Monday, 8 September marked the 22nd anniversary of the maiden speech of the first Indigenous Australian to take a seat in Federal Parliament. The late Senator
Neville Bonner of the Jagera people of south-east Queensland was a distinguished Liberal senator from that state and it is fitting at this time to acknowledge his contributions to the parliament.
The similarities between the issues he raised in 1971 and the issues which concern us in 2003 are striking.
Neville Bonner came to the old Parliament House as a Liberal Senator for Queensland without the benefit of a university education or a high school education and with
only a brief stint at primary school. At that time the education system was officially segregated and there were no schools for Aboriginal children where he lived in
Northern NSW. When the family moved to southern Queensland his grandmother was able to convince the local authorities to allow him to attend a school with non-Indigenous
children. By the time he attended primary school he was 14 years of age. He went to school for a year.
That was the end of his formal education - yet he went on to become extensively involved in administration, business, Aboriginal politics and mainstream politics
- eventually filling a Senate vacancy for the Liberal Party in 1971.
In his first speech, Neville Bonner broached the subject of skin colour as an indicator of Aboriginality - a debate that was still firmly entrenched in the
eugenic racism underpinning the stolen generations - and one which, unfortunately, has not advanced greatly in the past 32 years. He said:
In my experienced opinion, all persons who desire to be so classified, regardless of hue of skin, and who have flowing in their veins any portion, however small,
of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island blood, are Indigenous people ... It does
not necessarily follow that the degree of one's emotional scars matches the darkness
of personal pigmentation or that the lightness of one's skin necessarily indicates
a lessening of knowledge of and belief in Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island culture
Some are shocked by the intensity of the then Senator's passion for his people
- as history has generally cast him as a conservative with little political conviction
or teeth. Yet despite being a fundamentally conservative man and a well-known
monarchist, the then Senator Neville Bonner crossed the floor several times to
vote with the Labor opposition on Aboriginal issues.
Bonner's time in the Senate highlighted the unique difficulties facing Indigenous
people when they need to choose between their political parties and the priorities
of their people. His ability to stay true to his personal and cultural views as
an Indigenous person, while also being a representative of a mainstream political
party, makes him something of a role model for me. These are very different times
and, thankfully, I do not represent the Liberal Party but the Australian Democrats
- a party with a honest and open record in Indigenous Affairs.
In his speech, Neville Bonner also spoke at length about the issue of communal
moral rights and the importance of economic development for Indigenous people
- still ongoing issues. He searched for somewhere in the copyright or patents
acts that would allow the design of the boomerang to be registered and /or protected
- of course that space does not exist - even to this day. As a former maker of
boomerangs, Mr Bonner felt both culturally and economically offended by the cheap
overseas boomerangs that flooded the Australian tourist market - again a too familiar
story today - but with a wider range of art and cultural objects now subject to
The then Senator said in his first speech:
I have made inquiries about the possibilities of a patent over the boomerang
and have been advised that, as it is by no means a recent scientific invention,
it would not be possible for anyone to take out a patent for it.
Likewise, I understand, the law of copyright would apply only to individual
design on an artefact. I have been told that the word "boomerang" cannot
even be registered as a trade mark as the term is probably too deeply entrenched
in the English language to be legally registered now as distinguishing the goods
of particular manufacturers or traders. If some solution to this problem can be
found it may one small way of fostering an Aboriginal enterprise which I know
surely has considerable potential.
This article is based on a tribute to Senator Neville Bonner
on the 22nd anniversary of his maiden speech to Parliament.
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