Australian Biography

Faith Bandler - full interview transcript

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At the time that you began to be involved with the movement relating to the conditions of Aborigines, what kinds of conditions did you find the Aborigines living in?

I first saw the appalling conditions that Aborigines lived in when I was actually in the Land Army and I remember people, Aboriginal people, being brought by trucks from Cowra to Young to pick the cherries. They weren't permitted to pick together with the Land Army girls but they were separated and I learnt then that they were getting a paltry wage, I can't remember exactly what it was, but I was really quite shocked. And they weren't provided with - they weren't given a break. They worked, they always worked through the day, quite a number of women working then. And then later again, I found that they were shut away on a reserve outside of Griffith, on the Riverina, at a place called Wattle Hill, I think it was. But they were separated and they were segregated and were never seen to be in the streets. But I was also aware, at that time, and that was during the war, that the people had been treated very badly by the white settlers to begin with and that was continued through to that particular time, and that they were totally dependent on the government for an existence. There were some, of course, who did fruit picking during the season but were exploited even there, and they just happened to be poor outcasts.

Now they weren't subject at all to the wages, conditions, that had been negotiated and applied across the country. They were absolutely separately dealt with from that, so they could be paid very low wages. What kind of wages were stockmen paid, and what kind of wages were domestics, the women who helped in the farms? What were they paid at the time you began campaigning?

When we began the campaign for the Referendum, the situation for black stockmen for instance, was very bad. Many were paid absolutely nothing. They were given rations of flour and beef and tea and this was in the late '50s and the early '60s; and they worked on the cattle station; if they got wages, they were paid about half the wage that was paid to white stockmen. And we had on our Executive, of course, several trade unionists who became very concerned about this. But many women, many women for decades worked in the houses for absolutely nothing. Those who were paid, well they weren't. The money was not paid into their hands, the money was given, paid into the Commonwealth Bank and if they wanted some of that money, they would have to go to the local police sergeant - and imagine how intimidating that would be - to get permission to withdraw their money from the bank. And there was a woman who came down from the north on one occasion to tell us how really bad it was, and this was in the early '60s, and she said she worked from daybreak until night in the house. She really ran the house and she really brought the children up, but she never saw any money. And on one occasion she thought she'd really like to own a bicycle, so she plucked up enough courage to go to the local police sergeant and said she'd like some money from the bank. And the police sergeant, said, 'What do you want it for, Annie?' And she said, 'I want a bicycle', and he said, 'you don't need a bicycle'. It was a bad time, it was a time when even in the most advanced state of New South Wales, children could still be taken from their parents. Now much has been said about this in recent years, but no-one has really spelt out the terrible consequences of this situation where children are forcibly taken away from their parents, as most were, and they would grow up and they'd marry, perhaps, and they wouldn't know who they belonged to. And this went on, of course, up until quite recently, not that long ago at all. So that was another area of great concern for the Council. These particular concerns drove us on and the longer we were involved, the more was revealed.

Were Aborigines very restricted in their freedom of movement as well? Could you describe how they had to ask permission and so on to do anything, if it was to get married, move around, do anything. Could you talk about that right across the country.

I think that the concern of the Federal Council, FCAATSI, at the time was the right to ... the freedom to move was withheld from the Aboriginal people. And, for instance, if one wanted to leave a reserve they had to get permission from the governing body whatever it might be in the various different states. And it reminds me to tell you that this also applied to that beautiful film star Tudawali, Robert Tudawali. He was brought to Sydney to work on a television series and was living or was accommodated not very far from where we were living at the time, at Frenchs Forest so he was a regular visitor to our place, and we'd pick him up particularly in the evenings, because it was so cold where he was. We had a warm fire but we first had to get permission to pick him up. He was a man who had outstanding talent, a person of considerable skills in his own right, having to seek the permission of another person, to go out for an evening ...

Who gave him permission?

... and while he was here, his movements were controlled or watched or directed by a welfare officer, a white welfare officer. And I found that extremely degrading to a man with tremendous dignity and it was quite a sad experience in my life too, to see that. But people in Queensland were virtually living in prisons. On one occasion I went to Palm Island, and I saw Palm Island as a huge concentration camp because no-one could move off the island and no one could enter the island without permission. And I visited the gaol there together with the late Senator ... I've just forgotten his name, sorry ...

That's all right ...

... and I visited the gaol there and I was appalled, absolutely appalled and a tiny little gaol where there were four people where there should have been one, and there was nothing but a bucket, nothing whatsoever, and filthy, absolutely filthy. And the people were totally controlled by the Director, who incidentally was a white South African at that particular time. And my visit was just before Gough Whitlam came to government, came to power. And it was a great experience for me to go back with the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, then, who was Gordon Bryant and to be able to call a great big meeting under the big tree and exclude the whites. It was wonderful. I mean that is what the Referendum did, of course, but ...

