Australian Biography

Faith Bandler - full interview transcript

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So Faith, you travelled to Eastern Europe with this cultural delegation without really the permission or approval of the government at a time when travelling to Eastern Europe was really frowned upon by the Australian Government. Were there any consequences for you of that?

The consequences of doing what I should not have done, gone to Eastern Europe, were I think quite serious. Those days, one got a passport and in that passport there were listed 10 countries for which it would not be valid and it included the whole Eastern Block plus Korea and Vietnam. But not to be deterred, I mean if you are in Berlin and you've never been to Europe and they said, 'Would you like to go down to Bulgaria?', you'd be crazy to say 'no'. So I went to Bulgaria and I was in Czechoslovakia for a while. It was sad, it was dreadful, it was depressing and I was away for about eight months or more. And after I went through the East, a couple of Australian friends of mine said, 'Would you like to go through the West now?'. They had just bought a car and that was really something because so few people owned cars then, and they had just bought a car in England and I said, 'I'd just love to, no trouble'. And so it was very cheap to live in England then, so we packed the boot with cheap food, you know tinned stuff and things like that and we set off for another, I think about six weeks, travelling during the day and camping by the roadside at night or in a youth hostel, but mainly by the roadside in some field of corn or whatever it might be and often sharing our meal, particularly in Italy, with the Italian farmers and they had so little. I recall on one occasion we camped outside of Verona and we were just making bed by the side of the road and the farmer came down and said, 'Oh come up and share, you know, come to my kitchen and share'. We went up to his house and he gave us shelter that night and most of the time we were just sleeping under the stars. But they had soup with a bone and that was it, that evening, and we shared our food.

How did you get into the countries of Eastern Europe without a passport? Why did they let you in?

Oh well, all the European countries were participating in the festival and so all gates were down. We just went through, no problem.

So what were the consequences for you in Australia for having gone through?

Well, I was in Europe until February, I think, the following year. I left in June here and well, I got on the boat to come home with my colleagues and when we got into Fremantle - you know you line up to have your passport stamped - and when they stamped ours, we were in a queue, we were altogether, they stamped it and tossed it over their back into a box and we didn't see them again.

You mean you lost your passport?

So our passports were confiscated for going into the Eastern European countries and such was freedom during the Cold War.

So what would have happened if you wanted to go somewhere that you needed your passport for?

Well, we couldn't get one, because we'd used the passport for countries that it was invalid for. [INTERRUPTION]

How long did you lose your passport for?

Well I didn't apply for my passport for about 10 years after that, but that was because I didn't have an opportunity to travel again. But I really don't know how long it would have taken before that particular rule was lessened. But you see in that delegation there were people of all political beliefs and religious beliefs. There was a big representation from the churches, the trade unions; but regardless, their passports were confiscated, they were just taken away and we were deprived of the right to move out of the country, in actual fact, and they were hard times. Apart from the fact that we'd just come through a war, a hot war, we were then moved into the cold war. None of this surprised me because I knew that great people in the world were suffering as a result of McCarthyism. And there was Paul Robeson, who was really imprisoned in Harlem, without a passport for a long time and the author Cedric Belfridge, and they were people who were called up before the Un-American Committee as you know and deprived of the right to travel. And it was the same here. And Australia was very fast becoming a little America.

Was ASIO interested in you?

Oh, I'm sure they were, they probably still are. I'm sure they were. I can recall when Hans and I were first married for instance, Hans was already building a house and that was the first house we lived in at Frenchs Forest and finally we moved into the house and the agent, who was the agent for the apartment we were living in in North Sydney came and told us one day. They said, 'Mrs Bandler, after you moved away from here, we had a visit from ASIO and they said, "Could you tell us where the Bandlers have gone?"'. And I don't know whether he did or not but he didn't know anyhow. But of course ASIO was interested in me and interested, I'm sure, in a million other Australians. Horrible little snoopers that they are.

Now specifically they were interested in you because you had been in a communist country along with all these other people ... but then there were also other activities which might have drawn their attention to you?

Oh yes, Of course, I'm sure.

... but then there were also other activities which might have drawn their attention to you?

