Celebrating the contribution of the late Neville Bonner

Neville Bonner, presiding over the Senate, Old Parliament House, 1975, Courtesy of the Museum of Australian Democracy, Canberra.
Neville Bonner, presiding over the Senate, Old Parliament House, 1975, Courtesy of the Museum of Australian Democracy, Canberra.

It's apt in National Reconciliation Week, a significant milestone is flagged for groundbreaking politician, Neville Bonner.

June 11 will mark 50 years since Bonner became the first Indigenous Australian to enter the federal parliament. He represented the Liberal Party and Queensland in the Senate from 1971 to 1983.

The Parliament House Art Collection is marking the anniversary with an exhibition honouring Bonner, who died in 1999 aged 76.

The exhibition is in a public area of Parliament House, on level one, and open until July 11, to also incorporate NAIDOC Week from July 4-11.

Wesley Barton WALTERS (19282014), Neville Thomas Bonner AO, 1979
, oil on canvas. Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection

Wesley Barton WALTERS (19282014), Neville Thomas Bonner AO, 1979 , oil on canvas. Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection

Curated by Rebecca Richards and Lachlan Murray, the exhibition has at its centrepiece a portrait of Bonner by Wesley Walters, capturing the now established politician in 1979, in all his hirsute glory.

His '70s style is also on show, including a a very prominent ring. (Another portrait in the Parliament House collection, of Linda Burney, the first Aboriginal woman elected to the House of Representatives, has a homage to the Bonner portrait. Burney said she made sure she wore a ring while sitting for her portrait as a nod to Bonner. Artist Jude Rae then painted the Aboriginal flag on to the ring).

Bonner, meanwhile, was a highly respected parliamentary figure, known for his principled approach to politics in campaigning on Indigenous issues and the environment.

He described himself as having "an all-consuming burning desire to help my own people". He would later emphasise he tried in his political career "to serve all people".

In 1979, Bonner was named joint Australian of the Year, with naturalist Harry Butler, in recognition of his advocacy of Indigenous rights.

Among the items in the exhibition are historical photos of Bonner and items from the One People of Australia League, an organisation he presided over from 1968 to 1974.

There is also in the exhibition, a boomerang made by Bonner, from the roots of a black wattle tree, on loan from the Museum of Australian Democracy.

Before politics, Bonner had a company which manufactured boomerangs and he called it - what else but? - Bonnerang.

The exhibition also includes a photograph of Bonner at the 1998 constitutional convention at Old Parliament House, when he defended the status quo of a constitutional monarchy and doubted a change to a republic would do anything to help the "problems of my people".

In that speech, just a year before he died, Bonner spoke passionately, gaining a standing ovation from the other delegates: "From the bottom of my heart, I pray you, stop this senseless division. Let us work together on the real issues. Let us solve those problems which haunt my people. The problem of land, of health, unemployment, of the despair and hopelessness which leads even to suicide.

"Let us unite this country, not divide it. Ever."

And the suburb of Bonner is, of course, named after the inspirational politician.

In conjunction with the Bonner display, Parliament House Visitor Services run free daily Yeribee: Indigenous experiences tours.

Parliament House visitors can hear the stories of Indigenous parliamentarians and staff, explore the site history of Parliament House, and gain insights into how Australia's First Peoples are participating in the nation's democratic processes.

The Yeribee tour is 50 minutes. Bookings are essential by calling Visitor Services on 6277 5399 or booking online.

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This story Celebrating the contribution of the late Neville Bonner first appeared on The Canberra Times.