.
Well, they were young people that were relatives of my first wife, and they were very close friends of mine, and they realised what I was trying to do, where the others didn't, and so they wanted to protect me and save me from -- well I could have been killed.
Oh, that could take quite some time, but let me try and sum it up as quickly as I can. The attitude or the rules of the authorities, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, was that Palm Island was a penal settlement, and there was rules governing that place that would be something similar to what we're all angry about in South Africa. No Aborigine was allowed to answer back, argue the point, or disagree with an order or an instruction from a white officer. [INTERRUPTION]
Well, it was regarded by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs as a penal settlement, where Aboriginal people who misbehaved (according to them) were sent there, and the rules there were very strict. It wouldn't be less strict than you would find in the arguments we have over South Africa. It was an apartheid situation where the whites lived in one area, all the blacks lived in a different area, the whites were the authorities, if you were speaking to a white officer you had to call him Mr and if it was a lady you called her Mrs, even if they were only teenage kids, you still regarded them as Miss or Mr or Mrs or Mr -- whichever the case may be. You were woken by a bell at seven o'clock in the morning, you had to be down where work was detailed by eight o'clock when the second bell rang, then you were detailed out to work. Then another bell rang at ten o'clock: you ceased work and had a cup of tea. The next bell rang at a quarter past ten and you started work again, the next bell rang at twelve o'clock: you ceased work for lunch. The next one rang at one o'clock and you started work again, the next bell rang at four o'clock and the unpaid Aboriginal workers ceased work, the next bell rang at five o'clock and the paid Aboriginal workers ceased work, the next bell rang at nine, at half-past nine, and you had then to be in your own home. The last bell rang at ten o'clock and if you were caught outside your home after that bell, you were locked up and put in gaol, and you were put on the punishment sheet by the superintendent the next day. So everybody had to work regardless of whether you were paid or unpaid. If you were unpaid you received your rations -- tea, sugar, flour, meat, soap, washing soda, syrup and items like that -- free for yourself and each member of your family. If you worked, some people worked for as low as ten shillings a fortnight. I was the highest paid person after a number of years, of course, when I became the Assistant settlement overseer, of two-pounds-ten a fortnight -- that was the highest. I was the highest paid Aboriginal in the settlement.
Oh, we had a general store, you could buy food, clothing or whatever you wanted there, and you needed to buy extra items of food, you just couldn't live on the basic rations, so you know, if you wanted butter or milk or stuff like that you had to buy that out of the general store.
Well, not in cash but in kind, because if someone else didn't have, you know, there was always someone wanting a little bit of help, maybe a cup of sugar or maybe a wee bit of a special tea that you bought out of a shop or a coffee or something like that. You always did share amongst each other. When you were out you went to someone else, and if they were out they came to you, so it was a kind of sharing situation.
How did you cope personally? I mean, you were someone who'd been as it were born free, out there, and here you were in what was essentially a penal settlement, and you were there voluntarily to be with your wife.
Well, I was a bit of a rebel I suppose when I first went there, but I learned that ... in a situation like that you had to learn ... [INTERRUPTION]
Yes, when I first went there I was very rebellious, but I soon learned that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar, and I learned to weave between the different people in authority, the different white people in authority. I learned to manoeuvre people, I suppose, to get the things done that I wanted to have done for the benefit of myself, my family and other people on the community, and I became quite expert at doing that.
I suppose it could have been, yes, it could have been. I was not aware of it in that sense at that time but I suppose in retrospect, yes, I suppose it was the beginning of the makings of a politician.
Well, when I first went there I lived outside of the main settlement and it was quite a walk into the main settlement to be on time for work. [INTERRUPTION]
Well, an example of how rebellious I was -- I lived outside of the main settlement when I first went to Palm Island, which is about a half-an-hours walk into the settlement, and I had to be there at eight o'clock to get my instructions for the work for the day and I turned up late, and I was put on the crime sheet, which meant that I would have been put on punishment, so I breasted the superintendent himself, and told him that in the course of my work, I was doing something on the way in, which made me late for the parade, work parade. And he said, 'Oh, you can't tell me that, I know better than that,' and I argued the point with him, and of course I wasn't put on the punishment sheet but he let me know that he was the boss, and I was to do what I was told in the future, so I started to wake to myself then that if you want to beat the system, you do it in a sensible, quiet way instead of being hot-tempered and answering back to someone who was, according to them, of more higher authority.
