Australian Biography

Faith Bandler - full interview transcript

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What was the main strategy that you used during this time as a group to get your - to get the public focused on this problem?

We used a Petition and the Petition brought people from many different walks of life forward and I guess it also brought people forward who often wondered what they could do anyhow. And true, it is said today by some of the young Blacks, 'Oh well, it eased the whites' conscience'. But even if it did, and I'm sure it did, and that's what the Petition probably did, the overwhelming result has just been wonderful, just been wonderful. But by circulating the Petition, it broke down the barriers that the states had erected as far as Aborigines were concerned, because the Petition went over the borders and brought the people together.

I detect a certain amount of distress in you, that it isn't always recognised what a big difference followed from that change, that change that occurred as a result of the Referendum. Do you feel that it isn't appreciated sufficiently by contemporary black people what was achieved by that?

I feel today that it isn't understood by contemporary black people. Because we now have a generation who has never known what it is to be locked away on a reservation, we have a generation who has not known what it is to be controlled by white administrators. But they should be told and they should read about it and know more about that area of their history because it turned the tide in no uncertain way, in no uncertain way. But it did more than that. I think the very fact that that Petition was presented in the House for 10 years, in the Federal Government's House for 10 years, every day the Parliament sat, someone would hop up with the Petition and as Menzies said, 'You people have made history, you even got me to present your Petition'.

How did you do that?

And after he had confiscated my passport I might say. But well, every member of the House had presented it and he hadn't. So Gordon Bryant decided he'd ask him to. And he asked him to present it and he said, 'Yes I will'. So, you know, that is what a petition is about and people who go around peddling petitions today ought to see them through to the end. You don't leave a petition hanging in mid-air, you have to pursue it until you get the final result. The reason why you got the petition up.

So there was a great deal of determination in all of this.

Ah, you had the Executive of this Federal Council and I think there were about 13 or 14 of us, throughout the whole of Australia. Each state had a State Secretary. It functioned on nothing. If you had to get to an executive meeting in Canberra or Sydney, you had to find out how to pay your own fare. You had to sometimes pay for your own lunch or whatever it might be. It was an unbelievable dedication on the part of those people. And one person, one Aboriginal person, who was involved in that today works for the New South Wales Ombudsman and she told me one day when she got the job, 'It's a sort of recognition I suppose for what I have done in the past'. But nobody else was recognised, no-one else, we all went back to doing what we'd been doing before we got involved.

But after the Referendum and they had to set up Aboriginal organisations and departments and so on, were none of you applicants for the jobs that came up?

Oh no, they wouldn't have us, we were all too left, I'm sure. I looked at the blacks who went in on the first government organisation, which was the Council for Aboriginal Affairs or something like that, I've forgotten what it was called and they were people who wouldn't have touched the work we were doing with a 20 foot rod, you know. But they were respectable, they had good respectable politics.

So you didn't actually apply for any of the jobs because you thought you wouldn't get them?

I did actually apply for one, immediately after the Referendum in 1968, mainly because I was asked to. But you know, someone tapped me on the back and said, 'Don't be silly'. And certainly, I think that those of us who worked together in that group were people with independent thoughts, independent people. The white people were very special people. I think of the scientist from Melbourne, Shirley Andrews, the doctor from Melbourne, Barry Christophers, and they had other interests. They were, of course, concerned people, concerned that the indigenous people of this country were deprived of basic human rights, and so the white people who were involved in bringing about that change were very special people, very special people.

But Faith, you weren't an indigenous person either, were you?

No, but you see, I've told you, I got dragged into this by Jessie and Pearl and they were powerful women, strong women. And here was me, you know, young, pretty game. Well you know, when Jessie would put an idea to you, she would be convinced that you would accept that idea. And I had wonderful times with her during this period. I can remember she would come back from the United Nations in the midst of the Cold War and she rang me up one morning and she said, 'Come into town for lunch'. And we were in one of those beautiful old shops - you know, the Moccador and Repins - which was part of Sydney and we were in the Moccador, that was the one we always went to, and I had my daughter with me and she was about two at the time or something like that. And there was Jessie sitting there, she had all these marvellous ideas about what we should be doing about getting this Referendum and so forth. But before, when she sat down, the first thing she did was to run her hand under the table to make sure it wasn't bugged by ASIO.

