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Video clip synopsis – Neville Bonner grew up on the banks of the Richmond River and started his working life as a ringbarker, canecutter and stockman. He spent 16 years on the repressive Palm Island Aboriginal Reserve where he learned many of the skills that would help him later as a politician.
Year of production - 1991
Duration - 1min 15sec
Tags - Australian History, children, civics and citizenship, discrimination, exploitation, family life, human rights, identity, Indigenous Australia, inequality, racism, self-determination, social justice, stereotypes, White Australia Policy, see all tags


Neville Bonner - Beginnings

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About the Video Clip


Neville Bonner – Beginnings is an excerpt from the program Neville Bonner (26 mins), an episode of Australian Biography Series 1 (7×26 mins), produced in 1991.

Neville Bonner:Born in northern NSW in 1922, Neville Bonner started his working life as a ringbarker, canecutter and stockman. He was the first Aboriginal person in Federal Parliament, representing Queensland as a Liberal Party Senator from 1971 to 1983.

Australian Biography Series 1: The Australian Biography series profiles some of the most extraordinary Australians of our time. Many have had a major impact on the nation’s cultural, political and social life. All are remarkable and inspiring people who have reached a stage in their lives where they can look back and reflect. Through revealing in-depth interviews, they share their stories – of beginnings and challenges, landmarks and turning points. In so doing, they provide us with an invaluable archival record and a unique perspective on the roads we, as a country, have travelled.

Australian Biography Series 1 is a Film Australia National Interest Program.

Background Information


Neville Bonner’s mother was an Aboriginal, and he never knew his father, an Englishman who went back to England before Bonner was born. “I was born on Ukerebagh Island, in the mouth of the Tweed River because there was nowhere else for my mother to go. In those days… Aboriginal people had to be out of the towns before sunset.” Prevented from attending the town’s hospital until sunrise the following day, his mother gave birth in a gunya* under a palm tree.
When Bonner was about five, the family left the island to live with his grandparents in a camp on the banks of the Richmond River. When his mother died, he and his brother lived with their grandparents.

It wasn’t until the family moved to the Brisbane area that he went to a state school, in Beaudesert between the ages of 14 and 15. “I actually reached third grade in that short period of time and that’s the only formal education I’ve had.”

When his grandmother died he packed his swag and set off to find work. He married in 1943, and in 1946 took his family to Palm Island, off the Queensland coast. Palm Island was established as a mission for Indigenous people in 1918 to replace the Hull River Mission, which had been destroyed by a cyclone. Over the next two decades, 1,630 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from all over Australia were sent there. Missions such as Palm Island existed across Australia and were an important part of government policy towards Indigenous people at the time.

Glossary: “gunya” is a dwelling

Classroom Activities

  1. After viewing the video about Neville Bonner – Beginnings, discuss in class then write answers to the following:
    1. Describe what happened to Neville Bonner’s mother when she was young. Ask whether she could have been cured or whether it is fair to suggest that her condition later in life was due to neglect of Aboriginal people in general.
    2. Describe and comment on the conditions in which Neville Bonner and his family lived when he was very young, during the 1920s and into the 1930s.
    3. Offer reasons for why Neville’s family lived in such a pitiable state, as described in the video.
  2. Imagine you are a journalist from a capital city, visiting a rural district in your state or territory, and witnessing scenes similar to what Neville describes in the video. Write a report or an editorial for your newspaper about your observations. Use a headline and, if you include one or more photographs, use captions. Desktop publish your report to make it look like a published newspaper item. Remember that in this activity you are likely to be drawing on specific observations to offer generalised opinions, assumptions and arguments.
  3. In pairs research the life of Neville Bonner then create a poster display of his achievements and of the obstacles he overcame.
  4. Are Indigenous Australians today living in rural conditions the same as those described in the video, or have there been changes over the decades? Should Australians generally be satisfied that Indigenous people in rural districts have adequate and suitable housing accommodation? In groups research these questions and present a written report, with suggestions and recommendations if necessary, in 400–500 words. You may wish to confine your report to your own state or territory.

Further Resources


Bruce Beresford (dir), The Fringe-Dwellers, 1986
Angela Burger, Neville Bonner: A Biography, Macmillan, South Melbourne, 1979
Go to Australian Biography Online Neville Bonner
Go to Neville Bonner obituary
Go to Neville Bonner tribute
Go to Reconciliation Australia