Well, if you were an unpaid worker, you could be put on work on Saturdays, you could be worked from four o'clock till five every afternoon, you could also be made to work on a Saturday, when no-one else would be working.
Well, they had an Aboriginal Police Force on the island in those days, and there were some pretty nasty characters who got themselves onto the police force. I suppose one of the worst things I saw happen was two police officers beating an Aborigine up with their waddies, their batons, on the way to taking him down to the cell. While two police were holding the chap, these other two blokes kept hitting him with their batons, and nothing happened to them. The poor bloke was knocked around pretty much, and he was put into gaol and then brought to the court case the following day, and was sentenced to six weeks in gaol.
Oh yes, quite often, in those early days ...
... Doesn't happen now, but it did in those days, yes. Now they have white police on there as well as Aboriginal Police, but in those days there were just police working under the instructions of the superintendent.
Oh yes, it was a total dictatorship, yes. And that was the law of the government.
Well, we were fortunate in this sense, we had force, totalling five sons. They were able to stay with us in our home the whole time and go to school, so we were able to take care of them. But if you had daughters, once they reached the age of five they were put into the girls' dormitory under a matron and staff who kept [them] and they were locked up at night, and they were kept in the dormitory, just down to school and back to the dormitory, out at school and back to the dormitory, that type of thing, and as they grew up to be women of course they had to stay then in the women's dormitory, single women's dormitory.
I suppose it was ... they were more susceptible to being taken off by men than boys were. There was no ... there was no homosexuality on the island, so the boys were quite safe living at home with their parents, but the girls, the authorities didn't believe [the parents] were capable of protecting their daughters so they were put into the dormitory. And all young women were in the dormitory. [INTERRUPTION] Now can we start again.
Well, I told you earlier I belonged to an organisation called OPAL, and most of our work was involved with Aboriginal people in health, education, employment, housing and all those sorts of things, and I realised that we, the Aboriginal people, were really having enormous problems in these areas. Then I became involved with a political Party, I was a member of a small branch of the Liberal Party, and then I became a member of the area of the Liberal Party and was elected as the president of the area, the Oxley of the Liberal Party, which gave me a position on the state executive of the Liberal Party. Now on the state executive there were a number of people like myself elected, and then there was also two federal politicians and two state politicians on the state executive as well, which meant that I was meeting with people at meetings on equal footing, first-name terms and all of this type of thing. And I began to think ... here's an area where I can do something for my own people, and I achieved quite a lot by bringing problems and the needs of my people to the attention of state politicians and federal politicians like Sir Alan Hulme and Dougey Tooth from the state parliament, who was Minister for Health, and people like that. I did a lot for OPAL. We acquired the big motel, what was the Brisbane Motel, as a home for -- through Billy Wentworth, who was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, and through Vic Sulllivan, who was the State Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, got the money to purchase that building for deserted wives and orphaned children. Then we got the headquarters in Ann Street, we bought the big building there with assistance from the government, and so because of my being involved with these people, I started to learn something about politics and how the whole thing worked, the whole system of branches and areas and state executive and politicians themselves. And because I was fairly well known as President of OPAL, I had a lot of television coverage and newspaper coverage and I travelled around a bit for OPAL in Queensland ... The Party used me a lot at election time, manning polling booths, and so there was a bi-election on the Gold Coast at the seat of Albert, and a Liberal candidate was running for that seat, an old chap by the name of Bill Heatley who died since, and they invited me down to man a number of polling booths for an hour here and an hour there and somewhere else because I was well-known and fairly popular, and attracted some votes. That evening whilst we were watching the votes being counted, there was a fork dinner on the Isle of Capri at the President's residence -- our Eric Robinson -- I was standing with a group of half a dozen people, there was Fred Campbell and Ruth Lines and Len and myself standing around eating, and Ruth said to me in a joking manner she said, 'Nev! When are we going to be doing something like this for you?,' so to be in the swim of things I said, 'Oh Ruth,' just off the top of my head, 'Ruth, sooner than you think.' And of course there was sort of a silence, they said, 'Why, what are you going to do?' I said, 'Oh I'm going to nominate for preselection for the next half senate election.' I had no intention to doing it but just to be in the swim of it ... The