Faith Bandler: Advocate for Indigenous and South Sea Islander Rights

Faith Bandler: A Pioneer in Australia's Civil Rights Movement

Faith Bandler AC MBE, born Ida Lessing Faith Mussing, was an indomitable Australian civil rights activist whose life’s work significantly advanced the rights of Indigenous Australians and South Sea Islanders. Best known for her pivotal role in the 1967 referendum, Bandler’s enduring legacy continues to inspire new generations of activists.

Early Life and Influences of Faith Bandler

Faith Bandler was born on September 27, 1918, in Tumbulgum, New South Wales. Her early life was shaped by her father’s harrowing experience of being blackbirded from Ambrym Island, Vanuatu, to work in Australia’s burgeoning sugar industry.

Wacvie Mussingkon, later known as Peter Mussing, escaped the brutal conditions of the plantation to become a lay preacher. His stories of survival and resilience deeply influenced Bandler, igniting her lifelong commitment to justice.

From Dressmaker to Activist

After moving to Sydney in 1934 and working as a dressmaker’s apprentice, Bandler’s activism began to take shape during World War II. Serving in the Australian Women’s Land Army, she experienced firsthand the stark pay disparities faced by Indigenous workers. This injustice fueled her post-war campaign for equal pay and laid the groundwork for her future as a formidable advocate.

Championing Indigenous Rights

In 1956, Faith Bandler co-founded the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, alongside notable activists Pearl Gibbs and Bert Groves. Her leadership extended to the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA), where she played a critical role in the campaign leading to the historic 1967 referendum.

The overwhelming support for the referendum, which garnered nearly 91 percent approval, was a testament to Bandler’s tireless efforts. This monumental change enabled the federal government to legislate for Indigenous Australians and include them in the national census.

A Voice for South Sea Islanders

Bandler’s advocacy did not stop with Indigenous Australians. She also championed the rights of South Sea Islanders, a cause complicated by historical revisionism and internal divisions within the civil rights movement. Her tenacity in this arena highlighted her broader commitment to racial equality and social justice.

Literary Contributions

Bandler’s activism extended into the literary world. She authored several books, including histories of the 1967 referendum and a novel depicting her father’s experience with blackbirding. These works provided a vital narrative to Australia’s civil rights history and personal stories of resilience and triumph.

Personal Life and Legacy

In 1952, Faith Bandler married Hans Bandler, a Jewish refugee from Vienna who had survived Nazi labor camps. Together, they raised a daughter, Lilon Gretl, and fostered a son, Peter. Despite personal tragedies, including the loss of Hans in 2009, Bandler remained a pillar of strength until her passing in 2015 at the age of 96.

Honors and Recognition

Bandler’s contributions were recognized with numerous honors, including being named a Member of the Order of Australia in 1984 and a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2009. She also received an honorary doctorate from Macquarie University and was named one of Australia’s Living Treasures by the National Trust.

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