Well I was very involved in the New South Wales Peace Council. Now you know these days - for the last 20 years or so - the streets can virtually fill with people who are prepared to take to the streets in the cause of a lasting peace, hopefully. You didn't do it then: you went into the streets then and you'd probably lose your job the next day or the next week. Many people lost their jobs during the Cold War period. I was very involved in the New South Wales Peace Council and you know, I began going around speaking at meetings, telling people what I had actually seen in Europe and what the war had, how devastating it was. Because Australians were far removed really from what was going on in Europe, even after the declaration of war. So you didn't talk about peace, you didn't even mention that word.

Hans was involved in the peace movement as well.

Yes he was, that's his story of course, that's Hans' story,and he paid very dearly for it.

In what way did he pay?

Well he lost a job, two in fact. So, many people like Hans lost their job, particularly in the professions. I was going to say I did a little campaigning in the last elections and I wondered, I'm old now, and I swore a few years ago, I'd never get up again and campaign for anything, I'd had more than enough in my life, and I really made up my mind to enjoy my old age. But I found myself involved in the last elections because I had a terrible fear that we could return to a Cold War if the Labor Government was not returned. And that's what got me up. Really, I mean talking about this stirs the emotions in me, it really does, because Australians have suffered very much at the hands of the Americans, I might say at the hands of the Americans. And you know the sad and terrible thing about it today is that Australians are now thinking like the Americans. You know, money, sex and food - and there is very little in between.

People in your circle at the time, were they conscious of the fact that they might be under surveillance? Did people get concerned about it?

Oh we all were, oh goodness yes, we all were. We all knew our phones were tapped. Like, we had a telephone and not very many people had a telephones in the '50s and we had a telephone. But if I wanted to call someone in particular and talk about a peace movement thing being organised here or there or wherever, I wouldn't use our telephone, I'd go to the North Sydney Post Office and ring up. So, you know, they were tough days.

Who were some of the people that were involved with you at the time? You were a great friend of Jessie Street weren't you? Was she involved in the peace movement at the time or did you connect with her at another time?

Jessie actually involved me in the peace movement and I think it's sad today that Jessie is remembered as only a feminist. Jessie was more than a feminist, Jessie was one of the world's greatest fighters for peace and she belonged to the world, she didn't belong to Australia only. And I was down in Melbourne and I travelled back on the same plane as Jessie and when we arrived at the airport, I think we were waiting for her luggage or whatever it was, she came up and she said to me, 'We have to do something about the Aborigines. We've got to do something to lift them out of their misery'. But she was instrumental in getting a very vigorous peace movement going in Australia. It was she who made me fully aware how dangerous it was for the world to rearm.

So Jessie Street got you involved in the peace movement and then, subsequently, was that her suggestion? Was that what got you involved in the great, great cause of your life which was the movement for change for Aborigines?

Yes, I guess. But before I actually met Jessie, there was an Aboriginal woman by the name of Pearl Gibbs and she tried to get me involved in an Aboriginal movement. She said [we need] a good movement, you know, one that isn't controlled by people outside, one that we create. But Pearl tried to sell me this idea before I went to Europe and I had my heart set on getting to Europe and dancing around the place. So it didn't have much of an impact, her request to me. But when she came back and Jessie had talked to me about this matter of human rights for all people, I began to listen a little more carefully to Pearl, although still reluctant to get involved in anyone but myself, I suppose. I mean it was all right for me. Yes I guess it was those two women that got me moving and so organisations were formed, not to issue charity but to change government legislation, and that was important and mainly because of the ideas from these two people. There were others as well who had good ideas as to what should be done but you know, ideas are one thing, action is another.

Now it was the action that was so extraordinarily successful. I wonder if you could tell us what it was about that Movement for the Advancement of Aborigines that actually produced the really quite remarkable results that it did. What was it about the way that it was organised, the action that you took and the strategies that you adopted that you think made it so successful?