news went around like wildfire, and everybody was coming up and congratulating me and saying they'll support me at preselection, and I of course came away from them. They sent me a nomination form which I forgot about. I left it with Heather who was then my private secretary as President of OPAL. Every afternoon home from work I'd pull up at Heather's place to do the mail. So I came home one Friday afternoon, I'm sorry one Monday afternoon (Monday night was state executive meeting which I'd be going to) and Heather and a friend of ours who worked in the post office said my nomination form hadn't been sent in. I said, 'Oh well, that's it, forget it,' and Dudley said, 'No, what we'll do, we'll word a telegram and send the telegram in to Liberal Headquarters which will get there before five o'clock.' Well, I went out to the meeting that night, and Eric Roberts, then president, happened to pull up in front of the building and park just behind when he said my telegram wasn't acceptable, so I said, 'Oh well, that's okay, forget it.' Well, the young Liberal President who was Greg Bickery said, 'What's this all about?,' so we explained to him, he says, 'Have you got your nomination form with you?' I said, 'Yes', he said, 'Give it to me, I'll sign it for you,' so we took it in and Eric said, 'Oh look, that won't be acceptable because nominations closed at five o'clock.' Just before the meeting all the folders were handed around of the Minutes of the previous meeting. So perusing it whilst everybody was, you know, chatting before the meeting opened, I happened to look at the Minutes concerning the half senate election, where it said nominations would close on Monday [at] such and such a date, didn't give a time, it just said Monday whatever date it was. So when the meeting opened I drew the attention of the president to something on the agenda that I wanted to bring out, so he gave me the right to speak, and I said, 'What I want to ask is ... who and on what authority was the notice put in the paper that nominations for the half senate election would close at five o'clock on such and such a date because, according to the minutes, it closes on Monday and Monday doesn't end until midnight.' So the president said, 'Well look, this will be thoroughly discussed by the state executive, who is affected by it?' I said, 'I am', and there was another lady affected on the state executive as well, so we were sent downstairs while they discussed it, came back upstairs and it was overturned, so my nomination stood. I was preselected, that was in 1970, campaigned for the election, I missed it because Vince Gair was coming up and he won the fifth seat, and then in 1970--71 when Annabelle Rankin, the late Dame Annabelle Rankin, was appointed High Commission to New Zealand, causing a vacancy in the Liberal ranks, I again nominated and won preselection. The rest is history.
So, we have this period after you came back from Palm Island, your own district, and you built up a political base really, and you grew and grew in ... the fact that you became well-known, the fact that you took on more responsibility and that you achieved things for your people, what was happening to Neville Bonner during that time? He was somebody who had been under a very authoritarian regime on Palm Island, who'd learned to keep his mouth shut, how did this person ... become ...
... No, don't think you quite ... I didn't learn to keep my mouth shut, I learned to manoeuvre and work things to achieve what I wanted to achieve, and I achieved much on Palm Island. I improved the conditions under which Aboriginal people lived with housing and all of those things, the Social Welfare Association, putting on shows, exhibitions at the Brisbane Exhibition. All of those kind of things, I was achieving those things, not by being abusive, not by being discourteous to those in authority, but playing the authorities at their own game, and beating them. I've always said, for Aborigines to achieve, we've got to play the white man at his own game and bloody well beat him. I've been doing that all my life.
Oh yes. Yes, manys a time.
Oh, no, there was lots of, lots of, disappointments in life. I didn't always win the battle, but I won enough of them to keep me going and achieving, or trying to achieve better. [INTERRUPTION]
Did I ... ?
Yes, I think I did, I opened my mouth too big at the wrong time -- after the reaction I got. I didn't intend to go ahead with filling in the nomination form I ...
Well, I didn't think ... it was time for me to do it.
Yes, I was nervous about it, but I don't think I had sufficient quantities to feel that I should have been going at that time. I felt I needed more experience at the organisational level, to learn more about what politics was all about. When I finally made it, I think I was pretty naive when I first went to Canberra, matter of fact I'm sure I was, but it took a while to sort it out ...
Well, it has been said by other people that I was a kind of person that wore my heart on my sleeves, I was susceptible to a hard luck story and things like that, but I don't think that that was quite true. I am a compassionate person, sure, but I'm not naive enough to be taken in on some trumped up hard luck story. I think I'm capable of working those things out, but there were people who felt that. But I think I was naive in the sense that I saw myself as a parliamentarian, I never saw myself as a politician, and I think there's a vast difference between being a politician and a parliamentarian.