Now you saw and the people who worked with you for the Referendum saw that these problems couldn't be dealt with just separately. Before we leave the problems by the way, I should ask you about what were the health problems that Aboriginals faced?

The Aborigines had serious health problems. Trachoma of course, which was rife, and there were many other illnesses that were very common among the people, I really don't feel I can enlarge on that.

What sort of medical care did they get?

They virtually had no medical care. They had many illnesses without medical care or medical attention. If they wanted that, they would have to go to the big public hospitals and that was extremely intimidating and you had people who were quite ... working there who were quite indifferent to the problem, to the serious illnesses that the Aboriginal people had - quite indifferent. Ah, but if I could just say, on the matter of wages, I think, what concerned us most of all were those people who were working in the cattle industry and they were outstanding horsemen, they just handled a horse so magnificently, they were, as it were, born in the saddle of a horse and they worked so hard. And without them, as with the cane which could never have been developed without the labor of the Australian South Sea Islanders, so it is with the beef industry, which could never have been developed without the slave labor of the Aboriginal people and that in fact, in many cases, was what it was. And this disturbed the trade union people who were on the Executive of FCAATSI and we investigated with our trade union contacts in the north what the wages really were anyhow. And then actually, a GP from Melbourne, Dr Christophers, said, 'It's time to go for equal wages', and the Council went for equal wages for black stockmen and in 1965, before going to the full Arbitration Court, the black stockmen were granted equal wages. But that was not, I mean they didn't, they weren't given the equal wages, in fact, until 1968. But it was a major achievement.

Were you involved with the Gurindji and their plight?

Yes, oh the Gurindjis were a very special people, very special people and I went to visit the Gurindjis and I had to, we had to cross a creek because as you know, they walked off the cattle station.

For the young people that don't remember this, could you just very briefly summarise what that case was?

Well the Gurindjis, of course, were a very special group of people who lived, had their community in the Northern Territory and still do, but they were put to work on the cattle stations that were owned by Vesteys. And Vesteys, of course, owned most of the cattle stations in the north; they were English Lords who resided in England, absent landlords, but ... [INTERRUPTION]

During this time who were campaigning for improved conditions for Aborigines? There was interest from overseas, in fact there was a visit also from your childhood hero, Paul Robeson, during this time wasn't there. Could you tell us about that?

Yes, Paul Robeson came to Australia in the early '60s with his wife, Islanda. It was a wonderful experience for me to meet Paul but equally a great experience to meet Islanda, who was a journalist - author and journalist and a representative in the United Nations. Islanda was a very special person in many ways, a women of great independent means and I became friends with Islanda. But it's true, you know to meet Paul Robeson for me was, it was like I hear people talk about meeting the Pope or the Queen or whatever. But I met Paul Robeson and he meant more to me than any other great person did in fact, because Paul Robeson stood up for what he believed in. And for standing up for what he believed in, and that was for the equality of his own people, he was persecuted for it, locked up for it, in Harlem for years. His whole career thrown on the rocks and there would not have been ever in the history of the world, one with a voice like Paul Robeson's. And I treasure it to this day; it's nice to begin the day with that voice. But he did come, and I found it hard to believe that he was actually going to come and put his big feet on Australian soil and he did. And I went out to the airport with many others to meet him and he just looked, he looked strong and powerful but also tired and weary and life had been very tough for him. He'd been treated so badly by the Americans and he said to me, 'You must tell me more about your people'. Well, actually he meant the Aboriginal people and so I had an occasion to meet him, after meeting him at the airport, and to show him a film that was made on the Warburton Ranges. And I shall never forget his reaction to that film, never. It was a film taken on a mission station where the people were ragged and unhealthy and sick, very sick. And we took this film and we showed it to him. He was staying in the Hotel Australia and we showed him the film and Paul then was wearing a black cap on his head, to keep his head warm. He was no chicken then, of course, and Islanda always insisted that before a concert he should rest that day, but she allowed him to come down and have a look at the film, in the Starlight Room, as they called it, in the Hotel Australia and as he watched the film the tears came to his eyes and when the film finished he stood up and he pulled his cap off and he threw it in his rage on the floor and trod on it and he asked for a cigarette from someone. Well a lot of people smoked in those days so there was no shortage of cigarettes and Islanda said to me, 'Well it's many years since I've seen him do that'. He was so angry and he said to me, 'I'll go away now, but when I come back I'll give you a hand'. He was beautiful, but he died and he didn't come back.

