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We must all act to build on the legacy of Senator Neville Bonner

By Aden Ridgeway - posted Tuesday, 7 October 2003

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 and tradition.

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 this treatment.


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.

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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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About the Author

Senator Aden Ridgeway is the Australian Democrats' Spokesperson on Indigenous Affairs and a Senator for New South Wales.

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