Well, I went down there feeling that there was things to be done, that I felt that I had the ability to make a contribution towards. I felt that I could do more for my own people by the fact that I was down there, that I was rubbing shoulders with people who were making decisions and I was part of the decision-making because we were in government at the time. I saw my responsibilities as a parliamentarian representing a state and representing the country in these orders of priority. My first responsibility was to God because I'm a Christian, my second responsibility was to my nation because I'm an Australian, my third responsibility was to my state because I'm a Queenslander, my fourth responsibility was to the Party that I was a part of and who gave me the opportunity to get into parliament, but interwoven through the whole sequence was my almost all-consuming, burning desire to help my own people, the Aboriginal community, to become respected, responsible citizens within the broader Australian community, retaining where desired ethnic and cultural identity. But having all of the opportunities that every Australian, other Australian, white Australian take for granted: education, employment, health, housing and social and economic standing within the community. Those are the things I wanted for my own people, I still do. We've come a long way in the last 20 years, but there's still a long long way to go, and even though I'll be 70 in two months time, I hope I can still make a contribution somewhere along the line towards helping our people to achieve those things that most Australian white people take as their right. Not something they have to continually work at and prove themselves at, but it is their right to expect those things to be there for them. We as Aboriginal people still have to fight to prove that we are straight out plain human beings, the same as everyone else. You know, I grew up, born on a government blanket under a palm tree. I lived under lantana bushes, I've seen more dinner times than I've ever seen dinners, I've known discrimination, I've known prejudice, I've known all of those things ... but some of that is still with us, even today in 1992, and it's got to be changed. It can only be changed when people of non-Aboriginal extraction are prepared to listen and hear what Aboriginal people are saying, and then help and let us work together to achieve those ends.
Well. There's a number of things, all of those things that I mentioned in health, employment, housing and all those things, Aboriginal people are still suffering, we still have the highest infant mortality, almost worse than some third world countries. Now if that was happening in the general community, all hell would break loose, but it's happening in the Aboriginal community and very few people give a damn. We still haven't ... a large percentage of our people still are not living in decent housing. Our unemployment in the Aboriginal community is up around 50, 55 per cent; in the broader Australian community it's about eight or nine per cent. Now if the rest of the community was over 50 per cent unemployment, all hell would break loose in the country. But it's there amongst Aboriginal people, and very few people give a damn.
I don't know that I have any specifics, except that industry and governments have got to come together and ensure that there are positions where Aboriginal people can go into, that the education of Aboriginal people has to be not just something that's just available. You know people say, 'Oh but there's schools everywhere, they can go to school,' but you've got to ensure that they are going to school, that they are learning, and if they need special education apart from what they're getting at school, then that should be provided. But industry has to open their doors and start employing Aboriginal people, giving them the opportunity of work, but you know I've been in the situation myself, where you go to an industry looking for employment, you walk up and they say oh yes, well give us your name, leave your name, we don't have any vacancies now. You walk down the road, and there's a white chap walks up behind you and you wait down the road till he comes out. 'How'd you go mate?' 'Oh I got a job and I'm starting tomorrow.' When I was up there they said, 'Oh leave your name, we'll get in touch if anything comes up.' That's still happening. I did, and I still do, quite a lot of guest speaking engagements to various organisations and schools and high schools and colleges, particularly to organisations like Lions, Rotary and things like that, and it often comes up in question time about employment, and you'll have a bloke stand up and say, 'Oh yes, no that's alright senator,' -- or when I was a senator or since I've been a senator: 'That's alright Mr Bonner, but I had an Aborigine working for me once and he was absolutely useless, so I wouldn't employ Aborigines ... ' and I say, 'Oh that's fine. But how many whites did you have that did the same thing?' or 'Did you have whites that did the same thing?' 'Oh yes.' 'Would you stop employing whites?' 'Oh no, you can't do that.' And housing is the same. Aboriginal people apply to rent a house. The knock on the door and the bloke says, 'Oh no sorry, the house is gone.' The house is not gone at all because you see it advertised in Courier Mail again the next day. Now you can't say that he didn't give it to you because you were black. Of course he could say, 'Oh yes, but we had someone who was going to take it but at the last minute they didn't so we had to advertise it again.' There's always a way of getting around those kind of issues by smart people.
