Life On The Job

Indigenous Famous Person's Story

Neville Bonner - Senator, Australian Parliament (28 March 1922 - 5 February 1999)



Quick Facts
Name: Neville Bonner
Born: Ukerebagh Island, 28 March,1922
Died: Ipswich, 5 February 1999
Australian of the Year 1979
First Indigenous member of the Commonwealth Parliament
Liberal Party Senator for Queensland, 1971–1983
Member of the Board of the ABC, 1983–1991
Neville Bonner
(Source: Canberra Times)

Born in 1922, Neville Bonner was born in northern New South Wales on Ukerebagh Island on the Tweed River.

Tweed Heads
(Source: Manly Hydraulics Laboratory -
Map of NSW showing location of Tweed Heads)
Ukerebagh Island
(Source: Google Maps - showing Ukerebagh Island in the Tweed River at Tweed Heads)
From the 1920s to the 1960s, Ukerebagh Island was home to Aboriginal people of the traditional Minjungbal Aboriginal Nation as well as other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who had come to work in the Tweed area. The settlement created a sense of community for all Aboriginal people and provided an isolated environment in which children could be taught about their culture. Neville Bonner, who was the first Indigenous member of the Australian Parliament (from 1971 to 1983) was born on Ukerebagh Island in 1922.

The NSW Aborigines Protection Board declared the island an Aboriginal Reserve in 1927. As a reserve, the settlement was serviced with government rations and missionaries would also frequently visit. Not all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people moved to Ukerebagh Island by choice, as some were herded there by the local police in an effort to keep them from nearby white settlements. When the Aboriginal Reserve was revoked in 1951, some families continued to live on the island up until the early 1970s. In the late 1970s, local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people protested against proposed developments in the area, and succeeded in having Ukerebagh Island protected. In 1980 the area was gazetted as the Ukerebagh Island Nature Reserve.

Today local Aboriginal people continue to visit the island, and go there to teach young children about Aboriginal culture, history, and how to use the available resources.
NSW Department of the Environment)

Neville Bonner became the first Aboriginal person in Federal Parliament, representing Queensland as a Liberal Party Senator from 1971 to 1983.

"Bonner was the son of an Aboriginal mother of the Jagera people and an English father whom he never knew. He was born on an island in the Tweed River in northern New South Wales. At the time Aboriginal people were not allowed into town at night so Bonner’s mother could not go to the hospital to give birth. Bonner said ‘She gave birth to me…under the palm tree…on a government-issued blanket’.

Palm Tree that Neville Bonner was born under
The Palm Tree that Neville was born under

Neville Bonner had a limited education and worked in labouring jobs. After he married he lived on Palm Island near Townsville and worked to help his community. Bonner was convinced little would change for Indigenous Australians unless they were represented in parliament. He said ,‘You've got to get into the system, work through the system and make changes.’

Neville Bonner joined the Liberal Party and in 1971 was chosen to fill a Senate vacancy. He celebrated his first parliamentary speech with a boomerang throwing display on the lawns of Parliament House. Bonner was a Senator for 12 years and worked on Indigenous and social welfare issues. He did not always agree with his party’s policies and several times crossed the floor and voted with the Opposition. Disillusioned with the way he had been treated, Bonner resigned from the Liberal Party in 1983 and ran for the Senate as an Independent but was unsuccessful. He retired from politics, but not from public life.

Neville Bonner continued to raise awareness of Indigenous and welfare issues. He worked with Amnesty International, the Indigenous Advisory Council and other organisations to improve conditions for Indigenous people.

Neville Bonner was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Griffith University, and, after his death in 1999, the Neville Bonner Memorial Scholarship was established by the Australian National University.

In 2004, the federal electorate of Bonner, in Queensland, was named in his honour." (Source: Civics and Citizenship)

In 1984 Neville Bonner was awarded the Officer of the Order of Australia. He died in 1999.

