Updated February 27 with photos from Faith Bandler’s Tweed Memorial in Murwillumbah
Those who filled Sydney University’s Great Hall for Tweed-born rights campaigner Faith Bandler’s state funeral yesterday were typical of the people the determined fighter for social justice touched during her life.
There were activists who had fought alongside Ms Bandler-Mussing for the rights of Aboriginal people. There were artists, journalists and everyday people who had come to pay their respects.
There was also a chief justice, the current and former NSW governors, a former premier and numerous politicians from state and federal parliament.
All came to pay tribute to Ms Bandler, who was born at Tumbulgum in the Tweed Valley, and the remarkable life she dedicated to fighting for social justice, always with determination but never without grace.
Former Labor senator John Faulkner, who led the proceedings, said Ms Bandler’s life was an example of how much of a difference one person can make.
‘Her life stands as a testament to how much one person can do to change the country they live in and the world they leave behind,’ he said.
Ms Bandler, who died on February 13 aged 96, is best known for her pivotal work in gaining support for the 1967 referendum that gave constitutional recognition to Australia’s indigenous people.
But her fight against wrongdoing began much earlier.
Ms Bandler’s daughter, Lilon Bandler, told the 600-strong crowd of mourners her mother lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II.
During the war she joined the Women’s Land Army, which took on farm labouring jobs in the absence of men sent to war.
Dr Bandler said it was during the war, when her mother noticed the women of the land army were paid less than men, and that Aboriginal labourers were paid less again, that her mother’s awareness of discrimination began.
‘That war instilled in her a sense of outrage at injustice,’ she said.
Faith Bandler went on to become a peace activist, gaining a five-volume file with ASIO.
She became a passionate campaigner for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, South Sea Islanders like her own father, who was taken from his home and made to work in Queensland cane plantations, and fought for the rights of women.
Professor Paul Torzillo, a medical researcher and friend of Ms Bandler, said every generation had its torch carriers for social justice.
‘When you meet them, you feel better about humanity, you feel better about yourself,’ he said.
‘Faith was one of those people and we’re all much better for it.’
NSW Labor deputy leader Linda Burney said she learned three things from the small, gentle woman: that you can’t wait for the times to suit you if you want to make a change; that you have to play ‘the long game’ and need stamina to survive; and that an argument for change delivered with honesty and integrity will win the long game.
Ms Burney was joined at the service by federal indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion, NSW governor David Hurley along with his predecessor Dame Marie Bashir and former NSW premier Barry O’Farrell, who represented premier Mike Baird.
Meanwhile, a special community remembrance service and celebration of her life will be held today (Wednesday 25 February) in the park named in her honour, Faith Bandler-Mussing Park at Tumbulgum at 5.30pm, organised by the Tumbulgum community.
And the Tweed South Sea islander community is organising a ceremony for her at the South Sea Islander Memorial, Chinderah, next week, with details to be announced soon.
The ceremonies pay respect to the former Tumbulgum and Murwillumbah resident, regarded as one of the world’s most influential women.
Ms Bandler-Mussing is best known as a leading figure in a push for the 1967 referendum, when Australians voted overwhelmingly to amend the constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census and allow the Commonwealth to create laws for them.
She campaigned for the rights of South Sea Islanders, worked for Aboriginal education and housing, and served as a founding member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby.
Her advocacy steered a course for the granting of citizenship for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and her brave involvement in a Freedom Ride through segregated towns in 1965 created positive momentum for many issues confronting Aboriginal Australians.
Tweed mayor Gary Bagnall said ‘The close relationship built over generations between the South Sea Island community in Tweed Shire and the local Aboriginal people blossomed in the work of Faith’.
‘This relationship has had a profound influence in human rights all over Australia,’ Cr Bagnall said.
‘Faith was an inspirational activist and the work she started continues to this day.
‘It is a sad time for her family and friends and our thoughts are with them,’ he said.
The National Trust listed Ms Bandler-Mussing as a national living treasure in 1997 and she was named in lists of the 100 most influential Australians in the 20th Century and the world’s 50 most influential women.
She was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 1984, for her service to Aboriginal welfare, a Human Rights Medal by the National Trust of Australia and was appointed as a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2009.
She was the daughter of Wacvie Mussingkon, a South Sea Islander who was abducted and sold as a slave to work on sugar plantations, and Ida Venno, a woman of Indian-Scottish descent.
Her father, who became Peter Mussing, was a lay preacher who worked on a banana plantation near Murwillumbah. He died when Faith was only five years old but had taught his four sons and four daughters to be independent.
The family moved to Murwillumbah and Faith passed an examination for entrance to Murwillumbah High School.