Australian Biography

Faith Bandler - full interview transcript

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After 10 years hard work, how did you feel when the day of the Referendum, the actual day came?

The day after the Referendum was a day filled with a lot of good wishes, we congratulated ourselves. So much of the time spent on the phone that day had to do with ringing up each other saying, what hard workers we are. But it wasn't really I suppose for a few weeks after that, that I realised fully what an impact it would make on the affairs that have to do with Aboriginal people.

Sorry stop, I think the chair may have moved ... [INTERRUPTION]

Yes, I think it did.

How did you feel on the day of the Referendum?

I woke very early on the morning of the Referendum and I was hoping that someone would ring me up. I always dreaded the thought in the end, when the telephone would ring, I would wonder who was asking for what. But this day I really wanted someone to ring up and comfort me I think because I feared the worst. I didn't want to believe what we wanted would come about. I was afraid the disappointment would be very difficult to cope with, you know. I just felt that I couldn't cope with the disappointment of the Referendum not being carried, so it was a strange feeling I had that morning. Anyhow, I had someone who had agreed to drive me around in Sydney to the different booths and I put coffee in the basket and we did all those things on all polling days in the past. If we paid a visit we took some hot scones and thermoses of coffee or tea and that's what I did that day. And in the evening I went into the tally room and I was there with some of my mates and it was so exciting, it was just so exciting, I can't tell you. It was wonderful.

Were you really surprised though, you must have had a fair indication, here was something with bi-partisan support, and the support of both the churches and the unions. Were you really surprised?

I was surprised by the victory we'd had because although it was bi-partisan and it was really a single issue, as good as, it wasn't in any way complicated for the voters. I was surprised for this reason that it had to do with the original people. It had to do with the people who were almost completely annihilated and should we expect all of these descendants and even some who were still exploiting the people to cast a vote in favour of us, and that I really couldn't comprehend that at all. It was difficult for me to believe, you know, that so many racist middleclass, workingclass, whichever class - there were racists everywhere - and would they really vote the way we wanted them to vote? After all, who were we? But they did.

How many of them did?

Well, the total voting population voted and those in favour of the 'Yes' vote, I think it was something like 90.2%, unbelievable. And the highest 'No' vote was in the electorate that takes in the township of Kempsey in New South Wales, and Kalgoorlie. They had the highest 'No' votes, not surprisingly of course.

So did you then feel with the results that followed the Referendum, do you feel now able to answer those Aboriginal critics, who were sceptical of the value of the Referendum and who said, look we want housing, we want all of these things - and couldn't see the connection? Do you feel that you were vindicated in your belief that this would make a difference?

No, not really.

But did you see the results come in after the Referendum?

I didn't see the results coming immediately after the Referendum, that is for sure. Things seemed to be static for quite a while. It didn't really have awfully much to do with whatever government was in power at the time, but rather it seemed difficult to get moving, because it was going to involve major changes. And the people themselves, I'm sure, didn't envisage these changes that have come about. I don't think I'm sure that many more so of the people of my age, the Aboriginal people of my age, envisaged the results coming about as quickly as they did. Today of course we hear young people talking about how slow it is and so forth and so on. It isn't. The changes brought about in the last 25 years since the Referendum have been quite remarkable, quite remarkable. I mean we have young black kids walking in and out of universities as we walk in and out of our front door. Before the Referendum in 1965 there were something like 13 Aboriginal children in secondary school in New South Wales. I think it's a tragedy that the young people know so little of that part of their history today.

Do you feel a certain sadness personally, that having worked so hard for all of that, the result is in terms of the current leaders, among Aborigines, often not recognised and that you personally have never really properly been acknowledged as being very, very important to that history among the current Aboriginal leaders?

