Faith Bandler is well known for her active role in publicising the YES case for the Aboriginal question in the 1967 Referendum.
She was born in northern New South Wales in 1919, one of eight children. Her father, Peter Mussing, had been kidnapped from Ambryn, an island in what was known as the New Hebrides, and brought to Australia, enslaved, to work on sugar plantations.
Awareness of her father's past experience exerted a strong influence on Bandler in her later political activism, as did her own experience of racial exclusion when she was growing up.
In an interview in 1996 Faith reflected on the effect of her early experiences of race:
I grew up with a family that had tremendous freedom. There were eight of us. We lived on about two or three acres — we lived out in the garden. It was all about doing your own thing. And one member of the family wouldn't have a clue of what the other member would be doing. We all went our own way. We all had the right to vote. We, with a few other Islanders, were the only Blacks around the town. My mother was a person — you know the local businessmen used to dock their hats to her. So you know that was the environment I grew up in! And during the war I joined the Land Army and I was picking cherries at Young for a nice boss — there were three of us there doing that. And then there was a fence and there was another farm. And in the morning a truckload of people would come from Cowra. Now we would be paid whatever the wage was — I've just forgotten. It was minimal because we were in the Army. But everyone who got out of that truck was Black. And, I sort of thought, 'Well — you know — this is rather nice' — and talk over the fence to them and so forth. And so I said, 'What sort of pay do you get?' — you know. 'Oh, we're paid by the basket' 'How much a basket?' 'Shilling'. Now the white piece workers who were there — I can't remember what they were paid but it wasn't a shilling a clothes basket. And I began to think about these things — you know. So I suppose that had an awful lot to do with becoming a committed person. And you know I knew Pearl [Gibbs] very well and she belted me along. She never gave me a day's peace when she was in Sydney. And I thought, 'Well this can't be for nothing.' You know, 'this woman knows what she's doing — it can't be for nothing.'
Faith met Lady Jessie Street through her involvement in the peace movement in the late 1940s. Jessie Street would later call on Faith to campaign for greater Commonwealth responsibility for Aboriginal Australians.
Another key meeting with Aboriginal activist Pearl Gibbs in the early 1950s led to Faith Bandler's involvement in establishing, with Pearl and others, a new organisation to work for Aboriginal rights, the Sydney-based Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship.
Well I suppose I would never've got involved had it not been for Pearl Gibbs. I'm sure of that. You know the wonderful thing about Pearl, was that she was not only a terrific fighter — game as they come. She once said to me, 'The Libs are having their conference — state conference — and I think we should bust the meeting'. So I said, 'Who?' She said, 'You and me'. (laughs) I said, 'Oh Pearl.' She said, 'Oh yes!' Anyhow it opened with a rather big splash at David Jones [department store], you know, you can imagine it can't you. And Pearl says, 'Come on!' Anyhow I remember — it's a little vague and I don't want to tell you anything that is not accurate except to say I recall Pearl going up to the Premier who was Askin at the time and he said to her, 'Look you've got my sympathy'. And Pearl shouting — 'We don't want your sympathy! We want our rights!' (chuckles) It was a wonderful experience. And I can always recall — you know at the time I thought, I could never do what this woman does. Never. Great woman. An amazing woman. She influenced my life considerably. There were other women as well but you see she not only had that courage. She understood what the rights for women was about. And she came one morning and had breakfast with us. This was after Hans and I were married and we were living at North Sydney. And she liked us living at North Sydney because it was only ten minutes or so from Redfern! Anyhow she came one morning and it was voting day — it was a Saturday. And I said, 'Oh gosh I wish I didn't have to go and vote today'. And she ripped me to pieces! And she said, 'Women went to gaol for that right!' She was wonderful really — she really was.
The Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship began in 1956 and was Bandler's political base for the next 13 years.
She worked closely with Jack and Jean Horner, Emil and Hannah Witton, Ken Brindle, John Baker and Dulcie Flower both in the Fellowship and when Sydney became the executive headquarters of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) in 1967.
Bandler's recollections of Ken Brindle give a sense of the strength of the relationships she formed.
