Welcome back to #AussieMavericks. Today we meet Faith Bandler, who fought against colour barriers, created welfare boards and was critical in bringing Indigenous peoples into the constitution.
It was the early 1960s when two black, middle-aged women walked into a pub in Queensland. They had been attending a congress on the future of Australia and thought they deserved a beer. “We don’t serve coloured people,” said the barman. “No, we don’t want to be served coloured people, just a drink, thanks,” one of the women quipped. The barman got angry at being challenged and two minutes later the women were evicted. The next day, they put a “black ban” on the pub, and as a result, it went bust a few months later. One of these women was Faith Bandler, and I would like to nominate her as our second candidate for Australian Maverick of the Year: our own “knights who say ‘ni’” to oppression and injustice; exemplars of how it is possible to do some good, even if you are just one person.
Faith Bandler (1918 – 2015) was born in a small town called Tumbulgum, on the border of NSW and Queensland. Her mother was Scottish-Indian, her father had been “blackbirded” from Vanuatu in 1883 when he was 13 years old. Queensland was a complicated state, in terms of race. It was thought, especially by people who believed race as the determining feature of humankind, that white people were physically unable to work under Queensland conditions. Not only was it too hot and too humid for white men, but white women ran the risk of succumbing to their sexual urges once they were tempted to shed some layers of clothing. That, of course, would not do. So in the late 1840s, it was decided to get in labour. Black labour, which would, it was thought, be able to function better under the Queensland sun. This was also necessary because transportation of convicts had been abolished and free labour was hard to come by. So big companies started a slave trade, stealing men from the Pacific Islands, especially Vanuatu, who were put on ships and sent to work in Australia; first on sheep stations, then in whaling, and finally on cane and cotton fields. They were paid nothing or very little, “supervised” by overseers with whips and guns, and died in their thousands. An estimated 60,000 people were blackbirded, as the custom was called. At Federation, in 1901, after decades in the country and building lives and families here, most of these “Kanakas” were deported, a move that was paid for by their own wages.
Faith Bandler’s father and his brother worked in the sugar cane fields until they were about to be thrown out of the country. Then they escaped, walking, at night, from Far North Queensland to Brisbane, and from there to Northern NSW, where they finally started the banana farm where Faith was born as the second-last of eight children. Like the Aboriginal people, the Islanders were discriminated against, banned from joining unions and badly paid. And like Aboriginal people, a lot of them went to fight for Australia in WWII regardless, which is where one of Faith’s brothers died on the Burma Railway. Faith herself joined the Australian Women’s Land Army, an organisation that took over men’s roles in working the land and harvesting crops during the war. It was a tough time, especially because black women like Faith were treated badly. What impressed her more, though, were the horrific living conditions of the Aboriginal people in the towns she worked in: bad health, no education, dilapidated housing and a complete dependency on the Board for the Protection of Aborigines, that decided where they worked and lived, who they could marry, whether they could travel to see their family and if they could keep custody of their own children. Faith was first moved and then angry.
Despite the fact that Faith was not Aboriginal herself, she worked tirelessly for ten years to get up the 1967 Referendum that would finally include Indigenous people into the constitution and bring them under the same law as every other Australian.
After the war ended she got a job in a shirt factory, but the plight of Aboriginal people stayed on her mind. Soon she met a woman who convinced her that art was the medium to change things. Together they came up with a dance program that would tour Europe and introduce audiences to the discrimination of Aboriginal people. Early 1951, Faith got on a boat with a large Australian cultural delegation. Their first stop was Naples, where the bullet marks were still visible on the walls of the old town, and where they soon realised that if they ate that meant that somebody else was going without food. Over the next eight months, Faith and her fellow artists got a lesson in the ravages of war: flattened cities, excruciating poverty, hunger, sickness and trauma. Once back in Australia, the passports of the travellers were confiscated, because they had been behind the Iron Curtain and were, therefore, suspect. They also immediately came under investigation by ASIO, especially Faith, who became involved with the Peace Council straight away and started giving speeches about what she had seen. She also married Hans Bandler, an Austrian Jew, who had managed to escape Dachau Concentration Camp during the war and was now a Sydney engineer. Because of Faith’s peace work, Hans regularly lost his job and the couple were always aware that their phones were tapped and their movements closely watched. But it would get worse.
By the end of the 1950s, Faith was invited to lunch by Jessie Street, the upper-class white feminist and human rights campaigner who had been the only Australian woman delegate at the founding of the United Nations in 1945. The time had come, Street said, to help the Aboriginal people get out of their misery, and she thought that Faith would be a great person to help her do that. Faith’s first action was to set up the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship, together with Pearl Gibbs, an Indigenous activist whose aim it was to get rid of the Aboriginal Protection and Welfare Boards, something that was accomplished in 1969. In the meantime, Faith was also one of the people who established the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Despite the fact that Faith was not, of course, Aboriginal herself, she worked tirelessly for ten years, almost around the clock, to get up the 1967 Referendum that would finally include Indigenous people into the constitution and bring them under the same law as every other Australian.
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By this time, Faith had earned herself the reputation as a troublemaker, part of “a pack of rabble”; black women who “didn’t know their place”. She didn’t mind, instead focusing on her next goal, the recognition of the blackbirded South Sea Islanders. In the early 1970s, Faith found herself fighting on several fronts: first of all the Right-wing historians who maintained that the men had not been enslaved but came to the country voluntarily. Then there were the politicians who were reluctant to listen to yet another discriminated minority, and lastly even Aboriginal people who were annoyed at her change of focus. Faith was undeterred, dividing her time between writing books about her family and the history of activism and more visible politicking, in organisations like the Women’s Electoral Lobby. Partly because of women like Faith, this was a productive period for the WEL: it accomplished new equal pay legislation, as well as laws penalising rape, domestic violence, sex discrimination and harassment. It didn’t surprise Faith. In her experience, “it’s the women who carry it, always”, and “get the right thing done”.
In 1976, Faith Bandler was offered an MBE by the Queen. She refused, because she didn’t believe in the monarchy, convinced it, and the British state, had been responsible for the treatment of both the Indigenous Australians and the South Sea Islanders. But recognition finally also came from the Australian government. In 1984, she was made a Member of the Order of Australia. In 1994, Macquarie University gave her an honorary doctorate and in 1997 she received the Human Rights Medal and was made an Australian Living Treasure. Faith Bandler died last year and was given a state funeral. She was, as she said, “a great believer in the power of people” and saw it “as a human being’s duty to get involved in raising people to be equals in society.” In order to do that, Faith thought “we should use the streets. They are not just there for motorcars, they’re there for us to get out and express our feelings.”
For that simple directive, Faith Bandler is our second Australian Maverick, Exemplar Supreme.