The success of the organisation that I was involved in for Aboriginal rights rested on the fact that no person involved was there for his or her own interest. And that was the strength of the organisation. No-one was looking at the thing to carve a career for themselves out of it . The first organisation I was involved in to change government legislation was a state organisation called the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship and this woman, Pearl Gibbs, she and I founded it jointly, in a house, believe it or not in the house of two poets, Marge and Muir Holburn, down at Kirribilli. But in that room were some really famous people, wonderful people - Helen Palmer - and there were only about 9 or 10 or us but it was Pearl's strength that got the thing going and kept it moving. And we were a mixed bunch it's true because we actually had people from the Liberal Party, people from the Labor Party, the Communist Party, from the churches, just a scattering, there weren't many of us but people somehow or other left their politics on the doormat and their Christian beliefs or whatever, and it was this tiny group that brought about major changes in the State of New South Wales under Pearl's leadership. Pearl ... you see, the Aboriginal people in New South Wales were totally controlled by the government. They were locked away on reservations. When I say locked away, they couldn't move in and out without the permission of what was known as the Aboriginal Welfare Board. And Pearl's one ambition was to demolish that Board. She had sat on it and represented her people on it and on one occasion I can remember her saying, 'It's May Day, come and walk, come and march on May Day', and I said 'too right'. So she went down to the waterfront and got some of the wharfies to make a poster for her and it had a huge flame of fire and below was 'Burn The Board'. And she said, 'The Board should be destroyed because it controls my people's lives. And so this tiny little organisation worked towards that end and in 1969 we achieved it. We achieved it because of the dedication of the people in the group.

Now it was actually formed, the Movement, 10 years before, it took 10 years ...

No, no, that was the national body. Now the state body really did not continue for long after that because we had achieved that goal of abolishing the Board, in other words, giving the Aboriginal people freedom of movement and a few other things. Now they were under the control of the Board. If they didn't want to be under the control of the Board, they could buy themselves out for 10 shillings and get an Exemption Certificate. And I had a friend who said, 'Well you know, the publican wants to see the certificate before he gives you a grog, if you haven't got it, you don't get a grog, you don't get a beer and sometimes they splash it on the counter and it falls to pieces and then you have to go and pay another 10 shillings to get another one'. And this was a man who had served in the war, I might mention, an Aboriginal person. But to come back to the founding of the national body. The national body was known as the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and it was formed in 1957 in Adelaide and we sent an Aboriginal delegate over. You know, we had a few barbecues and raised a bit of money and got him on the train and he went off and that was the founding of the organisation that brought about the major changes in the Federal Constitution, the Referendum that changed the Constitution in 1967 and we worked for that Referendum from '57 to '67. And I remember, it might have been '65 or something like that, going over to Redfern, to a friend's place, Ken Brendel, and we were doing some posters for a demo, and I started talking about, you know, 'I can't do too much, I've got the Referendum', and Ken would say, 'Bugger the bloody Referendum, we want houses to live in, we want our kids to go to school'. And the immediate needs, of course, dominated the people's lives and I was talking about something airy-fairy as far as most of the Aboriginal people were concerned. They didn't have houses to live in. 'Referendum, look, don't give me that', Ken used to say, 'I don't want to hear about that, we're here, you can see us and we've got nothing, nothing, we're hounded by the cops', you know.

So how did you explain the connection between the Referendum and their problems?

I didn't explain the difference because I couldn't. I'd open my mouth about the Referendum, and they would tell me, 'Oh stop it Faith', you know, 'you just go on'. [INTERRUPTION]

What was significant about the Referendum to you, why did you feel that it mattered so much?

The Referendum was very important to me, it was more important than any other issue that had to do with the Aboriginal people. I was never one to get involved with charity and to this very day, I find it hard to accept that we have to have charities to solve our problems. But the Referendum, if I could tell you first that, prior to the Referendum, the Aboriginal people lived under six different laws. Each state had its own law, own set of governing laws of the people and if, say, New South Wales was pushed to build a few houses, or something like that, they would say, 'We haven't got the finance, only the Commonwealth has the finance'. Put a road in here or a road there, 'We haven't got the finance', they would say. And it was probably better in New South Wales than it was in any of the other states. Appalling in Western Australia for the Aboriginal people and not to mention Queensland. So it was Jessie Street's idea that all those state laws should be abolished once and for all and it was she who drafted the first petition for the Referendum. So very few people understood at the time why we were pushing for a Referendum, but it was mainly to get Federal resources available to solve the housing problem, the medical problem and so forth and so on. It had absolutely nothing to do, incidentally, with the right to vote, because by then, most of the states had the right to vote in Commonwealth elections [?] and I hear, it distresses me so, I hear younger Aboriginal people being interviewed on radio, talking at meetings, 'Well, the Referendum didn't mean much', they said, 'what did the right to vote mean for us'. It had nothing to do with the right to vote, nothing at all. It had to do with making Federal resources available and nothing else.

