Indigenous leader and Senator (1922–99)
Neville Bonner was born on Ukerebagh Island on the Tweed River, New South Wales, in 1922. Like many Aboriginal children of his age he had little formal schooling, leaving after he had attained the third grade at the age of fifteen. He worked as a rural labourer on properties across Queensland until 1946, when he commenced employment at the Palm Island Aboriginal settlement. He rose to the position of assistant settlement overseer on Palm Island.
In 1960 Bonner moved to Ipswich where he became associated with the One People Australia League (OPAL), a moderate Aboriginal rights organisation. He served as one of the league’s directors for several years and was the Queensland president in 1970. Following the 1967 referendum, which amended the constitution to give the Commonwealth government the power to make laws in relation to Aboriginals, Bonner joined the Liberal Party. In 1971 he 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. He 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 never a serious contender for a place in the ministry of the McMahon (1971–72) or Fraser (1975–83) governments. However he was a respected commentator on Indigenous issues and served on numerous Senate and Parliamentary Committees. He also served as the parliamentary representative on the Council of the then 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.
Records relating to Neville Bonner held by the National Archives
The National Archives collection includes records about Neville Bonner’s years in the Senate. Records about the Commonwealth government’s dealings with the OPAL organisation through the years in which Bonner was associated with it are also held.
Searches using the keyword terms such as ‘neville bonner’ or ‘opal’ on our RecordSearch database will identify relevant records. Examples of the records held are shown below.