Interview with Neville Bonner

by Chris Griffith
Published April 1995 in Land Rights Queensland


my face


The Australian Government is currently considering whether special seats in parliament should be set aside for our indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Isalnder people. The idea was proposed recently by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), and the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.

Since 1867, the New Zealand parliament has allotted four seats to the Maori which, together, cover the entire country. Voters choose freely to be on the Indigenous or non-Indigenous role, but they cannot be on both roles.

Neville Bonner is the only Aboriginal Australian ever to be elected to the federal parliament.

In April 1995, the former Senator spoke to journalist Chris Griffith about whether the plan was in the best interest of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

Bonner: The proposal is in my opinion something that is going to take a lot of hard talking and discussions to first and foremost find out how it can or how it can't be done. Secondly, to be able to do that I would believe anyway, that there would need to be a change in our Constitution to allow that to happen. Then if we are talking about doing it now, it is going to take more than a short period of time and as we know there are people including the Prime Minister who are working very hard towards Australia becoming a Republic. Now under that system who knows how this can be achieved.

First and foremost no one is telling us what the Republic is going to be, all the talk at the moment is that Australia must become a Republic and sever its ties with the Queen, but no one is telling me or telling me anyway what sort of a Republic we are going to have. So that again is going to complicate the proposal that is being put forward.

If they're suggesting the same type of thing that is happening in New Zealand they must bear in mind that New Zealand is a much smaller country than ours, there's lot less population than ours and Maori's population in New Zealand in comparative terms is much greater than we Indigenous people in this country. We make up, I think it's close on 2 percent of the Australian community, I'm not sure what the Maori situation is but it is certainly much higher in comparative terms than that.

So I find it then difficult to be able to say, Yes or No that I agree with the proposal as it stands at the moment. Now, how we overcome all those problems I don't know and I think it will take someone with great knowledge and understanding of our situation in Australia to be able to bring about the proposal that is being put forward.

Griffith: Presuming that this change was part of a general set of changes to the Constitution after the turn of the Century, do you think having dedicated representatives, would that aid the idea of reconciliation or would it cause further divisions?

Bonner: Well, it could cause divisions, because as we know since the Referendum in 1967 when I think it was, overwhelming majority supported that change in the Constitution attitudes have changed considerably and more considerably since the High Court Decision on the Mabo court hearing there are people now saying that I don't agree with this, but they are saying that we the Indigenous people own more land in Australia than any other group of people.

Griffith: Professor Geoffrey Blainey?

Bonner: Well yes, he's one of the characters proposing it but he's not the only one of that opinion, he's only expressing an opinion of a large section of the Australian community. Even if at all went ahead through Parliament, the questions I need to be answered, I think most, we the Indigenous people outside are actually the reconciliation and those that are in Government positions and things like that have to work out, let's take Queensland for instance or no, lets have a look at setting aside seats literally, how do you allocate, how many seats are you going to allocate, presumably you are going to have one seat for each state, that's six states, then what about the territories, ACT and Northern Territory, that's seven, now where and how are these people elected?

If you take for instance here in Queensland, the majority of Aboriginal people live in Rockhampton North, and a lot of those are living on Aboriginal communities, then you've got say Townsville, Brisbane, Ipswich, Toowoomba which are the provincial cities and there's a large contingent of Urbanised Aboriginal people, now what do you say will an Aboriginal person be elected by all the other Aboriginal people in Queensland or is that person elected by all the people in Queensland? There are things that are yet not spelt out.

Griffith: Well just say looking at New Zealand how it has operated it has four seats for the whole country super-imposed electorally on top of the non-Indigenous seats there and the Maori people choose or pick and choose generally whether they are on a Maori role or not.

Bonner: Yes I know, but you've got a more unified situation in New Zealand, than you've got in the Aboriginal community in Australia, if you talk about the tribal people in Northern Territory, the people in the Kimberlies, the people in Far North Queensland, how are they going to be represented by say a Neville Bonner living in Ipswich, would they feel that I'm representing them throughout Queensland?

