Faith Bandler was an Australian civil rights activist who campaigned for the rights of Indigenous Australians and South Sea Islanders. She is known for her leadership in the 1967 referendum on the rights of Aboriginal Australians.
Bandler was born Ida Lessing Faith Mussing in Tumbulgum, New South Wales. Her father, Wacvie Peter Mussing was a Pacific Islander who had been brought to Queensland from the island of Ambrym, Vanuatu. He had been blackbirded (the coercion of people through trickery and kidnapping to work as labourers.) at the age of 12 and been sent to work on a sugar cane plantation which he later escaped from. In 1901 new Commonwealth of Australia legislated to expel Pacific Islanders, on the grounds that Australia was to be a ‘white man’s country’. Mussing escaped deportation by marrying Bandler’s mother Ida Venno who was an Australian of Indian-Scottish descent and moving to New South Wales.
Bandler was taught of her father’s experience through stories told in the evenings and it later inspired her and her sibilings to support political campaigns for freedom from the racial discrimination they experienced in the local cinemas, hotels and shops. Bandler experienced harassment and racial abuse while at Murwillumbah school, but was protected and nurtured by kindly and committed school teachers. She then attended Cleveland Street Night School in Sydney, where she also worked as a dressmaker’s apprentice.
During World War II, Bandler and her sister Kath served in the Australian Women’s Land Army, working on fruit farms where they and other Indigenous workers received less pay than the white workers. In 1945 once the war was over, Bandler began to campaign for equal pay for Indigenous workers from her home in the Sydney suburb of Kings Cross. Bandler mixed in the left wing pacifist circles of King’s Cross whicih lead to her participation in the Margaret Walker Dance Group and a trip to the International Youth Congress in Berlin, in 1951. She was the leading performer in the so-called ‘The Dance of the Aboriginal Girl’ which was based on a poem about racial discrimination in the South of the United States called ‘The Merry Go Round’ by the popular Harlem Renaissance writer, Langston Hughes.
On Bandler’s return from Eurpoe she met Hans Bandler and in 1952 they were married. Hans’ financial and moral support of her activism allowed her to begin a life-long political commitment. In 1956 Bandler and a fellow Aboriginal activist, Pearl Gibbs formed the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship. The group played a key role in the launch of a campaign at the Sydney Town Hall in 1957 which requested a referendum on the sections of the constitution that discriminated against Aborigines. That same year she also became involved with the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI). Bandler spent ten years campaigning which lead to a referendum being called to enable the Commonwealth government to legislate on behalf of indigenous Australians and to include them in the national census.
Bandler continued her political involvement, she was a regular participant in the FCAATSI annual conferences and served as an executive member and then Secretary from 1970 until 1972, when she was forced to leave. She then became an active member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby. Bandler also became involved in researching her father’s history and the role of South Sea Islanders, in developing the north of Queensland and in particular the sugar industry. She visited Vanuatu where she met her father’s relatives and documented their lives and exploitative experience at the hands of traffickers in labour and the sugar cane growers. In 1977 her first novel, Wacvie was published. The book was inspired by her childhood memories of her father’s stories and was followed in 1984 by her second novel Welou: My Brother which dealt with her brother Walter’s life growing up in Australia as a boy torn between two different cultures.
In 1974 Bandler was instrumental in the formation of the Australian South Sea Islanders United Council and helped to lobby the Australian government. In 1991 her efforts lead to the Evatt Foundation commissioning a survey of the South Sea islanders which, after a wider government investigation by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and the publication of The Call for Recognition, lead to a package of grants, programs and special funding for Australia’s South Sea islander community.
Bandler was a much loved public figure who attracted Australians of all backgrounds to the cause of social justice, human rights and equal opportunity for all, regardless of people’s ethnicity or skin colour, their gender or class background. She received many honours and awards, including the Human Rights Medal from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission in 1997 and a ‘Meritorious Award in Honour and Gratitude for a Life of Courageous Advocacy for Justice and for Indigenous People, for Human Rights, for Love and Reconciliation’ presented to her by Nelson Mandela in 2000 on behalf of the Sydney Peace Foundation. In 2009 she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia, Australia’s highest honour by Governor General Quentin Bryce. She died at the age of 96 in 2015.