It also changed, didn't it, the fact that Aborigines were specifically excluded from being affected by general laws and rights that were generated by the Commonwealth for all Australian citizens. It brought Aborigines within the whole general picture of people living in Australia, so that there was a very important piece, an important section of the Constitution that had to be changed. Could you explain that to us?

Well, Section 51 of the Constitution had to be changed, [INTERRUPTION]

Why did there have to be a Referendum over it, why couldn't the Commonwealth decide to override the states?

Well, first of all to change a Constitution, whether it's a Federal Constitution or a State Constitution, it can only be changed by a Referendum. And here you had this tiny little group of people, who had nothing but dedication and a sense of justice - not a cracker, not a penny - challenged by this woman, Jessie Street, to change the Federal Constitution, if you please. But we had to change the Federal Constitution if we wanted the resources of the Federal Government and the rights that the government protected, the people's rights and we needed the state laws to be abolished for this reason, that they created such tremendous confusion. You could be a relatively free person, walking around Victoria and you come to New South Wales and you find you've got to go up to Bridge Street in Sydney to get permission if you can go and see your uncle and aunt, if you please. Then if you move over the border into Queensland, well the very fact that you go over the border into Queensland, you could be arrested without reason. So there was a great need to abolish those state laws and bring everyone under the Commonwealth Federal law. With, incidentally, the migrants who had come recently, who had all the protection and privileges of the Federal law. So that is the main reason why it was important to have a Referendum, we had to change the Federal Constitution. Certainly the people were not counted in the census before then and they are now, but you know, the matter of health was a major problem, the matter of housing, and all of these serious issues are linked. Like, how can you send your kid to school if you haven't got electricity for them to do their homework by, if you haven't got a bed for them to sleep on. So they are linked. The need for housing, the need for education, the need for good health were all very, very important areas and we needed the money, we needed the financial resources to do it. The states didn't have it and that was the reason why we had the Referendum. But the campaign lasted for 10 years and it actually took our house over. There were three, four women in that campaign who as good as worked around the clock. Three of whom worked consistently, and it's a lesson today to the Aboriginals and the Islanders and the Torres Strait Islanders, these three women worked all those years together. One was a Torres Strait Islander, one was an Aboriginal person and myself and we worked in unity and in actual fact really loved each other; you know that affection is there to this day. But we showed something for our unity and therein lies a lesson for the young Blacks of today, I'm telling you - and that was Dulcie Flower and Kath Walker and myself. And Kath put in an immense amount of work into that Referendum. [INTERRUPTION]

It was three women who did it. How did you manage, how did you live? You had a little girl at the time, a child to look after, how did you organise all of this, how did you manage to do it all?

Well it was very difficult for the other two women who were involved. It wasn't so difficult for me because I had Hans and I could never have done it without him. I mean I just couldn't have, I couldn't. And Hans was a wonderful parent. My daughter was - well the Petition was already moving before she was born, but Hans was just a very good parent. I mean, things were shared automatically and we were very fortunate. We had a full-time person who was able to, if I was delayed, and seldom though it was, getting home before her after school, then this person would be there, so that was good. But if you say, how did we do it? I don't know how we did it, I really don't know. I was out having a drink one day with Fred Hollows and Fred had just returned from the North and he was so angry. He was talking, he had spoken to a group up there and he wanted them to get some sort of a little organisation going which would keep in touch with him, you see. And he said, 'Well what do you think, Faith, these bastards sat there and the first thing they started talking about - well how many four-wheel drives they should have'. Well, we didn't talk about four-wheel drives, the need for four-wheel drives, that would have been a great luxury. You know, we just thought it was great to have the use of a telephone. And how did I do it? Well sometimes it was cheaper for me to hop into a plane and go to Canberra and use our Senior Vice President's telephone in Parliament House, who was Gordon Bryant, and sit on the phone for a few days ringing around Australia at the government's expense. And that would have cost more if I had stayed home and did that telephoning. That's how we did it.

And how did you finance yourselves, generally?

We didn't have any money, we didn't need money. I try and tell people today that wonderful things, great results, great needs can come without money. And they look at me as though I'm silly. Young Blacks fronting up for high salaries. Unheard of it was for us. There was no money.

[end of tape]

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