Look, I don't think that we human beings should go about changing or trying to improve situations that are drastic for other human beings and expect to be rewarded. This is what life is about, it is about getting up and helping each other and doing the best we can, to raise people out of their misery. I don't think that those people who worked for that Referendum thought about rewards or thought about acknowledgement and I certainly didn't. I mean, there were people who were involved in the prevention of war, people who went around asking for the Atom Bomb to be banned. There were people who were very politically conscious and people who knew what the lack of rights meant to a particular group of people and they were not the people who went around and said, 'Well now, really you should honour me for all that I have done. Look at the Aborigines today'. I don't look at the Aboriginal people today and expect them to say to me, well, thanks Faith, you know. Not at all. This is what we all should be doing. Everyone should be getting up and everyone should be involved in preventing what is going on in different countries that has to do with putting one group down against another on the grounds of race. And whether it's in South Africa or whether it's in what was Yugoslavia or in any other part of the world, we should be doing just that, and I see it just as a human being's duty to get involved in raising people to be equals in society.

Within your own family what sort of principles have you used to raise Lilon? What kinds of things have you tried to teach her about to be a good human being?

Well, I don't think I deliberately tried to teach my daughter anything. I think that the lives which Hans and I have lived have just rubbed off onto her. I know how loved she is with her colleagues. It's hard for me to talk about her, because she is too, it's too close. But she's a very special human being, it's true. But I'm a believer in parenting and I don't think it can be done in a casual way. I think you've got to put a fair bit of energy into it and you know, I called her to the piano for about 16 years of my life, the first thing in the morning. And she rewarded me with her playing, that was beautiful. I mean a parent does, can do so much and I felt I did something there for her. But with her other skills, well they're hers, and I guess they've been developed because of the environment that she grew up in.

What made her decide to be a doctor?

Well, I really don't know why she decided to be a doctor. I really don't know. I know she's one to accept challenges and I thought at the time, well, so be it. Save the lives of people, treasure the lives of people, be good to one's patients, be with one's patients, be comforting to one's patients, to be reassuring and to be honest and to be truthful. Those are the things that I would expect of her and I'm sure that they are there for her patients.

You adopted an Aboriginal son at one stage of your life. Could you tell me about that,? Why you did it and how it happened and what became of it?

Well, we only had Lilon. And I guess there is no woman on this earth who hated being pregnant more than I did. And I thought, well there are an awful lot of kids who haven't got a roof anyhow and Hans thought the same way. And we asked the Aboriginal Welfare Board and also the Child Welfare Department, well we said to them, 'We have room for another one', and one afternoon they rang us up and told us, 'Well, here you are, come and get him', and we did. And he was with us for about 10 years and then he expressed an opinion, strong opinion or strong wish that he wanted to find his own parents. And we did the best we could. I often feel that in that area, perhaps of the family, I might have failed. It doesn't upset me, I mean we all do what we believe is right at the time, and that's what parents should remember. Whatever we do, we always do for the best and he found his own people and I'm sure that meant a lot to him. It left a vacuum for me, a very deep one, but we have to go on living.

Do you see him now?

No, I don't, no.

So how old was he, when he came to you?

He was about two and a half, a tiny little thing, and on one occasion we had a visitor who called to see us and she looked at this tiny little thing and she said, 'He's like a baby Harold Blair', and Harold Blair, at that time, of course was at his peak.

And so he left to find his own parents and went back to live with them?

Well I don't know, I guess, whatever happened I'm not quite sure.

And so you grieve a little bit about that?

I did, I don't now, I don't now. You know a lot of things, it's easier to live when you get on in years, you don't take things so hardly, you've seen so much and you've left so much behind you. Like I can take the death of my friends now, who are my peers, easier now than perhaps I would when I was a few years younger. So I can take sadness and disappointments now, much easier.

What would you say is the philosophy, the principles that you use to guide your life. When you're trying to work out your priorities and your values in what you think is important. Is there, I know this is a very complex question to ask you to answer simply but are there certain ideas that guide you?

