Last week I was asked if I would speak at the State Funeral today of my old friend Faith Bandler. Regrettably my work and family commitments meant I was unable to be in Sydney today. I was very upset at my inability to be there because Faith was one of my very early mentors when I was but a callow youth of 17, during the latter stages of the 1967 Referendum campaign.
As the then long-standing general-secretary of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), Faith was at the helm of the campaign for a "Yes" vote in the 1967 referendum. The brief period I had the privilege of working with her toward the end of that campaign gave me invaluable experience in both political organising and public relations. Faith was a master of both fields and it was a wonderful opportunity for me to have been able to closely observe her brilliance at public speaking, and the way she could charm even the most cold-hearted politician.
The result of that campaign was the greatest ‘Yes’ vote in any Australian referendum in history, when more than 90 per cent of Australians voted in the affirmative.
I have always said since that the 1967 referendum was the definitive public opinion poll about where the ordinary Australian people stood in terms of support for Aboriginal rights. Furthermore, it was also a historically significant referendum because it was virtually the first time the Australian people had voted ‘Yes’ to a question in a Federal referendum since Federation.
This made the incredible result of the 90 per cent ‘Yes’ vote even more amazing, and stands to this day as a testament to the extraordinary political skills of Faith Bandler, who had been the public face of the campaign for more than a decade.
So significant was the result of the 1967 Referendum as an expression of support for Aboriginal people on the part of the Australian people, that I believe that the date of 27th May should be considered as an alternative date for Australia to celebrate their national day (if the nation really needs to have a day to celebrate their nationalism).
It would be a far more meaningful date because rather than celebrating the arrival of the British in Australia, it would focus the nation on a day which all people could acknowledge and remember the most honourable moment in the history of white Australia, and a day upon which no Aboriginal person would be likely to regard as offensive as is currently the case with 26th January.
Several years after 1967 I became a member of the radical Redfern Black Power Movement and Faith and I drifted in different political directions, but we nevertheless remained close friends for the rest of her life and I was extremely honoured when at the age of 92 she came to see me during my one-man theatre show at the Sydney Opera House in 2012.
On that occasion I had the opportunity to express to her in public the great love and admiration I had always felt for her, and the only sad part was that it was the last time I saw her.
Like all who knew her, I shall deeply miss her charm, warmth and quiet brilliance. Vale Faith and my condolences to daughter Lilon and family.
* Dr Gary Foley is Associate Professor in History at Victoria University
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