Senator Neville Bonner AO

by seangljacobs

Some leadership lessons from Australia’s first Aboriginal Parliamentarian

The late Senator Neville Bonner (1922-99) was Australia’s first federal Aboriginal Parliamentarian, serving in Australia’s federal Senate from 1971 to 1983.

I decided to dust-off Bonner’s story in a recent issue of Policy Magazine, published by Australia’s Centre for Independent Studies, because to me his life and political success is a classic conservative example of rallying around principle over complexion. What’s often brushed aside in the few reflections of Bonner is that he was a member of Australia’s Liberal Party – Australia’s equivalent of the U.S. Republican Party or the British Tories.

I extracted three key lessons from his life that I feel appeals to the next generation of leaders, regardless of skin colour or social background.

First, Bonner’s life is littered with countless challenges requiring resilience, courage, grit, determination, and repudiations of pity or difference. ‘I have graduated from the university of hard knocks,’ he told parliament in his Maiden Speech in 1971. ‘My teacher was experience.’ Having worked his way up from extremely tough beginnings, Bonner showcased relentless drive and self-education to make the early tactical plays to reach his federal Senate position. Bonner said he achieved ‘not by being abusive, not by being discourteous to those in authority, but playing the authorities at their own game, and beating them.’

Second, Bonner’s early life emphasises being in the arena rather than a passive bystander. This should be an inspiration for the self-imposed handicaps some young Australians place on themselves. In some youth minority circles, for example, it’s still common to hear that finishing high school or pursuing certain professions is ‘not for us’ – a view based entirely upon complexion rather than any real examination of individual capability or passion.

Lastly, Bonner’s story has cultural application to the region’s next generation of leaders. While culture is important, Bonner noted, it should not be a prison that binds and constrains. He routinely advocated for Aboriginal identity to be sensibly balanced with ‘integration into the broader Australian community.’ While modernity and tradition are not always at odds, it’s obvious that many young people in the Indo-Pacific find themselves increasingly trying to weigh these dynamics, especially when seeking out higher living standards and greater professional responsibilities.