Yes, I think so. Yes, I'm sure, there is. We live in a very materialistic society and I think my ideas have a lot to do with my trying to combat this mania to acquire, regardless. Or, and it's being able to put oneself in another person's position and to be able to feel a little more deeply what a very ill person, a very sick person ... to understand better how they are feeling about about to go and leave this world, to die. And I think also that it has a lot to do with trying to understand how the young people feel today and if I'm disappointed about anything awfully much, I find a great disappointment in the people who are now in their 20s or 30s or so, who are out for, as it were, a quick quid. You know this idea of owning and possession appears to have taken control of their lives. But I have a fair ... off and on, I have something to do with very much younger children and school children and I think they think more about the people of the world, the other people of the world, other than themselves. There is a terrible self-centredness now about. These bloody yuppies who really make me angry, they are wasteful and they are extravagant and they are pushy and they think about no-one's future other than their own. And that is a rather new element in Australian society and I don't like it.

You've worked all your life very hard for people who have been materially very badly off and you yourself live in a degree of comfort, in a nice house with a good income, does that ever worry you?

No, I'm not worried by my comforts in this house at all during the years that I've worked in the Aboriginal movement or for the Island people today or whoever it might be, or in the Women's Movement because I believe we've got to look after ourselves as well as we can if we want to go out and help others and small comforts mean a lot to me and they prepare me well for the day ahead. But you know, like, the women who brought about the assistance for families in the '30s and I think it was known as the Child Endowment, they weren't people who needed that, they were middleclass; and upperclass women were involved in that. They didn't need child endowment from the government, and yet they brought about those changes and I'm sure it had a lot to do with the fact that they had some comforts, you know at night. They didn't have to worry where the next meal was coming from and if one is relieved of those stresses then one can think about, one can get their ideas together to find out how you can put others in the situation that you are in.

Jessie Street had a very big influence on your life, in getting you involved in public causes. Did she have any influence on you privately in giving you values for yourself or your family?

Oh Jessie influenced my life, God only knows, I can't tell you. I often found it difficult. She tended to ring very early in the morning and I envisaged Jessie sitting up in bed with her breakfast and me trying to get Lilon off to school and cutting lunches and what have you. But she did influence my life, this is true. And she told me on one occasion how she was always determined to make her own daughters economically independent in their adult life. [I was] having lunch with her one day with my daughter who was about two at the time and Jessie looked over the rim of her glasses and said very thoughtfully, 'Now you must make sure that you make her economically independent'. So she had, yes, she had a very, very strong influence over my thinking and you know, like, she it was who said to me, 'What we have to do about the Aboriginal people is to help lift them out of their misery'. And that's what the battle was all about, to help lift them out of the misery so that they were no longer different; that they belonged to mainstream but retained their cultures. And this is what we ask of the migrants - you come in here to our country, but you retain your culture, it enriches us. And so this is what Jessie was on about, but Jessie also, of course, she was a feminist and I often think that it must have been easier for her than it would have been for me, to have been a true feminist. But I don't think it was really, because I would imagine that her class would certainly think that women ought to know their place, even perhaps more so than my class but she influenced me in many things, particularly the need to work for peace. She said, 'We don't need arms', she always said, 'Arms are there to destroy and we don't need to destroy each other. And there's plenty of food', she used to say, 'there's plenty of food for everyone, we just have to make sure it's distributed equally around the world'. She was a woman with tremendous vision who looked beyond the city of Sydney and beyond the four walls of her lounge room. And she used to visit me and I recall on one occasion she came to dinner. I said, 'Come to dinner and bring four people'. And she did. And this feminist, this great feminist arrived with four men. And I'd worked very hard that day to make the dining room look really special and I had yellow flowers everywhere and brand new yellow curtains that I'd made and I cooked a beautiful leg of veal and I put my all into it as one does for very special guests. But what did she say when she walked into the dining room? She looked around and she said, 'Oh well, this is lovely, now who did all of this?', and I in a very weak voice said, 'I did'. I was ashamed to tell her I had, because she would say to me, 'Now your place is not in the house, you must get help. Your place is not in the kitchen, you must get help', and often I would wonder, help, who's going to pay them? Dear Jessie, what a wonderful woman she was.