"Neville Bonner's life is a study not only of courage, conscience and compassion

 in the face of extraordinary adversity,

but also of personal and national reconciliation."
(Source: ANU


Like many Indigenous children of his age he had little formal schooling, leaving after he had attained the third grade at the age of fifteen.

Employment & Training:

Neville  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.

Neville Bonner 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.

Neville Bonner became the first Aboriginal person in Federal Parliament, representing Queensland as a Liberal Party Senator from 1971 to 1983.


In 1960, Bonner moved to Ipswich where he became associated with the One People Australia League (OPAL), a moderate Aboriginal rights organisation where he served as one of the league’s directors for several years.

1970 He became the Queensland president of One People of Australia League [OPAL].

(Source: National Museum of Australia)

Bonner joined the Liberal Party and 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.


Bonner 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 [AIATSIS]).

AIATSIS website


bullet.gif (981 bytes) Civics and Citizenship Education - Neville Bonner

Civics and Citizenship
bullet.gif (981 bytes)National Archives of Australia: Fact Sheet: Neville Bonner

bullet.gif (981 bytes)Australian Biography
This website has a study guide, links and downloads.

Australian Biography
bullet.gif (981 bytes)ABC - Splash

ABC Splash
bullet.gif (981 bytes)National Museum of Australia

bullet.gif (981 bytes)ABC - Hindsight [Audio file]

ABC Hindsight
bullet.gif (981 bytes)ABC Splash

ABC Splash
bullet.gif (981 bytes)Portrait of a Nation

Portrait of a Nation
bullet.gif (981 bytes)Oral History Interview (PDF 21 pages)

Oral History Interview
bullet.gif (981 bytes)Up Front Australia

Upfront Australia
bullet.gif (981 bytes)Racism No Way

Racism No Way

bullet.gif (981 bytes)YouTube: Neville Bonner and Self-Determination



bullet.gif (981 bytes)YouTube: Neville Bonnner Speech 1998 Constitutional Convention


Did You Know?

Senator Bonner had a very auspicious and distinguished career in the Senate and by the power of his argument, and the fact that he crossed the floor on many occasions [34] to get a better deal for the causes he espoused, he was able to implement a number of changes for the benefit of Australians. As Neville Bonner said in his maiden speech on 8 September 1971:

I assure honourable senators that I have not attended a university or a high school and, for that matter, I do not know that I can say that I have spent very much time at a primary school. But this does not mean that as a Senator from Queensland I am not able to cope. I have graduated through the university of hard knocks. My teacher was experience. However, I shall play the role which my State of Queensland, my race, my background, my political beliefs, my knowledge of men and circumstances dictate. This I shall do, through the grace of God, to the benefit of all Australians.

As he concluded his maiden speech:

I look forward to my association with my fellow senators. I trust that our deliberations will be, in fact, for the true welfare of all Australians.




bullet.gif (981 bytes)Online: Create a Slide Show

PrimaryPrimaryMiddleMiddle & High SchoolSecondary

ICT Capability Australian Curriculum General Capability: ICT Capability

Critical & Creative ThinkingAustralian Curriculum General Capability: Critical & Creative Thinking

LiteracyAustralian Curriculum General Capability: Literacy

Personal and Social CapabilityAustralian Curriculum General Capability: Personal and Social Capability

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and culturesAustralian Curriculum: Cross Curriculum Priorities: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures

1. As an individual, consider an Issue

After reading Neville Bonner's profile, and considering how passionate he felt about changing the way Indigenous people lived, think about an issue which you feel strongly about eg: modern slavery (use of child labour in factories), environmental issues, climate change, farmers and drought, Menindee fish kill; Children's rights; or refugees to name a few.

2. Create a Slide Show about your issue.


The using Powtoon (free online cartoon software), create a slide show to present your thinking/argument around your chosen topic.

3. Present your issue to the class.





Material sourced from 
Civics and Citizenship;
National Museum of Australia;
NSW Department of the Environment


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