Many people were surprised that you chose the Liberal Party as the vehicle through which you entered politics. It sounds from the way you were talking that your Party wasn't as important as just going to parliament?
No. I was a member of the Liberal Party ...
Well a number of things ... I suppose ... I was interested in politics, Party politics, because of a couple of young wonderful people. One became my step-daughter and the other is her husband. We used to have lots of discussions about politics and I suppose all my life, being a working man, I felt automatically that I should support the Labor Party because they're supposed to be for the working class. But in discussions with Robyn and Noel over a period of time, they encouraged me to come along to one of their branch meetings which I did. I attended two or three of them. But in 1967 the referendum was coming up -- one of the questions was about Aboriginal people: would they be counted in the census and should the government make special laws for Aborigines? And they invited me to hand out how-to-vote cards at one of the polling booths, and I said, 'Oh look, I couldn't do that, I couldn't hand out Liberal how-to-vote cards,' and they said, 'But all parties are in accord with the question on Aborigines.' 'Oh,' I said, 'That's different.' So they put me on a school here called the Leichhardt School out at West Dempsey, and I was on the polling booths from eight o'clock in the morning till about four o'clock in the afternoon, and a big flash car pulled up and two men stepped out of it. One was the member for Oxley at that time, Bill Hayden, and the other was his campaign manager. Bill walked up to me and he said, 'What in the hell are you doing handing out those cards? We do more for Aborigines than they do.' Well, there was no Labor person handing out how-to-vote cards there, nor anyone else except me. And I said, 'Well, who the hell are you anyway?' He said, 'I'm Bill Hayden, the Member for Oxley' or something ... 'Well look Mr Hayden, I'd look silly handing out Labor how-to-vote cards when I'm a member of the Liberal Party.' Because it annoyed me to think that anyone could come up to me and assume that I would be automatically handing out a particular set of how-to-vote cards. No-one had that right.
No, not at that time. But I was the next day.
A vote of thanks.
... for me joining, becoming a member of the Liberal Party. But you know that's fact and Bill Hayden remembers it and he's mentioned it to me a couple of times over the years.
No. Including 1983 [where] the Party dropped me to an unwinnable position. It wasn't a pre-selection, it wasn't a normal pre-selection, because a pre-selection for a senator in the Liberal Party, the members for that pre-selection [INTERRUPTION].
Well, the night I was selected by the Party, which meant that then I had to be endorsed by the State Government, I was on cloud nine. It was an enormous exhilaration, I'd finally achieved what I'd set out to achieve in the political arena. When I went to Canberra, my first trip to Canberra -- realising of course that I was a bridge carpenter, raising a son on my own because my first wife had died, I had a lot of problems and things like that, and I left the bridge carpentering with my last fortnight's pay, which paid all my bills and then I was going down to parliament, down to Canberra at the invitation of the late Kevin Cairns who was Minister for Housing at the time, to have a look at Parliament House. Before I left here, I had to borrow five dollars off my young man who is now my stepson, young Roy, to go to Canberra; that's all the money I had. But having had a look at Parliament House, I was still kind of excited about the whole thing, but the day I was sworn in was a very emotional day for me. Sitting in the gallery was my wife -- well my fiance at that time -- and the girl who was to be my stepdaughter, Robyn, and two Aboriginal women. There was only two Aboriginal people in the parliament the day I was sworn in. The custom for a new senator coming into parliament is that two of your colleagues from your side of parliament are supposed to grab you, one on each side and drag you up to sign in to be a senator. As they were leading me up, I looked up and around the galleries and I could feel the whole Aboriginal race, of those who had gone before, were all up there, and I could visualise, I could hear voices and amongst those voices was the voice of my grandfather saying, 'It's alright now boy, you are finally in the council with the Australian Elders. Everything is now going to be alright.' It was tremendously emotional for me, I became a little scared, because there I was, and with those thoughts in my mind, the whole race was on my shoulders -- where we were going from there. Now that may not be true, but that's what I felt at that time. And then I signed the register and I was finally fully fledged, a senator for Queensland, representing the whole of Australia. It was an emotional time, a very emotional time. I don't think anyone except my wife, or my fiance at that time, and the two Aboriginal ladies and my daughter realised what I was going through; I don't think anyone else. Everybody was sort of , 'Hey, we've got a blackfella into parliament at last' or whatever, but I don't think anyone realised what I was going through, except particularly that lady out there.
