Yesterday in Sydney, Faith Bandler’s remarkable life was commemorated with a state funeral.
For those unfamiliar with her story, Bandler was co-founder of the Australian Aboriginal Fellowship in New South Wales, with Pearl Gibbs, and served as the general secretary of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, among other prominent roles. She was the daughter of a South Sea Islander man who was taken by colonisers and forced into the cane-sugar fields in northern Queensland in the 1800s, and spent her life working tirelessly for Aboriginal rights.
For over ten years, the AAF was a key player in advocating for the Yes vote on the 1967 referendum to give Aboriginal people formal citizenship and the right to vote in Australia, a result that came about because of determined Aboriginal activist groups. The referendum opened the door for subsequent generations to push for economic, social and political inclusion.
Coincidentally, one of the best known actions in New South Wales of that era – the 1965 Freedom Rides, led by student activist Charlie Perkins and the University of Sydney’s Student Action for Aborigines – also recently had its 50th anniversary. To celebrate, the University of Sydney, along with some of the original freedom riders and their families, ran a bus tour recreating the ride and visiting significant sites of Aboriginal struggle along the way.
Inspired by a similar civil rights protest in the United States, the Freedom Rides aimed to confront directly the segregation of Aboriginal people in public spaces, particularly in rural towns.
While one of the most visible public actions against racism in Australian history, not much changed as a result. As Kelly Briggs has written, the Moree council’s decision to change the by-laws that banned Aboriginal people from the public baths was changed back as soon as the Freedom Riders left, and, to this day, Moree remains the home of many economically disadvantaged Aboriginal people.
In fact, looking around Australia today, it’s hard not to see how little has changed. Even as Faith Bandler is being remembered with a state funeral, the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy is being threatened with removal – again! – so that housing developments can commence on the Block.
Sydney has been the site of much productive political debate and organising for New South Wales’ Aboriginal community, and Redfern in particular has been at the centre of some of the most significant developments in the Black Power movement in Australia.
Redfern’s tent embassy, inspired by the 1972 actions of the Canberra tent embassy protesters, whose resistance continues today, is a direct response to housing issues and the threat of gentrification. Aboriginal people in New South Wales continue to face homelessness and unsafe housing at extremely high rates, despite decades of activism around this issue by Bandler and people who worked alongside her.
After the Closing the Gap policies came into effect on a federal and state level, the NSW government acknowledged that imposing inappropriate, unwanted housing programs does not work. Yet, protesters at the Block, who have expressed demands about housing initiatives in Redfern, have been subject to violence and the threat of forced removal by riot police under the authority of the very same government who this week gave Faith Bandler a state funeral.
The struggle of Aboriginal people living on the Block is part of a long history of resistance – of which Bandler was a part – to ensure that Aboriginal people are able to access housing and public space without threat.
Now, Aboriginal people at the embassy have to choose between defending the Block from police and developers, and mourning the death of a civil rights legend and community member. The cold truth is, the Baird government is ultimately more comfortable with the symbolism of publicly farewelling an elderly Black activist than it is of genuinely engaging with the concerns of Aboriginal people living today.
This year, while the tent embassy in Redfern fights for Aboriginal housing and land rights in the heart of Sydney, the Western Australian government has announced the defunding, closure and demolition of many remote communities in the state, which will produce further devastating marginalisation, homelessness and vulnerability for people living in those areas. At the same time, millions of dollars of government funding has been spent on Recognise, a high-profile ad campaign which has generated much opposition from the Indigenous community.
Like the state funeral for Faith Bandler, this trend of co-optation of Aboriginal causes from within government and corporate structures is ironic.
Really, giving Aboriginal people the right to vote in 1967 and the current project for constitutional recognition have become excuses for white Australia not to examine itself, or its ideas on what Indigenous rights could actually look like in this country.