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Briefcase belonging to Neville Bonner #2012-0043

Black briefcase with internal file compartment; brass plaque fixed to front of briefcase carrying the hand-engraved inscription: ‘Senator Bonner, From Workmakes of Moreton Shire Council, 5-6-1971.’

History

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 briefcase 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 briefcase is significant as a personal object that belonged to Neville Bonner and which he used whilst a Senator (1971-83).

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.

Although he achieved much in his role in federal parliament until it ended in 1983, he remained a humble man and one who was alone for much of his time here. He always felt the responsibility of being the only Indigenous Member of Parliament. He said: ‘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…I felt that I had a responsibility to prove that we Aboriginal people had the ability and the willpower to be able to handle any situation, because if I failed, then my whole race would have been judged accordingly’. Years later he remarked of his time in this building and he said ‘It was worse than being out droving. I was treated like an equal on the floor of the chamber, neither giving nor asking quarter, but there were hours just sitting in my office and I went home alone to my unit at night. There was never one night when anyone said “hey let’s go out tonight”.

  • Briefcase belonging to Neville Bonner.Briefcase belonging to Neville Bonner. —
  • Inscription on brass plate.Inscription on brass plate. —

Details

Width 435mm
Height 340mm
Depth 90mm
Medium Metal; leather; plastic; brass
Creator’s name Echolac
Impression -
Date created circa 1971