LEAD STORY
Volume 1 Number 5
'We Could Lead World in Race Relations'
01 January 1988

In 1975 the Senate created a landmark in the history of Australian race relations when it passed without dissent a motion stating that before 1788, Australia's indigenous peoples possessed the whole country. It urged `the Australian Government to... introduce legislation to compensate (these) people...
In 1975 the Senate created a landmark in the history of Australian race relations when it passed without dissent a motion stating that before 1788, Australia's indigenous peoples possessed the whole country. It urged `the Australian Government to... introduce legislation to compensate (these) people... for dispossession of their land.'

Though the motion was `buried' in the House of Representatives, its significance lies in the fact that it was proposed by Neville Bonner, then Senator, the first and only national MP of the indigenous race; and that it helped to set the record straight in the highest forum in the land.

Born on a river bank, raised in a fringe camp, Neville Bonner is fiercely proud of his Jagara tribal background. With only one year of formal education, he has become the elder statesman of his people across Australia.

I met him in his office at the Australian Broadcasting Commission where he is now a Director. `In 1788 we entered a period of darkness - no pun intended,' he said with a characteristic twinkle in his eyes. `In 1967 (when by referendum the Aboriginal people were granted full citizenship rights) we came out into the light. We were recognized as a people. Because of the overwhelming support for the referendum, a number of positive steps were taken in relation to health, housing and employment. Legislation was passed to return large amounts of the Northern Territory. We felt then that the land rights movement would get off the ground. But the Government is not giving the Aboriginal people anything - all they are doing is returning something that was taken from them.'

Although he sees a hardening of attitudes since the goodwill of the Seventies, Neville Bonner is hopeful: `We could be a world leader in race relations.' This can only happen, he cautions, if positive steps are taken on both sides to improve the indigenous people's situation. `We are still the most underprivileged group in the community.'

`Our young Aboriginal firebrands should be educating the general Australian community as fellow Australian citizens, rather than tilting at windmills. We need to bring about a reconciliation by our acts rather than destroying the chance for that to happen. I have always believed that you can catch a lot more flies with honey than with vinegar.'

Neville Bonner is deeply involved with overseas aid programmes. `Our problems fade into insignificance compared to some of the problems I have seen in Third World countries,' he says. `Because I come from a caring, sharing culture I feel I need to assist my fellow human beings. God expects me to pay my rent!'

Ron Lawler


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