Ken Brindle became a member of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship rather early in the piece. And it was he who got us to go into — oh no we were going into Redfern to hold monthly dances to raise money but to also give the locals a dance that they could go to with some protection from the cops. Ken Brindle came to one of our monthly meetings and he said — you know kind of, ‘What are you lot doing over there on our property? ‘Because we weren’t aware that he was running dances too for his football club. And it — so you know he had a big piece of us. And he says, ‘That’s our — that’s our area! You know, you want to stay out there! ‘And in the end he said, ‘Why don’t we do it together’. Ah, he was beautiful! And so Ken and — we did that work together over there in Redfern. And every time the cops raided Ken’s house — bashed the door down or something — even if it was two or three in the morning — they’d ring Jack and Jean Horner. And Jack and Jean would go and bail Ken out. And they were having their house — they lived up here then — their house and gardens (chuckling) guarantor or their car or something! And, then Ken of course had a big blow in with the cops — cops got stuck into him and if I knew Ken he got stuck into them too. But we were in courts for weeks and weeks because the Council for Civil Liberties decided they’d challenge it. And that was the type of person Ken was — you know. He fronted up as a splendid witness. And we’d packed the courtroom. And we’d packed the courtroom with all the middle class white women, who were doing charitable work — you know — for Aborigines. And it was at the time when they wore spiked heels and high hats and white gloves. And here were all of these middle class women in court for this Black from Redfern if you please! And it was at a time when that kind of thing was absolutely unheard of — unheard of. But then you know — I mean he never gave you a minute’s peace. Like the phone would ring at seven in the morning and he says, ‘What the bloody hell are you doing? I bet you’re still in bed there’. Or something like that. ‘Well that’s all very well but you know the coppers were around here last night. Now they’ve chucked so-and-so and so-and-so in the clink! ‘Well I mean! He was marvellous he was. And then of course came the time when we got him involved in FCAATSI. He wasn’t awfully keen on FCAATSI. Ken wasn’t interested. He said — I recall one occasion I said to him, ‘Look Ken if you’re doing nothing on such and such a day come with me to court’, because the case for equal wages for Black stockmen was opening before the full bench of the arbitration court in Sydney. And it happened to be on Aboriginal National Day which was a Friday — or whenever it was — I don’t know. And he said, ‘What are you going to court for?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s the opening for the hearing for the equal wages for Black stockmen’. ‘Listen, your job — you live down here! And this is your job. Get your mind out of those Blacks in the North! (chuckles) You know — we got coppers to front up to here! People haven’t got houses! What are you worrying about that lot up there for!’ (laughs). And he said, ‘You know when you came with that stuff about the referendum I got a bit nervy’. He said, ‘I didn’t want to hear about referendums. What about a decent house for a man to live in!’ (laughs) So one day I said, ‘You know Ken you ought to get your mob down to the conference. It’s coming up soon’. An Easter conference. And he said, ‘Yeah I think so too. Can we have a dance — get a bit of juice for the old bus?’ So I said, ‘Oh yeah that’s okay’ — put a dance on for petrol. And that — would you believe — that bus was painted black and white. (laughs) And the wonderful thing about FCAATSI was that it was so void of racism. You know the Blacks worked with the Whites and the Whites worked with the Blacks. It was marvellous. And we got results so what did it matter! Anyhow, he got this bus and he took it down the south coast — and he packed it. And he took this mob over to Canberra. Well you know — he just arrived.
In 1963 Faith Bandler became the New South Wales state secretary of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement representing the interests of Aboriginal people from New South Wales.
In 1967, after the federal government had agreed to hold a referendum on the Aboriginal question, Bandler was appointed New South Wales campaign director, a position she fulfilled with energy, skill and enthusiasm.
She argued that a YES vote was a vote for equal rights for Aboriginal citizens. Bandler wanted to see Aboriginal Australians accepted as equals, and as 'one people' with white Australians.
While this was a strong argument in gaining support for the referendum in 1967, it was less popular after this landmark vote when Indigenous Australians strove to assert their right to cultural difference.
The next year Torres Strait Islanders were recognised as a separate group when the organisation became the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI). Faith had this to say about the contribution of Torres Strait Islanders to FCAATSI:
Well the Torres Strait Islanders were having a very tough time. And they had to work for three months in some cases before they even got paid — had to prove themselves as good pearl divers or whatever — if you please, you know, before they got any pay at all. And, well theirs was a very deprived society — extremely so — and it was only because FCAATSI battled to get them to the conference that we became aware of what their conditions were like up there. It was not very good at all and there were serious health problems and I do believe that those two delegates — or it may've been one delegate I'm not sure — who came down and was in the deputation to the Prime Minister Menzies that threw tremendous emphasis on the problems — as far as we were concerned. And I think also that that delegate who sat there and talked to Prime Minister Menzies influenced Menzies considerably. You know, when one sat in an office in Sydney it was hard to know what was being cooked up in the other states.
From 1970, Faith Bandler was the General Secretary of FCAATSI. She opposed the proposals at the 1970 conference that Aboriginal and Islander Australians alone should vote and hold office, maintaining, until her resignation in 1973, that the battle was against racism and that this could best be fought in a racial coalition.
Faith 'retired' from active political life in 1973 to research and write about her father's experiences and about her brother's life growing up in Australia. She also wrote a personal history of FCAATSI, called Turning the Tide, which provides a lively and readable account of her association with the Federal Council.
Over the years Faith has continued to remind Australians of the significance of the 1967 Referendum achievement, both for Indigenous Australians and for the nation as a whole. For her, the Referendum campaign was a high point.
I used to get very emotional about it because it possessed me. I became totally obsessed with that campaign. There were times when I would take as many as three meetings in a day. And I did things that I would never have dreamed of doing: like going into a pulpit, talking to church congregations, and putting up with people whose ideas were totally foreign to me. And all I wanted was their vote (chuckles). Of course it came about because, you could say the referendum was the result of good team work. And I cannot pay a higher tribute, as high a tribute to anyone as I do to Shirley Andrews and Barry Christophers. But Shirley in particular as far as the referendum was concerned. She worked with Hans to get those petitions presented in the House every day. And I remember talking to Menzies and he said, 'Your petition's become like the prayer of the House now. It's first up everyday'. And he said, 'I made history. It was the first time in history a Prime Minister's ever presented a petition. He said, don't know whether I did the right thing or not but I had no choice!' (laughs).
Source: The extracts on this page are from an interview with Faith Bandler conducted by Sue Taffe and Leanne Miller on 7 November 1996
Faith Bandler, Turning the Tide: A Personal History of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1989.
Marilyn Lake, Faith: Faith Bandler, Gentle Activist, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2002.
Explore more on People