Important People in the Political Struggle for Aboriginal Rights
1906 - 1968
William (Bill) Onus
by Ian Howie-Willis
This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000
William Townsend (Bill) Onus (1906-1968), Aboriginal political activist and entrepreneur, was born on 15 November 1906 at Cumeroogunga (Cummeragunja) Aboriginal reserve on the banks of the Murray River, New South Wales, eldest child of William Townsend Onus, drover, and his wife Maud Mary, née Nelson, both of the Wiradjuri people. Bill attended Thomas James's school at Cumeroogunga until he was 10 and had two further years schooling at Echuca before the family went droving in the Riverina, travelling in a covered wagon. He left home at 16 to go shearing, a trade he followed for the next seven years. At St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, West Wyalong, on 12 May 1928 he married Bella Elizabeth Patten; they were to be divorced in 1941. In 1929 Onus moved to Sydney. He first worked as a rigger at the Bankstown aerodrome. As jobs diminished during the Depression, he prospected around Bega, then returned to Sydney and drove delivery trucks. A member of the Australian Workers' Union since his droving days, he came under the influence of Michael Olaf Sawtell, a radical unionist who coached him in public speaking. In 1939 Onus joined the Aborigines Progressive Association, formed in 1937 by William Ferguson and John Patten. Ferguson regarded him as the type of activist the movement needed to achieve citizenship rights for Aborigines and improve living conditions on the reserves. Onus soon became the association's secretary.
From 1941 he worked full time for the association. In the early 1940s he emerged as a principal member of the Committee for Aboriginal Citizen Rights, a body campaigning to reform the Aborigines Welfare Board of New South Wales. The restructuring of the board in 1943 to introduce Aboriginal representation, and Ferguson's election to it in 1944 against official opposition, reflected Onus's skills as an organizer and tactician. He used his trade-union and political contacts to advantage, lobbying politicians and the press to support A.P.A. causes. During this period Onus also worked to foster a sense of community among the disparate Aboriginal families who had migrated to Redfern from rural districts. He organized a weekly dance and used the profits to cover the legal expenses of Aborigines brought before the local courts.
About 1946 Onus moved to Melbourne, where he was employed as a shipping clerk. On 10 June 1947 he married Mary McLintock Kelly at the office of the government statist, Queen Street. Their only child William McLintock Onus later established a reputation as the artist Lin Onus. Among the former Cumeroogunga residents who had settled in Melbourne was pastor (Sir) Douglas Nicholls, with whom Onus and his brother Eric revived the Australian Aborigines League. Both Onus and Nicholls were forceful orators. From the mid-1940s they appeared as guest speakers at public rallies, meetings of community groups and on radio. They used such forums to promote the cause of Aboriginal citizenship rights and civil liberties. With other prominent Aborigines, they formed a nucleus around which the Aborigines Advancement League (Victoria) was to form in 1957.
By the early 1950s Onus was disillusioned with politics. A campaign he and Nicholls had waged in the late 1940s had failed to dissuade the Federal government from constructing the Woomera rocket-testing range on land in South Australia which they regarded as Aboriginal. In 1949 Onus organized and accompanied a twenty-member deputation of Aborigines from New South Wales and Victoria to visit H. V. Johnson, the minister for the interior: the delegation requested a number of civil rights, but gained few significant concessions. Later that year Onus enthusiastically supported Ferguson's unsuccessful campaign as an Independent Aboriginal candidate for the House of Representatives seat of Lawson.
After these disappointments Onus gave up politics (for about fifteen years) to concentrate on his emerging business interests. In 1952 he established Aboriginal Enterprise Novelties to produce boomerangs, woomeras, fabrics and greeting cards imprinted with Aboriginal motifs. He ran it from his small factory and shop at Belgrave in the Dandenong Ranges. To promote his wares he toured widely in Victoria and beyond as a travelling showman, giving demonstrations of boomerang-throwing, which he advocated as a national sport. By the late 1950s he was better known as a boomerang-thrower than he had been as a political activist. He made an occasional public comment, as in 1956 when he attacked (Sir) Paul Hasluck, minister for territories, over the wages paid to Aborigines in the Northern Territory, pointing out that they received only one-eighth of the basic wage.
Onus had appeared in minor Aboriginal roles in several Australian films—Uncivilised (1936), Lovers and Luggers (1937) and The Overlanders (1946). In 1962 he compered the Australian Broadcasting Commission's Alcheringa series, twelve short documentary films about traditional Aboriginal life. He also appeared, with Nicholls, in Forgotten People (1967), a film which documented Aboriginal living conditions in the Goulburn and Murray valleys.
In 1967 Bill Onus became the first Aboriginal president of the Aborigines Advancement League (Victoria) and its representative on the Victorian Aborigines Welfare Board. He served as Victorian director of the Aboriginal referendum movement, playing a leading role in the campaign for a 'Yes' vote at the 1967 referendum. Following a coronary occlusion, he died on 10 January 1968 at Deepdene and was cremated; his wife and son survived him, as did a daughter of his first marriage.