Now if you said to the non-Aboriginal population you will have one representative in Queensland representing Queensland in the Federal Parliament they would kick you to pieces, that's all I know. Each area has to be represented, each electorate, so we've have got someone that we can badger and say "Hey you're not doing the things we want you to do, you won't be elected next time".

But here you are going to have presumably one person in Queensland representing the whole of Queensland how does that person service his or her electorate?

Griffith: Well like a Senator I presume

Bonner: Yeah, but you've got six senators in Queensland, no 12 senators in Queensland.

Griffith: But no one geographically

Bonner: Oh, I know but you've got 12, but you're talking about only one, the Aboriginal population is scattered throughout Queensland, so you're going to have one Aborigine representing the whole of Queensland, how does he meet the people in Cape York Peninsula, how does he meet with the people in the Gulf country, he or she, how will they represent the people in Central Queensland, how do they represent all the people here in the Brisbane, Toowoomba.

Griffith: And the different views

Bonner: Oh, conflicting views in all of those communities, so you know these questions are not answered yet, they are not even posed yet, I think I would probably be the first person to pose these questions and until those questions are clearly understood, first and foremost by the Indigenous people, before it is even proposed it needs to be understood by the Indigenous people.

Then on top of that to more confuse the issue in Queensland you not only talk about Aboriginal people, you're talking about Torres Strait Islanders, so you can't have an Aboriginal person, an Aborigine cannot represent the Torres Strait Island people, nor can a Torres Strait Islander represent the Aborigines. So there's all these issues that need to be looked at and clarified.

Griffith: Well, I'll go through some other ones too, I mean you used New Zealanders and their set problems, how relevant are these in this debate as well. In the New Zealand case they say non- Indigenous politicians seems as if they are not representing or accountable for Indigenous affairs, because the Indigenous people don't necessarily elect them. There is non-Indigenous resentment of a particular group having the seats, they talk about there the unwieldly side of their electorate, 4 electorates of New Zealand, the Federal problems of deciding the number of seats whether they should be addressed.

The problems with having dual roles and the marginalisation of Indigenous interests because the white seats, the rest of them they don't feel the need to be responsible or accountable to an electorate of Aboriginal issues.

Bonner: Ok there's another issue here in Australia

Griffith: How do you feel....

Bonner: Well, I don't know New Zealand that well, I've talked on Parliamentary delegations to members of the New Zealand Maori who are in Parliament and they told me that it has given the Maori people a voice in the Parliament, but any Maori, who wants to run for a seat, is told "Hey you run for a seat in your area where you have seats in Parliament" That caused a friction and the same thing would apply you just rightly said about New Zealand.

You take here for instance you have a Federal member representing this area, a non-Aboriginal person, if we have these so called seats set aside, I would not be able to go to this guy, because he could very well say to me "Hey, you've got your representative, move on and talk to your representative, don't talk to me about your issues.

Griffith: You did not necessarily vote for him

Bonner: No but I don't vote for him so why should he worry about me, you know it's all those questions that need be answered before we go too far down the track, then again, let me pose a political situation I don't think I would be far wrong if I said that 90% or better maybe 95% of Aboriginal people in Queensland at least vote Labor, so if you've got a person here and I would say that probably goes right across Australia you would then have the Labor party either in Government or in opposition who would have a whole number of Aborigines who would side with them, now you are not going to tell me that's going to make the Conservative party very happy, it's not going to make the National party very happy, it's not going to make the Liberal party very happy, not going to make the Democrats very happy, nor the Independents, the Greens, because if, let's suppose there are 7 Aboriginal seats and one for Torres Strait Islanders, that will make it 8 that's a pretty good lot, those 8 people could have the balance of power or conversely, they could .... vote with any political party, now how would the other political parties feel, so when you talk earlier about it causing some friction. I think there's be friction which ever way it goes. Now please don't get the idea that I am opposed totally to the voice of Aboriginal people being heard in the Parliament, my advice has always been to the Indigenous people of this country, both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, we need a voice in Parliament, I don't care what political party you join, but join and get in there, conversely the best way would be to form an Aboriginal party and get in Parliament.

