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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 - aborigines, Australian History, children, civics and citizenship, colonialism, discrimination, exploitation, family life, human rights, identity, Indigenous Australia, inequality, racism, remote areas, 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.

Curriculum Focus


Students will:

  • discuss and reflect upon the historical importance and influence of the Australian Parliament’s first Aboriginal politician, Neville Bonner, and how this relates to the lives of indigenous Australians in a wider historical context.
  • work collaboratively to research, interpret and adapt relevant information to a particular media form of history presentation, and to construct defined opinion, arguement and viewpoint.
  • initiate and carry out a specialised research project, and to formulate written arguements arising from an examination of historical detail and evidence.
  • use research tools to locate and select, analyse and interpret relevant archival records, formatting and aiming project material at a defined, specific audience, using computer tools and technology.

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.
  2. In pairs research the biography of Neville Bonner then create a poster display of his achievements and of the obstacles he overcame. Include a commentary of 100–150 words in which you define his historical importance and legacy to all Australians.
  3. During the video, Neville refers to growing up near Lismore, NSW. In pairs or small groups, research and write an account of the history of the Aboriginal communities of the Lismore district. When and why, for example, was the town of Lismore established by non-Aboriginals, and what effect did this have on the indigenous populace? Did they become “fringe dwellers”, and if so, why?
  4. Following from the previous activity, research and examine (using resources such as library archives and the internet) the newspapers of the Lismore district for the ways in which they reported news of, and referred to, the local indigenous people, especially during the years Neville Bonner lived there. Compare to today’s news items from the same or similar newspapers. Write a detailed commentary and analysis. You may wish to present this as a magazine two-page spread aimed at young readers, formatted via desktop publishing software. (Alternatively, carry out this activity in reference to your own local region.)

Further Resources


Bruce Beresford (dir), The Fringe-Dwellers, 1986
Angela Burger, Neville Bonner: A Biography, Macmillan, South Melbourne, 1979
Jilpia Nappaljari Jones, Trevor Buzzacott, Gordon Briscoe, Reg Murray and Rose Murray, Beyond Sandy Blight: Five Aboriginal Experiences as Staff on the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program,
Go to Australian Biography Online Neville Bonner
Go to Neville Bonner obituary
Go to Neville Bonner tribute
Go to Reconciliation Australia
Go to Two book reviews
Go to Lismore newspapers