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Monday, 15 February 1999
Page: 1845


Senator PARER (4:07 PM) —I rise to support the condolence motion moved by Senator Hill. Today we are mourning the death and celebrating the life of a remarkable Australian, Neville Bonner, who passed away on 5 February and who was honoured last week with a state funeral because of his life's work and service to the Australian community. A former Liberal senator for Queensland from 1971 to 1983, Neville Bonner served in this place drawing much admiration.

It is no secret that Neville grew up under hard conditions. Born on 28 March 1922, his beginnings were, to say the least, meagre. He was born on a government blanket in a camp under a palm tree that stood among the lantana on Ukerebagh Island just off the Tweed River. His mother died when he was a boy and he was raised by his grandparents. It was a difficult start to life, a life that was to be filled for Neville with many challenges, difficulties and triumphs. Yet his early life circumstances would form the foundation of his strong sense of fairness, justice and compassion. The qualities of this man forged during his youth would last a lifetime.

Neville was a good orator and an avid reader despite only receiving one year of formal education at the age of 15, where he excelled by graduating three grades. By the age of 18, he packed his swag and set off on his early working career, which took him to many parts of Queensland. Over this time he tried his hand at dairying, ringbarking and scrub-felling and as a meat worker and a stockman. It was while he was working at Palm Island that his leadership skills began to emerge. Managing a large work force, he formed several committees to serve local needs, and he lived on Palm Island for some 17 years with his first wife, five sons and two foster daughters.

On his return to Brisbane in 1960, Neville established a manufacturing business in Ipswich producing boomerangs. In 1961 he joined the Queensland division of the Liberal Party. His interest in community affairs was increasing, and in 1965 he joined what Senator Woodley referred to as OPAL, the One People of Australia League, becoming its state president in 1967. He had by this time closed his manufacturing business and was working for the Moreton Shire Council as a bridge carpenter, a skill he acquired on Palm Island. This was alluded to by Sir James Killen in his eulogy of Bonner the bridge builder, meaning not just physically building bridges but as a bridge builder in other aspects of life in his career.

Sadly, in 1969 Neville's first wife, Mona, died. Then in 1970 he made his first run for office, contesting the 1970 federal election as No. 3 candidate on the joint Liberal-Country Party Senate ticket. Though his first Senate bid failed, he was selected in 1971 under section 15 of the constitution to fill a Senate vacancy caused by the resignation of Dame Annabelle Rankin. Neville Bonner won his preselection convincingly on the first ballot from a field of seven candidates, and he was re-elected to the Senate three times until 1983.

Neville Bonner was a conservative Liberal. He knew his own mind, he knew what he believed in and he knew what it took to succeed. He had an unshakeable faith in his core beliefs, and he knew that reward for his people and for all Australians lay in patient, steady and prudent challenge using the due process of law and the political system. For his quiet outspokenness, he suffered at times the ridicule of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, preferring to follow the wisdom inside passed down to him from many generations.

A Jugarah elder, Neville Bonner was outspoken on Aboriginal issues, never losing touch with Aboriginal law, beliefs or traditions and always ensuring that future generations were educated and mentored in the ways of Aboriginal custom. A man of great integrity who stood up for his own convictions never toeing any political line to buy friend or favour, he saw himself first and foremost as an Australian, an Australian who had ancestral responsibilities, an Australian who had community responsibilities. He never let up despite illness or other setbacks. He was a gentle soul who always showed a cheerful and peaceful demeanour which was indicative of his positive attitude to life.

As you know, Madam President, Neville Bonner was the first Aborigine elected to parliament. Ever cognisant of his early years, Neville Bonner was highly interested in matters of indigenous significance, yet he was adamant that he would be a senator for all Queensland saying:

But I am to represent the State of Queensland and my loyalties and responsibilities will be to the people of Queensland.

A strong believer in tradition and the responsibility of office, he professed a concern for his country, its people and the quality of life that Australians could enjoy. This is clearly articulated in his maiden speech, when he reminded us that he was educated in the school of hard knocks, with his teacher being experience. He pledged as a senator to play his role which his state of Queensland, his race, his background, his political beliefs, his knowledge of man and circumstances dictate. This he said he would do through the grace of God to the benefit of all Australians.

From the moment he stepped into the political arena as a Liberal senator, Neville Bonner became one of Australia's best known politicians—no, I guess you cannot say `politician' because Neville always wished to be referred to as a parliamentarian. He achieved this great success because he was true to himself and was listened to by the broader community, which is testified by his significantly increased majority in three successive elections. His service and interest in the Senate included but were not limited to areas related to health, housing, education, employment, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander matters and employment.

In the parliament he brought an Aboriginal voice to the heart of the nation, speaking out on issues to close the divide between black and white Australians. It was a voice we will hear in our hearts forever because he knew how to temper truth with dissension. Neville Bonner was always a modest peaceable man. He was a man you could not help but like, and his success was always through his own endeavours. He was a gentle man. He stood by his principles. He was a passionate man, having no fear to sincerely follow his heart. And he was a loyal man, never forgetting his purpose.

His life of public service and concern for his fellow man endured throughout his life and, despite his recent illness, Neville Bonner continued to champion causes. Many will remember his high involvement in last year's Constitutional Convention, taking up a position with the Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy. In fact, his life after leaving the Senate was full of public service and recognition, such as his appointment as a board director of the ABC; he was awarded the Order of Australia in 1984; a senior official adviser to Queensland Prisons from 1990-97; chairman of the Indigenous Advisory Board from 1997; and honorary adviser to the Queensland Police Service on indigenous issues in 1998. He was also a patron to a number of organisations and readily gave advice to a number of community organisations.

Neville Bonner was much loved and highly regarded in the Liberal Party. He was a good speaker and quickly rose through the Party political ranks from his membership of the One Mile Branch in the Oxley-Ipswich area to area chairman, member of state executive and then to Senator for Queensland. In 1978 he was awarded special life membership by the Queensland Young Liberal Movement and was subsequently made a life member of the Liberal Party of Australia.

Neville Bonner's path from a poor youth to an adult of public distinction was no accident. He worked hard, used his experience as a learning curve and knew not to carry any hate or bitterness in his heart. This was very much part of the secret of Neville's success. I draw your attention, Madam President, to one particular comment in his maiden speech to this chamber which had a perennial ring of truth when he spoke of acceptance and equality, saying Australia:

. . . will be a grand country only when those who sit in this Chamber, and in another place, really and truly believe in this aim and work to achieving it. I believe we should forget our petty differences and really work for those who put us here and have entrusted the nation to our hands.

I was one of the thousand or more from all walks of life who attended Neville's funeral last Friday, as did you, Madam President, and other senators in this chamber. I think it was referred to by somebody, maybe Senator Woodley, as a `grand occasion'. I have to say that Neville Bonner would have been extremely proud of the part played at his funeral by his children, his grandchildren and his nieces. This is a time of painful sorrow made worse by the loss of Neville's son Patrick last July from bone cancer. To his wife, Heather, his children and grandchildren, I extend my deepest sympathy at this time of great sorrow.


Honourable senators —Hear, hear!