Well that must have fuelled your determination to continue with the struggle.

It did.

Tell me about the launch of the struggle. There was a big meeting at the Town Hall wasn't there? There was a certain amount of scepticism about how this little band could grow to something as big as it needed to grow to, to achieve its goal. Could you tell us about that beginning?

In 1956 when Pearl Gibbs got me up off my seat to form the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship, Jessie Street was then a patron, became a patron of The Fellowship as it became known. And you know Jessie had been at me for a while and telling me that we had to have that Referendum. So she drafted the Petition and I succeeded in getting the Executive of the Fellowship to accept this draft of Jessie's and to exploit a printer friend, Rodney Hall, to run a few thousand copies off, and to circulate the Petition. And someone had the bright idea, and I think it was our Secretary at the time, had the bright idea that we should have a public meeting and launch the Petition. So, you know, I have always been one who believes in going right to the top, having the full blast. So I said, 'Well why don't we go and see the Lord Mayor and have a meeting in the Town Hall'. And there were, I say, about eight of us, without a farthing, not a cracker, so they said, 'Well, why not?' And the Aboriginal President at the time, said, 'Well, yes, I think we should have the Town Hall, there is no reason why we shouldn't. Now I'm friends with so and so', I've forgotten who it was, 'and I'm sure that he can arrange for a deputation of us to see the Lord Mayor about hiring the Town Hall for a public meeting'. And we were sitting in this tiny little room in George St. and this is where it was all cooked up, in fact. 'Well', they said, 'why not?'. Well we went and saw the Lord Mayor and we said we would like to hire the Town Hall for a public meeting and we intended to launch a Petition for a Federal Referendum, and he looked at us in amazement and I shall never forget it and he looked at us and he said, 'Are you sure, you don't mean the foyer?' And I said, 'No way, we need the Town Hall'. 'Oh', he said, 'Mrs Bandler, but you know it takes 2 500 people, something like that'. I said, 'We'll pack it'. He said, 'Are you absolutely certain, it's not a good thing to have a half-filled hall'. I said, 'Oh, we'll fill it'. And the others joined in and said, 'We'll pack it'. And then we went back to the little office and over a cup of tea, we thought my God! We said to each other, 'What have we let ourselves in for?' because in the meantime, we'd found out that the rent was something like £70 or £80 and we didn't have 80 pennies to our name. So we got the handbills out, we went to the wharfies and we went to the Seamen's Union and a few other unions and said, 'Would you circulate these, we're going to have a public meeting at the Town Hall and we're launching a Petition for a Federal Referendum, for the rights of the Aborigines', and the unions took them, and took the Petition and the handbills and particularly the Seamen's Union. And they were marvellous because they were able to drop them at all the ports around Australia. And when the actual meeting in the Town Hall took place, we had someone who'd come over from Western Australia who had seen the handbill that the wharfies, eh, the seamen had distributed. And that was a big thing in 1957, to go from one state to another, for just a meeting. You know, we weren't walking in and out of planes as we walk in and out of our bedrooms today. It was a very different situation travel-wise. Well anyhow, so when the unions came in behind us, a few of the churches, a bit reluctant, talked about the little groups of 'reds' sitting down there in the office in George St. and whether they should in fact unite with us or not. And they were very hesitant, but there was one by the name of Reverend Alf Clint and another two or three, one by the name of Bill Childs, I think he was an Anglican parson, but they came in fearlessly and supported us and stood by us with the unions. So then of course, the deposit had to be paid for the Town Hall and they said - I remember our President, Bert Grove, saying to me, taking me aside very quietly after an Executive meeting and saying, 'Do you think you could ask Hans to put up the deposit, we could pay him back'. So I went home that night, and I said, 'Hans, have we got any money? Do you think we could pay the deposit for the Town Hall?'. So Hans said yes, that would be okay. So we paid the deposit for the Town Hall. I don't know it might have been £20 or £10 or whatever it was, I don't know. And then the night came. In the meantime we had mobilised people like ...

So were your expectations that you were going to fill the Hall, were they justified?

The Hall was packed. The doors opened and I was inside arranging the flowers and the doors opened and the crowd just filled the Hall. It was wonderful. We got our deposit back so we were able to buy a bit more timber for the new house.

And that was a great night?

It was a great night and the Petition was launched.

Now you were very conscious of the discrimination that went on against Aborigines, but you've already told us that you didn't experience any of that discrimination yourself. Were there no incidences in your life when you were in some way treated differently because of the fact that you were black?