(Frank Heimans - Director) Will you talk about your role in the Referendum to Robin?

Yes, I will. But I do remember her saying, looking at Lilon and saying, 'Now you must make sure she is always economically independent'. But my role in the Referendum was I think, a very positive role. When Jessie and Brian Fitzpatrick had drawn up the Petition, Jessie actually placed that in my hands and said, 'There you are, now go and get yourself a Referendum'. Well you know, it was my life for 10 years. I dreamed it, first thing in the morning and last thing at night. The telephone rang all day, the telephone rang all night. I spoke at numerous meetings from say, '63 until '67, to schools, to unions, to churches, Rotary clubs, APEX, business women, the universities and it was around the clock and it was a terrible, emotional drain. You know at night I would be absolutely exhausted and I guess our daughter was brought up as much during those years by Hans as she was by me, but always one or the other was certainly in the house.

The three women who were at the core of it, that you worked with. Did you bring very different qualities do you think to it? You and Kath ...

And Dulcie ...

... Dulcie, very different sorts of people, were you complementary to each other? [INTERRUPTION]

We three women worked together in different areas to some extent. Kath, Kath was so dedicated. Why? Because she understood what it was about. She knew and very, very few Aboriginal people knew what it was about. Nobody had time to explain, we were impatient, we had to get on with it. But Kath brought in a different element to the one that I took to the Executive table and Dulcie still another one, because Dulcie still hung to her Torres Strait Island culture; but I think what we had in common, that played a very important role, was that we were truly feminists. We had this feeling of a sense of equality also as we met with the men on the Executive. They may not have felt we had, but we had. You know, I'm sure that some might, as they did, put me in my place or try to and also with Kath, but it didn't work. We didn't know our place.

As a South Seas Islander you had the rights that you were fighting to give to the Aboriginal people and the people of the Torres Strait Islands. So you were a little different from the other two in your perspective of it because these were rights you already had. But at the end of the day with the results that came out of it in a material way for the Aboriginal people, did you ever feel that your own people were left, in a way deprived, even after you had done all that work? [INTERRUPTION]

I felt my people have been left deprived after the Referendum because after all, they were here under forced reallocation, a terrible thing to do to any people anyhow, but it's only the more recent years that I have been thinking about my own people and what they have missed out on. I was involved in the Referendum more because it had to do with basic human rights. And I had seen in Europe what had happened when the Jews were deprived of those rights and I was aware that the Aboriginal people were deprived of those rights here in Australia, because they were shut away. But I didn't think seriously about it, here, at first, but I was involved in the Referendum. Basically, it had to do with Human Rights. It was at a time when we had a lot of people adopting Australia as their country in the late '50s, the early '50s. And they were strangers, they couldn't speak the language, they didn't have skills applicable to the environment of this country but they had been given the right to vote and they would have the protection of the Federal Constitution. And the very people who owned the land were deprived of these things and I guess it had to do with the fact that I became very indignant. I became extremely indignant.

You also became an excellent speaker during this time, well-known and looked out for as a speaker. When you first began speaking in public, did you take to it like a duck to water or were you nervous?

I have never known what nervousness is. A little, certainly, but can I tell you this. That if you are really filled with fire to reach a goal, shall we say, the nervousness goes. You know you've got to win hearts and minds and it's a big job and you really haven't got time to get nervous. We won a lot of hearts and we won a lot of minds. I suppose the greatest obstacle of all has been the white bureaucrats who moved in very rapidly, who incidentally wouldn't know us for political reasons, who saw us, I think, as a pack of rabble running around the countryside talking about a Referendum. But some of those people moved into some very cushy seats once the money became available after the Referendum.