Griffith: Would that be your most preferred option, rather than say what you

Bonner: Yes, then you are elected by all the people, I would not recommend with a clear conscience that Indigenous people join any one of the major political parties, because, political parties in this country want bottle drawn seats, hands in the air at the right time, you have no freedom to express yourself against the party, I can tell you.

Griffith: I was about to say how effective do you feel now after all this time you were able to represent Aboriginal people?

Bonner: I believe I was effective while I was there, whilst I lasted, if you go back over a period of time in Parliament...

Griffith: Which was which years?

Bonner: From 1971 to 1983 a lot of things happened, first by the Whitlam Government, then by the Fraser Government. Now if you look at Australia you will find all of the Land Rights until the Mabo case that was were Land Rights that were accepted by Government, was during the Malcolm Fraser era and a little bit before.

Dick Hamer in Victoria, Lake Tyers, David Tonkin in South Australia, the PinPinjara people, freehold title, unencumbered freehold title to the land, Malcolm Fraser in the Northern Territory. If you can tell me what Labor Government has given freehold title to Aboriginal people anywhere in Australia?

Griffith: Do you think that, as you were saying, with about 95 percent of Aboriginal people supporting Labor, there's a real danger of the Aboriginal community being seen to be on one side of politics?

Bonner: Oh it has. I've been told that so many times. I've been told by my colleagues that, how can you as a liberal stand up and support a group of people that only support one party. I said I'm not interested in the party system; I'm interested in the rights and justice for the indigenous people in this country of which I happen to be one of. That was my concern. Hence finally I was thrown out, in a sense.

Griffith: You stood as an independent in 1983.

Bonner: In 1983 I stood as an independent and I received .05 per cent less a quota in my own right. That showed me there is enormous good will within the broader Australian community if you stand up to be counted. I think I can credit my defeat in that election to the Labor Party because the Labor Party gave their preferences first to Macklin, who was a Democrat, and gave the Democrats power in their own right. Then they gave their preferences to the National Party, then to the Liberal Party, and then to me last.

Griffith: Why?

Bonner: Don't ask me that question! Ask the Queensland Labor Party that question. Now the Democrats put me 35 because they were scared that I'd do better; the Liberal Party put me behind the National Party; the National Party put me behind the Liberal Party. So the major political parties did not want to give an Aborigine the opportunity to stand in that parliament as an independent.

Now the Labor party claims to be THE party for Aboriginal people -- they're the greatest party for Aborigines. They weren't great in 1983, otherwise they'd have given an Aborigine the balance of power in parliament. That would have been quite a thing. It wouldn't have lasted too long once the two Greens came in and Ted Mack.

Griffith: So in 71 you began?

Bonner: In 1970 I tossed my hat in for the half Senate election for the National Party and the Liberal Party. I accepted the number three position, which was an unwinnable seat, but gave me experience. In 1971 when the late Dame Anabel Rankin resigned to take up a post of High Commissioner to New Zealand, it caused a vacancy within parliament which was the Liberal Party's right to nominate for.

I won the preselection for that and I was appointed by the Queen and Governor. I then had to face the first major election after that, which happened to be a House of Representatives election in 1972, when McMahon lost government. Despite the fact that the Liberal and National parties went out of government, I won the overwhelmingly majority on my own in Queensland.

Griffith: What do you see as the major things you achieved in your period with the Liberal Party?

Bonner: I would say that first and foremost was The Land Rights Act in the Northern Territory. That was a major issue which I played a very prominent part in. I was fortunate because Malcolm Fraser was determined that was going to go through.

Griffith: He's shown historically immense empathy with indigenous issues generally.

Bonner: Oh yes. Then there were others like Fred Chaney, Ian Viner, and a whole group who was there who clubbed together and we discussed it many times as the legislation was being formed and we got it through. Forget Neville Bonner as the person, the major thing was that for the first time in history, an indigenous person had made it into the federal parliament where all laws pertaining to this nation are made. And I had to be able to stand up and debate the issues concerning the nation as a whole, and I think I did reasonably well.

Griffith: Did you attempt to provide an indigenous view on a wide range of issues, or did you stick to a particular program?

