Neville Bonner was our first Indigenous MP. He would have hated the Voice

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The original Indigenous Voice to parliament was not one of grievance or hectoring complaint. It was that of a dignified, quietly spoken Liberal senator who became the first Aboriginal member of any Australian parliament way back in 1971.

Neville Bonner believed in trying to change the system from within, which provoked the racist slur that he was an “Uncle Tom”.Credit:

Neville Bonner, whose biography by Sean Jacobs was launched in Brisbane last week, does not receive as much recognition as he deserves as the pioneering figure of Indigenous inclusion in the political process. His memory is preserved in the name of a federal electorate and a new pedestrian bridge across the Brisbane River. Yet it has been entirely absent from the current debate about the Voice. Perhaps that is because he would have hated the idea: it would have offended both his constitutional conservatism and his profound belief in equal citizenship for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike.

I knew Neville Bonner well; in my youth, he was to me, as he was to others taking their early steps in politics, something of a mentor. He was one of the few truly inspiring people I have ever met.

He was born on Ukerebagh Island in the mouth of the Tweed River in 1922 and received little formal education. At various times he worked as a stockman, fencer, dairy hand and cane cutter. He spent many years at the Aboriginal settlement on Palm Island, where he became a native policeman. It was there, according to Jacobs, that Bonner formed his views about working within the system in order to change it. That approach would, during his political career, provoke the racist slur that he was an “Uncle Tom” – just as Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price suffers today.

The early 1960s saw Bonner settle in Ipswich. He began to involve himself in causes for Aboriginal advancement, and was a founder and first president of the One People of Australia League (OPAL), dedicated to racial equality. He also joined the Liberal Party. In 1971, when senator Annabelle Rankin resigned, the party had to choose someone for the casual vacancy. Bonner, at the time working as a bridge carpenter and by then a member of the party’s state executive, put his hand up. His preselection was perfectly routine. He received no special treatment; he won because he was respected and liked. That said, it cannot have been lost on the preselectors that they were making history by putting the first Aboriginal person into parliament.

Bonner campaigning in Far North Queensland in 1983.Credit: Bramley

Why is it that, when it comes to including Indigenous Australians in the political system, the Liberal and National parties have all the firsts? The first senator; the first state MP (Eric Deeral, elected a National Party member of the Queensland parliament in 1974); the first member of the House of Representatives (Ken Wyatt); the first minister and member of cabinet (Wyatt); the first head of government (Adam Giles, chief minister of the Northern Territory).

Neville Bonner with then-prime minister John Howard in 1998 at the Liberal Party Convention in Brisbane.Credit:

As a senator, Bonner was recognised for wisdom and courage. Respected by his own people, he was a voice for moderation, not confrontation. Yet confrontational he could be, such as when he went head-to-head with then-premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen to protect the Indigenous people of Aurukun. Nor was he afraid to stand up to colleagues; he became a Senate rebel, crossing the floor more than 30 times, much to the vexation of party leaders. His parliamentary career ended in 1983 when, in the skulduggery so familiar in Senate preselections, he was relegated down the ticket by the machinations of a junior colleague. Bob Hawke had the good grace to appoint him to the ABC board.

Bonner’s final contribution to public life was as one of the leading opponents of the republic referendum. His last public appearance was his electrifying “How dare you?” speech to the constitutional convention at Old Parliament House in 1998. It was a passionate, moving avowal of Indigenous identity and traditional values, but you will look for it in vain in any anthology of famous Australian speeches.

You will, however, find Paul Keating’s Redfern speech and Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations. Undoubtedly, the most eloquent orations about Indigenous disadvantage have come from Labor prime ministers. Words matter, and each of those speeches marks an important waypoint in our national consciousness.

Yet, as the old saying goes, fine words butter no parsnips. Labor may have had the rhetorical triumphs, but it has so often been Liberal governments that achieved the results. Harold Holt gave us the 1967 referendum; John Gorton appointed the first federal minister for Indigenous affairs; John Howard put constitutional recognition on the national agenda; Malcolm Turnbull appointed the first Indigenous minister.

Gough Whitlam was certainly the first prime minister to champion Aboriginal land rights, but it was the government of Malcolm Fraser that passed the first land rights legislation after Whitlam lost office.

No prime minister has shown as much hands-on commitment to Indigenous wellbeing as Tony Abbott. When opposition spokesman for Indigenous affairs, he spent weeks living and working in remote Indigenous communities. As PM, he insisted that cabinet spend time in East Arnhem Land and on Thursday Island so we could better understand the issues on the ground.

Today, Abbott is one of the leading advocates for the No campaign. Lately, we have witnessed a fascinating convergence of many of the conservative Abbott’s views with those of the radical Senator Lidia Thorpe and the “progressive” No case. For both of them, the problem with the Voice is that it offers no solutions: it just gives middle-class liberals an easy way to dump their white guilt in the moral wheelie bin and pretend to themselves that the challenges of Indigenous disadvantage are sorted.

Neville Bonner would, no doubt, have agreed.

George Brandis is a former Liberal Party senator, attorney-general and Australian high commissioner to the UK.

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