And the only ...
Yes, when I lost my seat in 1983, and since I've been very, very sad about the fact that whilst we the Aboriginal people, the first Australians, make up two per cent of the Australian population, there is not an Aboriginal voice in the Federal Parliament, and I, rightly or wrongly, feel that there'll never be another one in my lifetime, because I don't think the mainland, the mainline political parties, are prepared to give an Aborigine an opportunity where an Aborigine can make it.
It may seem ... a bit presumptuous of me to think this but I don't think the mainline political parties want another Neville Bonner down there.
Well, I suppose I was a bit of a rebel. I voted against my own Party, in and out of government, on 23 occasions. I didn't toe the Party line. I was a member of the Party -- fiercely, proudly, a member of the Party, but I was not blindly a member of the Party. I had a conscience, and political parties don't need people with a conscience. They want bottoms on seats, and hands in the air at the right time.
Only in the early stages because they didn't understand what I was all about. When I went down there, I had to consolidate myself within the Party and within the parliament. If I'd gone down there from the beginning, in 1971, fighting only the Aboriginal cause, I would not have survived in the pre-selection. I had to present my bonafides as a senator representing all people. As I became more sure of my standing within the Party, I then started to speak out on Aboriginal issues. But in the beginning, Aboriginal people felt that I was in the wrong Party for a start because I'd say 98 per cent of Aboriginal people, up until that time anyway, voted Labor. So in the first place I was in the wrong Party, I was in the Tory Party rather than in the Labor Party, and secondly I didn't go down there blasting everybody about Aboriginal affairs. Because if I had have, in my opinion anyway, whether I was right or wrong, it doesn't matter but that's what I felt, that I would have not lasted so I consolidated myself first, and then I started to speak out. But I believe that my stand on Aboriginal affairs was the thing that finally brought me down, and it was the reason why the Liberal Party dropped me to an unwinnable position on their ticket. And I think that the 1983 election proved me right and the Liberal Party wrong because if you recall, the vote I'd lost by .05% of a quota in my own right, and had the major parties given me, well the Labor Party in particular, given me their preferences, I'd have still been in parliament. I was beaten by preferences. See what happened was, the Democrats put me 35 on their ticket, the Labor Party put me behind the Democrats, National Party and the Liberal Party, and the Liberal Party and the National Party put me behind each of them so preference-wise I had no hope. I had to get a quota in my own right, and I lost that by .05%. So I think ...
... My stand was vindicated.
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.
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 ...
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.
That's right. Okay? [laughs]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ...
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.
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?
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 ... ?
I don't think I can point to any specific thing really, no, I don't think I could really pinpoint any specific thing.
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.
Under the law ...
Yes I ...
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yes, it would've, yes. Quite true. And yet, I'm not happy with the whole issue of the enquiry into deaths in custody.
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]
... Yes well, you know ...
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.
No, but it probably was one of the reasons why I was never promoted in the parliament, into the ministry or something like that.
Well, I think if it had been offered to me, I would not have been willing to accept it.
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 I regret ... ?
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.
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.
Are they ... ?
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].
Yes, I was in my late teens. I was out in the central west of Queensland working on a sheep station, and I had some mates of mine, and one of them was coming down to Cherbourg to be married, this was in 1940, early in 1940. And so we all decided to come down to Cherbourg with him and I stayed on in Cherbourg for some time and I enlisted in Cherbourg with quite a number of other Aboriginal men, and we were told that we were going to Maryborough for the draft, and we were all packed and ready to go and we were sent a telegram to say don't come that day, that they'd notify us. Well, they didn't for quite some time, so I decided that I would not wait any longer, so a chap and I came to Brisbane, and we tried to enlist in Brisbane. We went to Kelvin Grove Barracks, and they sent us out to Enoggera, and we were told that they weren't taking any Aborigines because they were afraid that because of our nationality, we would not be able to stand up to the climatic conditions into which they were sending the troops, so we weren't accepted. So I gave up my hopes of getting into the army, and went back out into the west, back onto cattle stations, and worked for the cattle station all through the war. I was called up from the cattle station, but a few months before I'd had a very nasty accident, I'd been in the rough riders riding a buck jumper and I ripped my arm and wrist all smashed up, and of course I wasn't then fit to get into the army, and I went back and worked on the cattle station all through the war.