Bonner: As far as I'm concerned, whatever issue I went into -- health, welfare, all those issues that I was concerned about -- isolated children's education -- all those things that I became involved with, regardless of what anyone might say, sue they were issues for the nation, but an indigenous point of view was what I had, and I spoke as an indigenous person. I spoke as an ordinary, average Australian, albeit Aborigine.

Griffith: What are you doing now?

Neville Bonner: I'm an official visitor to all prisons in south-east Queensland; I'm on the council of Griffith University; I'm the chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Education Committee at Griffith University; I'm on the board of 'Fusion', which is a Christian organisation nationally; I'm on the advisory committee of Old Parliament House.

I do lots of other things like launching books, and opening art exhibitions, presenting papers at conferences. I did the Christian occasional address at Southern Cross University in Lismore just recently.

Griffith: And you're doing all this in your 70s!

Bonner: I turned 73 last week.

Griffith: That's quite remarkable! So how do feel about reconciliation in general. There is an official program involving the National reconciliation Council, but what you see as the most important aspects for reconciliation. Land rights, of course, is one of them.

Bonner: Reconciliation has to come from the heart. Governments can't legislate for it. You can't force people into being reconciled with each other. I'm a Christian, and I think the first thing we need to do is become reconciled with God. If one is reconciled with God, it makes it much easier for you to become reconciled with other people - reconciled within the family, within the street that you live, within the suburb that you live, within the town that you live, within the state that you live, within the country that you live.

Reconciliation is much more achievable if you first and formost have reconciliation with God almighty. That's how I see reconciliation. But the Reconciliation Council has been travelling all around Australia. I don't know what success they've had and I don't know how you measure that success. You're going to get people from the reconciliation groups saying -- Oh look, we're doing marvellous, but how do you measure that success? This talk about introducing legislation towards reconciliation - I think that's crazy.

You can't legislate for human feelings and human attitudes. You can only achieve change through education. Educating people to learn to understand other people, regardless of what nationality they are, regardless of what colour they are. We too often place so much emphasis on attitudes.

Look, we talk about racial discrimination as if it's the most terrible thing in the country. Look, I'm a racist in this vain. I might like a Scot better than I might like an Irishman. I might like a German better than I like an Italian based on the person, but they happen to be different nationalities. I married a Scot. My wife has Scottish background, and I'm proud of it. So we're all racist in some form or other. The time racism is bad is when you use the person's race to degrade them, to put them down; to deny them justice. When you deny people the right to have a good job, deny them the right to live in a house in a suburb, when you deny them the right to walk into this club and enjoy the club the same as everybody else -- that's when racism is bad.

Griffith: Some people say it's a pity that land rights are being granted because of a High Court decision, and not because of a decision of the people of Australia to show attrition for the past.

Bonner: You've used the highest court in the land, and it made a judgment. Now the same people that say that - if they had a case that they wanted solved about their land or their inheritance or anything else, they'd go to the High Court. They wouldn't care whether they were just one group of people or in tune with the rest of the population within their suburb, within their town, their city or whatever.

Now, it is the highest court in the land and it has rights in the Act to hear cases and make a judgment, and there was only one dissenting voice. You can't get a much clearer decision than that. It wasn't an easy decision. They took a lot of time on that and they worked out that this country was not 'terra nullus'. It was occupied by the indigenous people of this country - Aborigines and Torres Strait islanders in the north. I can show you maps of every tribal group in Australia, and there isn't a square inch of this land that wasn't occupied.

In a sense, this is my country. My country is from the mouth of the Brisbane river to the Woodland range - the whole watershed of the Brisbane river. That's my country. Ok, it's got these buildings on it. You got those roads on it, but within me as an Aborigine, it's still my country. I still have that affinity with this country. This is my country, my grandfather's country, my great grandfather's country, my great, great, great, great grandfather's country.

Griffith: Do you think the way the tribunal's native title decisions are panning out, there's a danger a lot of indigenous people might be very disappointed?

Bonner: I'm sure there's going to be great disappointment because under the Native Title Act, you are able to claim - it doesn't say get. or have -- you are entitled to claim what the authorities say is claimable land. Now, that piece of property up in front of us there's about 20 or 30 acres there. That's not claimable, because it's owned by someone else. Therefore all that nonsense going about that you're going to lose your Hill's hoist is so much nonsense.