Do you think that overall, given that there has been criticism of the way in which Aboriginal Affairs have been administered and so on, do you think overall it's been much better off that Aborigines, in the material sense, in the sense of housing and all the things that you listed, are now better off than they were? [INTERRUPTION]

Oh, you can't compare the situation today for the indigenous Australians with that of the situation prior to 1967, you cannot. I know and I am aware that there are very, very deep pockets of deprivation, even in New South Wales, I'm aware of that. But if the funding doesn't penetrate to the right places or the places in need, only they themselves are to blame and that is different. I think it was the most wonderful thing that we had that Referendum. Nothing was done before or done after that created such a change and as many people have said, not only have the Aborigines lived, they've multiplied, because of the Referendum.

When did you start getting interested in the plight of your own people, of the South Seas Islanders?

I became interested in my own people when, after the Referendum, I discovered that some of them were fronting up as Torres Strait Islanders or as Aborigines in order to receive those benefits which flowed on as a result of the Referendum. And I was very saddened by that and I feared that they would lose their identity. They were in this country through no choice of their own and I was sure that they would eventually lose their own identity and I guess that disturbed me more than anything else. And it saddened me to see them move over to be something that in fact they were not. So in 1973, I think it was, I was up in the Richmond electorate and I went to a meeting that Gough Whitlam was speaking at, and there was so many fuzzy wuzzies there that you couldn't count them, because they're all Labor people you know. And Gough was speaking there and I had to get back to Sydney in a hurry, so I cadged a ride off him. And on the way back he came to the back of the plane and I was able to tell him, 'Look, they're all good Labor people in that room and you notice they're all my mob, they're all the descendants of the South Sea Islanders'. And Gough stiffened up and he said, 'Why don't you form an organisation, Faith?' and the next year we formed a National Council of Islanders. But it was, as I said, it was because I could see that they would become other than what they were, that got me involved. I don't want to be involved you know, now or ... and then, of course, there was the Royal Commission into Human Relationships, and together with a friend, I made submissions on behalf of the Island people and the findings were that they should receive all the benefits that the other two groups receive, except Land Rights of course. But then, there was a change of government, and of course, Gough was booted out and Fraser came in and the whole findings were shelved and nothing happened. Well, of course we started again, when Hawke was elected and was Prime Minister.

So does the organisation only include those who were brought here, like your father was, or does it include contemporary immigrants who come now from the South Seas?

That's a very important point. The organisation only includes those who are the descendants of those who were brought originally to work in the sugar industry. No-one else, because others really haven't got a claim to special benefits; but my people, I think, are a very special people, in many ways. They've got good stickability, they get a job and they hang on and they have survived against tremendous odds, tremendous odds. They are truly the forgotten people of this country. I have no doubt, whatsoever that that problem is going to be solved. I have no doubt. The Prime Minister assured me when I saw him for a cup of tea, that it's not a problem. There are only 15 or 16 000 of us and as he said to me, 'Faith, it's peanuts'.

So, what do you actually want for them? What is it exactly that you would like to achieve?

I would like to see them have assistance for, in the education area, for tertiary education, if they so choose but even to just stay at school now. I want to see them have decent houses to live in and also to have good health. They have those facilities that are available to the other two groups should be available to them. [INTERRUPTION]

Exactly what is it that you want to achieve for your people?

I want my people, the descendants of the South Sea Islanders to have access to those areas for help, to those areas of great need, for housing, for health, for education. They are so basic. I don't want to see them having to front up as a Torres Strait Islander in order to get those benefits, because I truly believe that the country owes the people those benefits.

Now, you have described yourself as a reluctant organiser, a reluctant person in causes and yet there have been a number of big causes in your life. There's been the cause of peace, there's been the cause of the Aborigines, you're involved in environmental causes, you're involved as a Republican. So for someone who's reluctant, you've been remarkably active. Can you explain that? [INTERRUPTION]

Well, I've always been a doer.

So when you say you're reluctant, you do it out of sheer necessity. These things must be done. Where does the reluctance come from?