Yes, well, they told me not to feel bad about it because troops had to be fed, and beef was one of the main diets of the Australians, and so we were doing just as important a job by keeping the cattle industry going as we would have been if we'd gone to war.
Well, I felt that I had an obligation as an Australian, our country was at war, we had joined Britain of course to fight against the Nazi regime, and I felt I had an obligation to be a part of the troops that went over to defend our mother country and our own country.
I was terribly disappointed. I was bitterly disappointed. As a matter of fact, I suppose there'd still be records of it in the Queensland and the Brisbane paper of the old Truth. Now, they interviewed us and they gave us quite a write up about it and demanded that we be given a chance, but of course it never eventuated. But we were very, very badly disappointed about it, we felt that we were offering our services to our nation, and we were rejected because we were Aborigines.
I'd like now to ask you about the women in your life. You've had some fairly significant women that have played a big part in shaping the way your life went. First your mother and then your grandmother, your first wife, and Heather your present wife, have all been women that have been significant to you. Would you like to tell me a little bit more about your mother and what she meant to you, and the other women that have played a role in influencing you?
Well, my mother was a crippled woman. When she was very young she fell out of a tree and broke her hip and she walked with a very bad limp. Of course, when she was deserted by her first husband we moved to Lismore and she met up with another chap by the name of Frank Randell and they had another three children between them, and Frank was a very lazy person in lots of ways, and he depended on my mother to earn the money to pay for the food, and Mother worked as a - I mentioned earlier, I think, working for a hotel doing the washing and ironing, and we used to walk about two miles every morning, two days a week of course, walk down and I'd make the fire under the copper and Mother would wash and boil the clothing and sheets, and then we'd stay there until they all dried and take them or took them off the line and put them in baskets, and the next day she went back and she did all the ironing, and this went on for quite a few years until she became very ill, and she died.
That's right, we had lived on the bank of the Richmond River. I could still go back to the exact spot where we lived under these lantana bushes and life was very, very tough, and Grandfather used to go out and do a bit of work for a dairy farm, and he'd bring in a little money, and of course Grandma was very thrifty and was able to make that money spin out, plus what mother earned, and of course Frank got his share of it before any went into food, but it was ...
Well, whatever he wanted to. Mostly drink. He drank a lot, and of course so did Grandfather, and one of my jobs was to be on hand when Grandfather got paid so as I could grab his pay and take it home to Grandma. If I didn't it would all go on grog. So you know, alcoholism is not a new thing, it's something that's been with us as Aborigines for a long long time.
No welfare cheques in those days, no. The New South Wales Government in those days did issue some rations to some people but you had to qualify for it and I don't know exactly now -- I was only too young to realise what the qualifications were, but we were never in receipt of any of those.
Well, in a sense it did because ... Grandfather got sheets of iron from the rubbish dumps and things like that and bent it over so as the rain ran -- water ran off, and we dug drains around so as the water falling on the land would bypass our[shack] and we sort of built up underneath the lantana bushes with what is called bladey grass, you know.
Oh yes, many times. Yes.
Yes, I've known hunger, I've known cold, I've known all of those emotions -- I lived through it.
Well, I was a bit young to really understand what it was all about, except that I knew that we would have a lot more to eat if there was no money spent on drink so whilst I was only about nine or ten years of age, in Lismore, but then as we moved away from there to other places, and I grew, I got to about 12 or 14, I started to think well, my gosh, when I grow up to be a man, I'm not going to spend my money on that sort of thing, I'm going to make better use of my money than that. I think that's stood me in pretty good stance over the years.
I'm not ... mind you, I'm not a teetotaller. I have my few beers the same as any other Aussie does, but I don't spend a lot of money on it.
Yes, not all but quite a few, yes, did fall into it.
Well, there's a whole lot of things, I mean, the kind of lifestyle we live, we knew discrimination, we knew prejudice, we were denied an education that would qualify us for good paying jobs. So most of our jobs were the menial jobs, were low income, loss of culture, language and all of those things that were important to us as Aboriginal people. I think a lot of those things -- in desperation, looking for a crutch or oblivion, I have been intoxicated so I have an idea what it's like to be intoxicated. You are not thinking rationally and you feel that the bravado in you from the alcohol, it befuddles your mind, you feel that you're as good as anyone, you can walk down the street and push people off the footpath and say, 'I'm as good as youse,' or better. When you're sober, the realities of what your life is, where your place is in the community, hits you pretty forcefully, and a lot of people [want to] go back to that oblivion that the accursed grog brings to you, and the bravado that builds up in you, and so they go back to the drink again. So there's a whole lot of reasons why, and I think some of those are some of them, basically it's this way, a lot of Aboriginal people do drink to excess.