Under the Native Title Act and the High Court decision, the only land we can claim is claimable land, and the governments - state and federal -- determine what is claimable land. Now the current Commonwealth Government has set aside an amount of money for people who are unable to claim any land because there's no claimable land for them, or they don't know where their tribal area is, but they've lived in an area for three, four, five, or six generations since 1788. The government says if there's land there that's up for sale, there will be money set aside for it to be purchased for you to satisfy what you've lost out in native title.

Griffith: Isn't that going to be itself a very perilous process? If you've got a pile of money, you've got bureaucrats, both white and indigenous working out who are the most dispossessed or who are the most entitled to the money.

Bonner: The large proportion of money set aside by government is eaten up by administrative costs -- the kind of things that you're talking about. It's not only happening in indigenous affairs. The amount of money that's set aside for health. How much of that is eaten up in administrative costs? How much of it goes to the sick person? If you take social security, how much money is eaten up in the cost of administration of the money set aside for unemployment? There isn't an amount of money set aside for unemployment, and then an amount of money set aside for the administration. From that one hat-full of money that's set aside, an enormous amount of it goes into administrative costs.

The same thing to Aboriginal affairs. I did a job for a former minister for Aboriginal affairs, Clyde Holding, out in the Pinjinjinjara country. There were six communities, and I had to look at what was happening there. And I discovered that about 70 percent of the money allocated to those six communities was eaten up in administrative costs. So what you're saying now about native title, sure. An enormous amount of that money will eaten up in administrative costs. How much money was set aside or used to look at Aboriginal deaths in custody?

I could have told them 20 years ago that Aborigines were dying in prison, but no, they had to spend several million dollars with a commission to prove that there were deaths in custody. Now there's an enormous amount of money set aside supposedly for the prevention of indigenous people dying in custody.

But all of the recommendations that I've seen are geared to the future. There's no money set aside to prevent it from happening tonight, for it happening tomorrow night, or next week, or next month. There;s no preventative measures. There's only one prison in Queensland that's really put in something that has 90 percent or better chance in preventing deaths in custody, that's the Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre.

Griffith: This brings me to another question. What do you think of the proposal for having a separate prison for Aboriginal people? I think it was proposed by the Aboriginal Legal Service.

Bonner: One of the state parties are looking at it; I've got some material on it, but again, I pose the same question. If you're going to have a separate prison for indigenous people, where are you going to put it? Somewhere outside of Brisbane, between here and Toowoomba, or are you going to put it between Rockhampton and Townsville, or are you going to put it up near Cairns? Where are you going to put it? Because if you put it down here, a lot of prisoners come from the isolated areas of north Queensland, they come from Cairns, they come from Townsville, they come from Rockhampton. They'll need to bring them right down here to Brisbane, away from their environment, away from their roots, away from their families and have them down here? Or conversely, you put it up at Mareeba somewhere. Then you take all the people from down here who are incarcerated and take them up there -- - away again from their environment and their families and friends, all the things that are important to them. So how many of these prisons are you going to have? One in south-east Queensland, one in western Queensland, one in central Queensland, one in north Queensland, one in the Torres Straits? So how do you do this?

I believe that the Director-GGeneral of Corrective Services, Mr Keith Hamburger, has an idea that I believe should be given more prominence and something done about it. His idea is that, in those isolated areas, where all these communities are -- Aurukun, Mornington Island, Doomadgee, Yarrabah, and all those places. Instead of putting those young fellas from misdemeanours and stealing down to a prison in Townsville, you have a small prison to cater for anything up to 15 to 20 people in their communities. The police then have them working outside the prison where their brothers and their sisters and their uncles and their aunts and their grandparents can see them, and they've got a shirt on that says I am a thief, or I am a whatever. Let them wear the shame in their own community. They won't do it again. On the other hand, you bring them down to Townsville to Stuart Creek and they go back heroes amongst the young people. "Oh, I've been in that big place, I know what it is. Don't tell me!"

Griffith: Would the local communities accept a white system of justice?

