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Parliamentary Pillow belonging to Neville Bonner #2012-0042

Parliamentary pillow in red pillowcase used by Neville Bonner.


Neville Bonner was born on Ukerebagh Island on the Tweed River, New South Wales, in 1922. He had little formal schooling, leaving after he had attained the third grade at the age of fifteen. Bonner spent much of his youth working as a rural labourer on properties across Queensland.

In 1940, Bonner and a group of young people went to Brisbane to try and enlist in the Army so they could serve in the Second World War, but they were rejected. Bonner said they were told that the Army was not accepting any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples. Bonner later said that he was terribly disappointed about this as he felt that, as an Australian, he had an obligation to serve.

Bonner married his first wife, Mona Banfield, in 1943 and moved with her to Palm Island, where she was from. They had five children and fostered another three together. Bonner lived on Palm Island from 1945–60, slowly becoming politicised but adopting the moderate tone that was typical of his demeanour later in Parliament. He became involved in the Palm Island Social Welfare Association and worked his way up to the fairly senior position of settlement overseer. Bonner eventually came to the conclusion that the only way to change unjust laws was to get into the system and change them from within.

In 1960, Bonner moved to Ipswich where he became associated with the One People of Australia League (OPAL), a moderate Indigenous rights organisation. Bonner served as one of the League’s directors for several years and was the Queensland President from 1978 to 1974.

Neville Bonner joined the Liberal Party in August, 1967. In 1971he became the first Aboriginal person to sit in the Commonwealth Parliament when he was chosen to fill a vacancy in the Senate caused by the resignation of a Liberal senator for Queensland. Bonner was subsequently returned at elections held in 1972, 1974, 1975 and 1980.

Neville Bonner became a well-known parliamentary figure during his years as a senator. He was a respected commentator on Indigenous issues and served on numerous Senate and Parliamentary Committees. Bonner also served as the parliamentary representative on the Council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (now the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies).

Dropped from one of the winnable positions on the Liberal Party ticket for the 1983 Senate election, Bonner resigned from the Party and contested the election as an independent. He narrowly missed retaining his seat. Neville Bonner continued to be a strong advocate for Indigenous rights until his death in 1999.

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Statement of values

This red parliamentary pillow is significant as part of the Neville Bonner collection which is comprised of a selection of objects that belonged to Australia’s first Indigenous federal politician, Neville Bonner.

The pillow is significant as an object that illustrates Bonner’s role as a federal Senator (1971-83). Pillows were issued to allow Senators to take naps, following late night sittings which were a common occurrence during parliamentary sessions.

Bonner entered federal politics in 1971, sworn in as a Queensland Senator on 17 August. In his maiden speech he declared that he would play ‘the role which my State of Queensland, my race, my background, my political beliefs, my knowledge of men and circumstances dictate.’ In a 1992 interview Bonner reflected on how proud he was the night he was elected as a Senate representative. He said that the day he was sworn in was a very emotional day, with his then fiancé Heather and her daughter, and two other Aboriginal women in the gallery watching. He also felt a little scared, feeling the responsibility of representing his whole race, which was quite a load on his shoulders.

In the mid-1970s Bonner was one of several Senators who occasionally filled the role of President of the Senate when the President was absent. It was a significant thing to have an aboriginal Australian filling this role. Although Bonner always said he was representing the state of Queensland and was not just representing aboriginal people, he was always a strong advocate and outspoken activist on Indigenous affairs. He sat on several Senate committees on Aboriginal affairs, including land rights. His willingness to listen to all sides and to adopt a moderate stance caused much friction with radical activist aboriginals who wanted him to act more quickly and to take a harder line on aboriginal issues. He refused to placate them, however, as he believed that it was through conciliation and consultation that he could achieve the best results.

  • Parliamentary pillow used by Neville Bonner.Parliamentary pillow used by Neville Bonner. —


Width 710mm
Height 470mm
Depth 200mm
Medium Polyester/nylon; cotton
Creator’s name Dupont; Target Australia Pty. Ltd.
Impression -
Date created Unknown