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.’
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.