Bonner: If you have those prisons up there, they will administer in a sense their kind of justice. Those young blokes will know that they are in prison there where everybody can see them and when they come out that they'll be given a bad time. They're not likely to go back in again. They're not likely to do it again. That's the nearest I can give to the type of thing that you're talking about.

Griffith: And of course there's a similar concept or proposal for an Aboriginal University - Professor Errol West's proposal in Townsville.

Bonner: I have some doubts about separate schools. I do have some doubts about it, because that may work well for people who live on isolated communities and are still feeling well steeped in their culture and their traditions and things like that, but for suburban Aboriginal people, when they come out of school they've got to compete with you. So if they can't compete with you in the school, how in the devil are they going to compete with you when they come out. They've got to go through the education system where they're told by teachers what to do, when to do, why to do, and that type of thing, and they have to then look at you and say: "That bloke's got his head down, he's going to go somewhere. Well, I'm going to do the same. I'm going to get down and work hard too." You take the competition out of it, and when they come out, where's the incentive to want to compete for those good jobs, good positions? They're the things that worry me about separate schools in suburbia.

Griffith: Let's just briefly mention the two up-coming elections -- this year's state election and the federal election next year. Do you think it's important that all the various indigenous organisations very carefully try to lobby both sides of politics?

Bonner: You need to lobby all sides of politics. You see, particularly with the major parties. The Democrats ane never going to be the government, nor are the Greens - not in our lifetime anyway. So you've got three major parties -- the Labor Party, the Liberal Party, and the National Party. Most of the lobbying has been done with the Labor Party, but they forget that the coalition's going to get into government sometime. You don't alienate yourself against either of the major parties that will make government. You try to work with, and lobby both sides.

Griffith: How do you feel about the indigenous alliance with the Greens?

Bonner: The smaller groups want an alliance so they can swap votes, swap preferences. There's a good chance that Aboriginal preferences could put a Green in. There's not much chance that the Greens are going to put an Aborigine in.

Griffith: So you think it's a little one sided.

Bonner: I think it's one sided. The Democrats have been flirting with the Aboriginal people, but they're not interested in giving an Aboriginal person a winnable position. When the state person comes up for election, he's not going to step down and let an Aborigine get in. They had a golden opportunity when Macklin resigned. They could have put an Aborigine up and an Aborigine would have got that. They didn't. They put a another white person up.

Griffith: So would you take them seriously if they put an Aboriginal person up?

Bonner: I would then, if they put an Aborigine up, as the Liberal Party did with me. I didn't have to run for an unwinnable seat. In the first instance, I did it deliberately, and I knew what I was doing. I could not have won that third seat in 1970, but I knew that once I made myself known to the people of Queensland, consolidated myself within the party, that I would get another go. And I did. Now, the was 150 people at the preselection in 1971, there were seven candidates, and I got 98 votes.

Griffith: You must have done a lot of lobbying to ..

Bonner: I didn't do any lobbying. I just worked. I worked within the party. I attended conferences, I visited branches just to be there and talk and discuss issues. I worked with the Young Liberals for years before and after I got into parliament. I was made an honorary life member of the Young Liberal Movement.

Griffith: So your association goes right back to your youth.

Bonner: Oh, not that far back, no. In 1983 when I ran as an independent against endorsed candidates, I was expelled from the party. I offered to hand back my young Liberal honorary membership badge, and they said no. They said "No. You are an honorary young Liberal for the rest of your life. We don't care what the senior party says. We're the Young Liberals."

Griffith: That's an interesting conundrum, You're expelled from the party, but a life member of its junior organisation.

Bonner: That's right. And I'm an honorary member of the Young Liberals. They still ask me to go to their branches and talk about issues.

Griffith: What about at state level, there's been quite a different feel about it. A lot of indigenous organisations are disappointed with the Goss Government.

Bonner: When Goss started his legal career as a member of the Aboriginal Legal Service, and they thought that once he got to parliament, he would be much more sympathetic, or more amenable to issues that Aboriginal people pursue.

Griffith: Well there's certainly been the resignations of Marcia Langton, Les Malezer, and Noel Pearson from the state government, and Mr Goss has been very strident in voicing his concerns about the federal government's native title legislation.

Bonner: Oh Yes!