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Bandler, Ida Lessing Faith (1918–2015)

by Tony Stephens

Faith Bandler, by Alexandra Asovtseff, c1962

Faith Bandler, by Alexandra Asovtseff, c1962

National Library of Australia, 12889217

Faith Bandler changed people's hearts and minds in support of human rights and social justice. Her smile, no doubt, helped. The National Trust listed her as a national living treasure in 1997 and the Herald, in 2001, included her among the 100 most influential Australians of the 20th century. The Good Weekend, in 2011, included her in a list of 50 women considered the most influential in the world.

Her greatest achievement was her 10-year campaign for Aboriginal rights leading to the 1967 referendum which changed the Constitution and included Aborigines in the census. She worked for Aboriginal education and housing, was a founding member of the Women's Electoral Lobby and the Australian Republican Movement, campaigned for the rights of South Sea Islanders and wrote six books, including Wacvie (1977), a biographical novel about her father.

Her father, Wacvie Mussingkon, son of Baddick and Lessing Mussingkon, was taken as a boy in 1883 from Biap, on the island of Ambrym in what is now Vanuatu. His abduction was part of blackbirding, the practice which brought cheap labour to help establish the Australian sugar industry.

Many islanders came voluntarily but Wacvie was a boy who didn't speak English and, according to family oral history, was sold as a slave in Mackay and worked on sugar plantations for about 20 years until escaping. He finally settled at Tumbulgum, northern NSW, and married Ida Venno, of Indian-Scottish descent. They had four sons and four daughters, including Ida Faith, born on September 27, 1918.

Faith's father, who had become Peter Mussing, a lay preacher and worked on a banana plantation outside Murwillumbah, died when she was only five but he had taught his children to be independent. Their mother was practical and proper, making table napkins out of bleached flour bags during the 1930s depression and insisting on table cloths, even if made from newspapers, cut in fancy shapes.

The family moved to Murwillumbah and, although the Tweed Heads Chamber of Commerce wanted a separate school for "coloured children", records show that Faith passed the examination for entrance to Murwillumbah High School in 1932. She may have been the only black child to do so.

The Mussings survived the Depression with the help of home-grown produce. They argued politics around the dinner table, Faith's politics were already developing a radical bent. Music united them. Ida sang Handel and Strauss arias at home. Faith and the boys loved Paul Robeson and followed the civil rights struggle in the United States.

The Depression cut short Faith's schooling, although she went to Cleveland Street night school in Sydney after the war. Her first job was with a dressmaker, then as a domestic help, and she learned the piano. But, when Japanese submarines attacked Sydney Harbour in 1942, she joined the Women's Land Army. Her brother Eddy died on the notorious Burma-Thailand Railway.

Afterwards she became a seamstress, joined the cosmopolitan world of Kings Cross, met people of the Left, including poet Dame Mary Gilmore and writer Len Fox, and developed a long and close relationship with Karl Schultz, a Finnish seaman who jumped ship and encouraged her interest in politics. She took formal singing lessons.

Endorsed as a delegate to the Australian Peace Congress in 1950, Faith came under the influence of Jessie Street, who worked to have the rights of women included in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was an executive member of the World Peace Council.

The two women's backgrounds could not have been different. Street's father traced his ancestry back to Alfred the Great; her husband, Sir Kenneth, was NSW Chief Justice, his father had been chief justice and her son, Sir Laurence, was to be chief justice. Yet Bandler and Street began in 1957, with Pearl Gibbs, an Aboriginal leader, and others, a campaign for a national referendum to alter the Constitution so that the Australian government had powers over Aboriginal affairs previously held by the states.

Gibbs and Bandler formed the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship, with Gilmore and Street as patrons. The Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement, later the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, was set up in 1958.

Faith Mussing had met Hans Bandler, a design engineer, in 1950, at an Australian Peace Council musical evening, where she was a speaker and he screened documentaries about Aboriginal culture.

Hans Bandler also knew about discrimination. A Jew born in Vienna, he saw the Nazis march into his country and spent time in Dachau and Buchenwald. He and Faith married in 1952, after her return from the 1951 Berlin Youth Festival in East Berlin.

She had gone with other young Australians, fearing that World War III was about to begin, and wanting to prevent it. ASIO opened files on them and their passports were confiscated on their return. Bandler did not get hers back for 10 years and she lost her dressmaking job at David Jones.

The 1967 referendum was a triumph for Bandler and her campaigning colleagues. "The hardest part was to get people to think of the Aboriginal people as people," she recalled of the vote that gave the first Australians the status of human beings in the census.

The campaign achieved the highest "yes" vote recorded at an Australian referendum - 90.77 per cent. Discriminatory sections were cut from the constitution and the Commonwealth gained power to legislate for indigenous people.

Until 1967, South Sea Islanders had fared better in Australia than had Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. They had the vote, for a start. But a terrible irony emerged for Bandler and other islanders who had worked for a "Yes" vote.

The referendum led to legislation specifically designed to help Aborigines and Torres Strait Island families, overlooking the 20,000 descendants of the South Sea Islanders, who were not eligible for benefits in fields such as education, health and housing. Bandler had another campaign to fight.

She was not only committed to causes but to good relationships with people. Her father was a lay preacher but his daughter's faith was placed in people. She once said that, if her time were limited, she would like to reach out to the heroes she knew, such as Nelson Mandela, Jessie Street and Paul Robeson, whom she greeted at Sydney Airport in 1960. When she showed the singer a film about the Aboriginal people, tears rolled down his cheeks.

After refusing to accept the MBE from "an empire that had kidnapped and enslaved my father", Bandler was made a Member in the Order of Australia in 1984, an honour elevated to Companion in 2009. Her other awards included an honorary doctorate of letters from Macquarie University and a Sydney Peace Foundation award, presented by Mandela.

One regret of her life was having lost touch with Peter, an Aboriginal boy the Bandlers fostered after he was abandoned in a park north of Armidale. He left to find his own family and did not keep in touch.

Hans Bandler, whose work included as a design engineer on the Warragamba dam, died in 2009. Faith is survived by her daughter, Lilon, son-in-law Stephen Llewellyn, and their daughters, Olivia and Nicola.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 February 2015

Additional Resources

Citation details

Tony Stephens, 'Bandler, Ida Lessing Faith (1918–2015)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/bandler-ida-lessing-faith-15982/text30791, accessed 27 September 2016.

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