Oh yes, oh yes, people discriminated against me. It's true that perhaps there were times when I didn't notice it and I was told later, was I aware? But I remember being thrown out of a pub in North Queensland with Kath Walker.

What happened?

Well, we were sitting in conference all the morning, on a Saturday, and in ...

Have you ever been thrown out of a pub?

I've been thrown out of a pub, I truly have. I was at a conference in North Queensland, it goes back a fair while, and the union delegates who were there asked Kath Walker and I if we'd go down to the pub for a drink after the session was over on the Saturday afternoon. And we said 'Yes, of course'. But Kath and I sat alone, on our own because we wanted to talk to each other. And we weren't served. So, either Kath or I, but we both went up to the counter and said we want a drink and they said, 'Well, we don't serve coloured people here'. And I can always remember Kath saying, 'No, no no, we don't want to be served coloured people, we just want to be served a drink, that's all'. And they wouldn't serve us. So that was, it wasn't a bitter experience, it rather amused the both of us, because what happened of course, a black ban was put on the pub and later some of the Aboriginal people told us they couldn't even walk that side of the street because they'd be called in for a free drink. But I was also thrown out of a pub in Redfern, yes indeed. A couple of the Redfern people went in for a drink and they were refused, they were testing the waters. And so they rang me up, and said, 'Now we were thrown out of the pub, Faith, and you forget about that Referendum and get over here and do something about this'. So what we did was organise a lot of our friends who were with the media at the time and quietly sneaked in and mixed the tables up between blacks and whites and my sister and I went up to the bar and said well, we'll have this and we'll have this or whatever it was, and he says, 'We don't serve you here'. So we didn't kick up a fuss, we went back and we just said to our mates from the media and from the unions and a few of the politicians, 'They won't serve us'. And the story is always told that it was one of the biggest blues that the pub in Redfern had ever experienced and the owner was ushered down into the cell for protection from the media. So I've been discriminated against, I have yes, but I can't think of anything except in London on one occasion. This was in the early '50s when I went off to look for a flat. But that was in London and when I arrived in the agent's office there, he pointed to the board and there was a notice saying, no Jews, no coloureds - that's what they called black people - no children and no animals. So I've had these experiences and I'm sure that many people have had problems with me but it hasn't affected me. I've seen it as their problem as I say, I don't see it as my problem, and I haven't been aware of it at the time. We weren't discriminated against as children.

One of the things that is very striking about you Faith is this tremendous confidence that you have. Now somebody who is black and who is a woman and who has had a background where people generally expect you not to stick up for yourself. What was it about your upbringing, what is it about your personality, where does this confidence and ability to assert yourself come from?

I assert myself. I know I'm a very confident person. And I'm sure that that comes from my mother. And my mother would never accept anything that wasn't straightforward and that wasn't above board and she would always want to know that there were no strings attached to any friendship of any kind that she might have. My whole family are all rugged individualists or were and they were extremely independent and all worked extremely hard, which gave us our independence. I'm always so certain of myself, I know, and maybe there are many times perhaps, when I shouldn't be and I say to myself, well what the hell! And if I'm invited somewhere to perhaps welcome a visitor or address a group of people or something like that, I say to myself, well they wouldn't ask me, if they didn't want me, if they didn't think I could do it. These days I find myself saying no, quite a lot to many such invitations because as you get older, you can take less stress. And I thoroughly enjoy my old age, I don't like it being disrupted awfully. I'm a confident person and I'm sure it had a lot to do with my mother.

Tell me about your education, how were you educated?

Well, I, my brothers and sisters had an opportunity to stay at school a long time because they went before the Depression. And in the Depression it was awfully hard for me to stay at school. I remember I had an exam coming up and the soles of my shoes began to come to pieces and my mother sat up the night before to stitch them back on with string and what they called, a palm needle so that I could go and do the exam and I'm sure I was able to stay at school through those very hard days because of the energy that my mother put into it. But I stayed at school until I was 16 and then I only wanted to do one thing and that was to earn money. Because to me it just seemed that money gave people independence. I liked my school years, they were good years.

So did you complete through to the final ...?

No I didn't. I didn't complete through to the final, but I came to, when I came to Sydney, I went to the night school in Cleveland St and I did shorthand and typing and also did English and I stuck at that for quite a long time in actual fact and I guess, sometimes I feel I can say, as Gorky did, 'My life has been my university'. But I've done courses that have been very helpful with WEA. I don't want to do those things anymore now, but I did them until fairly late - it's only three years in actual fact since I have given up my music lessons. And I always also felt they were a very big part of education, very important part of my education.

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