Well, I suppose so, I'm not quite sure what forces there were that helped me to do better than some of my counterparts did. I suppose being a Christian, I believe that God's hand was in it all, God works in mysterious ways, there's wonders to behold.
The ratio of population is a darn sight worse in the white community than people would admit. Yes, it's a big problem, but it is being tackled by Aboriginal people, there is a lot more now, of Aboriginal organisations who are working to educate and to help find a solution to these problems, and I think that is the way it should have been going long before this. Far too often, and for far too long, I've said this before in many speeches in parliament and outside of parliament, that all the decisions concerning we the Aboriginal community has been made for us by non-Aboriginal people, looking at the problem through their own eyes and coming up with solutions that fit into their particular priorities and values, and then saying, 'You need or must do this,' or must do that or must do something else. Instead of sitting down with us and discussing the whole problem with us and asking us to come up with solutions to our own problems, and then, working together so that we can bring about a change by the ideas that come from us as Aboriginal people. We are of a different culture, we are a different race, we are a unique race of people, we never had these problems prior to the coming of the white man to the country and so we fell easy prey to all of these things, but now, what we're saying is, 'Let us now start making some of the decisions that affect us. Let's look at the problems through our eyes. Let us find solutions. Let's use our priorities, our values, let us make our own values of what the problem is and how we find a solution to it.'
Do you think the circumstances in which you lived there on the banks of the river, with rather unreliable men in her life, children dependent on her, and the difficulties that she had to cope with every day, led to your mother's death?
I think you'd better let me have that again, I wasn't quite up with that.
Well, that would have been part of it, yes, but I think the cruelty of the man that she went with also played a part in her ill health.
Oh, he beat her quite consistently, knock her down and kick her with -- he used to wear heavy boots, and he used to kick her with boots and things like that so, as I say when Mother died, I was only about nine years of age, but I remember her calling out for help and assistance and Frank continually beating her, so I would imagine that must have played some part in her health, ill health. I don't know really what the prognosis was by the medical profession, but my own estimation was that, as you rightly say, the conditions and everything else, plus the continual flogging and beating by Frank Randall played a part in her finally passing on.
Well, I don't like to say that one hates someone, but I think my feelings towards him would have been -- there would have been a lot of hate in my feelings towards him because my mother was a very kind and loving person, and worked hard and did her best to raise a family, and ... the things he did was not something that would endear him to anyone, I shouldn't think, and so I think my feeling towards him was very close to hate, if it wasn't really hate.
I was with her the night before she died, I wasn't with her actually when she died, but I was with her and she was still able to talk or in a whisper, and my last memories of her sometimes still haunt me because she was very thin and very frail and her voice it was very weak so ... I still have the moments that often come to me in quiet moments when I'm on my own.
Well it wasn't his ... he didn't do much about that, my grandmother of course and my grandfather and her sisters, Aunt Janet and Aunt Mary and all of us, we got together and she was buried in a pauper grave. We had no money, we could not have paid for a funeral so ... I think they call it indigent graves now, but in those days they called it a pauper's grave.
Absolutely yes. I've been back to the cemetery a couple of times but there was no way for ...
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.
Has, certainly has.
Yes, Mona and I were married in 1943 on Palm Island, it was ...
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
... I did indeed, yes ...
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.
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.
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.
Yes, yes, I think so yes, I think I did.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Well, they never discovered from whom, but there was ... [INTERRUPTION]
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.
No, I did -- I ...
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.
Yes, I suppose one of them was the ...
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.
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.
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.
... Why not!
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]
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.
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.
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.
Yes, yes, passed down.
Well, first and foremost, I was given the Tjuringa that's come down through my grandfather's family for numbers of generations.
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.
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.
Well, that again is something that we do not make known to non-Aboriginal people.
No, as I said, it will go into the grave when my time comes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.'
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.
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.
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.
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 ...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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. 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.
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.
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 was my ... ?
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.
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.
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.
There is only one God.
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.
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.