Now the other great influence that you've talked about was Hans, Hans, your husband. And he supported you in many ways. Would you tell us a little bit about all the different ways in which Hans has supported you through your life's work?

Hans has supported me, I think the greatest contribution he had to our partnership was sharing the parenting of our daughter because he was a very good parent and he always wanted to be with her. He loved being with her and she was never a nuisance to him, never ever. And I can see him going off, taking her to the first concert she ever went to, and she had my seat for the first part of the concert and then the second part, she'd have Hans' seat and we would toss this around a bit. So he shared that a lot, not because he felt it a duty, as indeed many men do it today out of duty, because they feel it's a duty. He did it because he enjoyed it and he loved it and if you were to ask him, he would say exactly as I am saying, he just enjoyed being with her. But then there were other things - like, it's nice to be, to have a partner who thinks as you do politically and you know, to share a few things in common. We didn't exactly share food in common because Hans, I couldn't come at some of the stuff that was cooked up in Europe and he'd start and cook up here, I couldn't but those were minor things, insignificant. And we shared the garden, to this day we share the garden and that's made life easy, but the most important thing of all, was his good parenting and he allowed for space in the relationship. And if he wants to walk out tomorrow and go overseas, he doesn't say to me, 'Will it be all right?', and I know that I can do that, and we've both done it. We've done it dozens of times over and we might ring each other up from wherever we are, or we've sent cards or we write to each other. He's made it nice to know that we can come back to this house and carry on living. But this space has been very important in this very long partnership and it's 41 years old almost. And it's not only being able to go out when you want to go out, without saying, 'I beg your pardon?', but it has a lot to do about how you live in the house. And I like to know that I can have breakfast in the morning and go into my study. And he likes to know that he can do that and we don't ask any questions. So we keep that space in the house, and it's a trust ... it's a trust. So those are the things I think that have bound me to this man.

Now you've been involved in about all the major causes of your generation, throughout the '60s and '70s, the protest movement saw you at the front of many of the protest actions and you are currently involved in a lot of things. Could you just summarise for us all the different actions and causes and activities that you've taken up publicly.

Yes, I had very deep involvement in the movement for peace beginning in the early '50s and going through to the Vietnam - the war in Vietnam. And I got out in the streets then with, I suppose, a million others and my commitment I guess to that, the cause of peace I guess is greater than my commitment to anything else today. It has the highest priority of all. I become disturbed when I see what is going on next door in East Timor, I think Australia should hang its head in shame. And I have other involvements too, that are enjoyable. I'm on the Executive of the Republican Movement and I hope I live to see that eventuate. So, that doesn't drain me, that's really a pleasure. And I have a deep involvement with the H. V. Evatt Foundation. I was a great admirer of Dr Evatt because of the energy he put in for the rights of human beings the world over and also into the rights for the Aborigines, as he did in 1949. He was a man with tremendous courage and he saved us from the jaws of the Menzies Government when that government threatened to ban the Communist Party. If it were not for Evatt it would have been banned. Well that would only have been the beginning because we saw what happened in Nazi Germany. The communists were banned and then the trade unionists were banned and then the churches were banned and then it goes on, it doesn't stop there. So Evatt is to be honoured for what he did then. So it's a joy and a pleasure to be on the Executive and Vice-President of the H. V. Evatt Foundation. I like working with my colleagues there very much. And those are the major things that I have an involvement with now. But of course, I say peace has the highest priority but my writing does to and I want to get on, write a few more things before I go off. [INTERRUPTION]

What did you think about the Captain Cook Bicentenary celebrations in 1970?

Well, I didn't think very much, I was appalled to see so much money being spent on the celebrations at a time, in actual fact, when the Aborigines needing ... housing need was not met, it was not being met. And I felt all along that the money spent on the celebrations would have solved many, many problems for the Aboriginal people but also for poor whites. You know, so often we get our priorities wrong with our celebrations in particular don't we? And that was one time that I felt that they got it wrong.

[end of tape]

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