Well, I want to get on with my writing. I think the most joyous hours and days and weeks of my life are those hours that I spend at my desk. And I'm writing a novel at present and I'm also touching on my autobiography, which, incidentally, you people are taking a lot of, but that's okay. So I'm reluctant for those reasons, that I want to get on with my writing more than I want to do anything else. I really do, I want to tell it as it was and at present, I am writing a novel and I have been writing it for the last two years, but all of these things have crept in and the only way I can get on with it is to go away from the house and I have done that on several occasions. But this is a very important novel to me because it has to do with this woman, my Aunt Kate, who was enslaved as a house girl on the canefields. So I have that reluctance because of the other side of me.

Why are you writing the novel about Aunt Kate?

Well, Aunt Kate played - she didn't play a big part in my life, but I used to watch her as a child. After a funeral the wakes would be at Aunt Kate's place and she'd cook these wonderful buns, all professionally done, the right touch, you know to cook buns with a shine - mine never have a shine. And she had a lovely little fuel stove and she used to bake the ducks to perfection. And she had a way of gathering people to her house and they'd come in droves and just sit down and be fed by Kate. And her clothes were so beautiful; beautiful tussore silk skirts and silk blouses and her kid lace-up boots. So I have to write about Kate. It's a wonderful story.

It must have been very hard for the women who were brought as slaves. I imagine they would have also often been abused by the people who took them.

Well indeed they were abused. Indeed they were. But many of those women survived. They were very strong. And black women are strong. You know they played a very positive role in the rights for blacks and they tend not to waiver. They go through with it, they see it through.

Do you think they might provide some of the hope for the future of the Aboriginal groups? I mean although the Referendum has brought big changes, there are still problems there. What do you see as the biggest problems facing the Aboriginal groups now, and the Aborigines as a whole community? And do you think women might have an important part to play in finding solutions now?

I can't really comment on the present-day situation for the Aboriginal people. I'm too far removed now and it's their world. I feel it's not my world. We have one commonality and that is that we are black, but we are miles apart and, if there are problems there the older women would be the women that could mend that. They're not in groups or organisations because they are ambitious for themselves. They are there because they want to see the right thing done. It's the same in the movement for the Island people, it's the women who carry it, always.

I feel like I need a better explanation of why the South Sea Islanders are so deprived. People don't understand they don't get the same benefits as the Aborigines - Austudy, Abstudy, that sort of thing.

So what claim do you feel that South Sea Islanders have for special consideration and what kind of consideration do you think they should be given?

In the first place, they have a claim because of their background and their forebears were brought here forcibly. If they had never been brought, then they would have had their own land and their own culture. So I think they have a very positive claim for some form of benefit. Now what happens is that, say for instance, not today so much, but previously, if a black person went into a hotel, say in North Queensland and they were refused service? That hotel proprietor would not ask them if they were an Aborigine or if they were an Islander. They were black and that was sufficient. And the very fact that they have suffered all of the racial discriminations that the Aborigines have had, places the Islanders in a very special category. They are perhaps the most deprived of all groups now in Australia and they have been deprived equally as much socially as the Torres Strait Islanders and the Aborigines. Sure they had the right to vote, but it didn't mean awfully much as far as a job was concerned.

At the moment they have the same benefits as all white citizens have of the country, but they don't have any of the special benefits relating to Aborigines. Would you like to see them get the same benefits as Aborigines.

Well they have the benefits. They can apply for pensions as all other Australians can, and there are Social Security benefits that go with it, but they need special assistance because they have been locked away since the middle of the last century, one generation after another, totally deprived of a fair deal. Simply because they are who they are. They don't happen to be white Australians or white migrants, so they need that help just as the other two groups have needed that particular help.

So, specifically, which piece of assistance do you want them to have access to?

Well I believe they should have assistance in the educational area, I think that's vital, so that the kids can stay at school, just stay at school. And I think that they have got to have, they ought to be able to qualify for special housing and they ought to have health facilities available because those are the most basic areas of all. And I'm sure that once they are given those extra concessions, they will become a very independent people, but they need the assistance, they need that to get a move on. [INTERRUPTION]

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