Monday, 2 March 2015
Bandler, Ms Faith, AC, Tilmouth, Kwementyaye
Tonight I want to pay tribute to two very different but great pioneers in Indigenous history, Faith Bandler and Kwementyaye Tilmouth. Last Tuesday, as Minister for Indigenous Affairs, I represented the Prime Minister at the state funeral for Faith Bandler, held at the Great Hall of the University of Sydney. It was a privilege to be there to see how many people had been touched by her life of activism, especially when it came to Indigenous rights. It was due to the tireless work of Ms Bandler and others like her that the 1967 'yes' vote was carried as well as it was. The whole country said 'yes' and, no doubt, that was a great source of great joy to Faith Bandler. Her spirit is an example for us again now as we move ever closer to the referendum for constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples.
We need the same never-give-up approach, the same integrity and faith in people that Faith Bandler brought to her life. She once said:
My belief is in people. I fix my faith in people. I'm a great believer in the power of people.
When the war was over and Faith left the land army, she got involved with the Margaret Walker dance group. As Faith said:
2 She had created a lovely dance that revealed the discrimination against Aboriginal people, and then she took that—she made up her mind to take that dance to a festival in Berlin. And so I went off to Europe as a dancer—would you believe? It's crazy, isn't it? So I went off to Europe and I went, actually, through Western Europe as well as Eastern Europe. And I went to see the Dachau concentration camp. And I saw Europe five, six years after the war, and it had a very deep impact on my life. I couldn't believe that as I walked around Berlin or Warsaw, Budapest, I might well be walking over so many bodies buried beneath the rubble. Terrible. Just dreadful.
So Faith Bandler's horizons widened. The first organisation she was involved in to change government legislation was a state organisation called the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship. Faith and Pearl Gibbs founded it to campaign against the Aboriginal Welfare Board. This board controlled the movements of Aboriginal people locked away in reservations. In 1969 they achieved their goal. Jessie Street was a patron of the fellowship and had written up a petition for the referendum. In Faith's own words:
… Jessie actually placed that in my hands and said to me, 'There you are. Now go and get yourself a referendum.'
At that time each state had its own laws on Indigenous people. As Faith put it:
… they created such tremendous confusion. You could be a relatively free person walking around Victoria and you come to New South Wales and you'd find you've got to go up to Bridge Street in Sydney to get permission if you can go and see your Uncle or Aunt, if you please. Then if you move over the border into Queensland—well, the very fact that you got over the border in Queensland—you could be arrested without reason. So there was a great need to abolish those state laws and to bring everyone under the common law—the federal law—with incidentally, the migrants who'd come recently, who have all the protection and privileges of the federal law. So that is the main reason why it was important to have a referendum. We had to change the federal Constitution.
So they got the handbills out. They went to the wharfies and the Seamen's Union and a few other unions and said: 'Would you circulate these? We're going to have a public meeting in the town hall, and we're launching a petition for a federal referendum on the rights of Aboriginals.' The unions took them and took the petition and the handbills, particularly the Seamen's Union, and dropped them in all the ports around Australia.
That was the founding, as Faith Bandler says, of the organisation that brought about major changes in the Federal Constitution—the referendum that changed the Constitution in 1967. They worked on that referendum from 1957 to 1967. For those who get frustrated about our current attempts across parties in this place, have faith; it will happen.
Faith's attitude to life was:
I don't think that we human beings should go about changing or trying to improve situations that are drastic for other human beings and expect to be rewarded This is what life is about. It's about getting up and helping each other and doing the best we can to live raise people out of their misery. I don't think that those people who worked for that referendum thought about rewards or thought about acknowledgment and I certainly didn't ... I see it just as a human being's duty to get involved in raising people to be equals in society.
Faith then turned her efforts to her own people, the South Sea Islanders, and campaigned for them to have the same support as Indigenous people, except for land rights. She returned to the island where her father came from and had an overwhelming experience of being where she belonged. Faith Bandler: a life lived for others. May she rest in peace.
I would now like to talk about the passing of a good mate of mine, Kwementyaye Tilmouth. He has another name, but for cultural reasons I am referring to him as Kwementyaye. I have known Kwementyaye for many years. He dedicated himself to improving the lives of Indigenous people and fought fearlessly against negative attitudes and racism. Born in The Gap in Alice Springs, Kwementyaye was raised on Croker Island as a member of the stolen generation. He did not see some of his brothers and sisters again until he was a grown man. He tells a good yarn about being at the Alice Springs airport. He said: 'We were joking about this old Aboriginal bloke who looked like Yogi Bear. We didn't know who he was. The welfare bloke turned up and said, "Oh, you're the Tilmouth boys. This is your father. Oh, and, by the way, sorry to tell you but your mother died."'
That was the introduction to family in Alice Springs. They then went to high school in Darwin, staying for three years. As to the origin of his nickname, Michael Gordon of The Age wrote: 'In time, [Patrick] Dodson became his mentor and gave him his nickname because his initials, LBT, could stand for "little black Kwementyaye".' His first job was sweeping the floor at an abattoir, but he went on to work as a stockman at the Angas Downs station near Alice Springs. He went on to study in South Australia, gaining a degree in science and natural resource management, which he used and excelled in later in life.
Kwementyaye later helped establish the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Service and Health Service. He also served as a director of the Central Land Council, the statutory authority representing Aboriginal people in an area of over 776,000 square kilometres in the southern half of the Northern Territory. This was a period of huge turmoil for the Central Land Council and it was due to Kwementyaye that they came out a strong and well-respected organisation. Education of Indigenous people was crucially important to Kwementyaye. He said, 'If you want to wipe out an Indigenous group, the first thing you do is remove education.' He said that in 2007. This relates back to what we are trying to do today—to get school attendance up. That is the single most important feature in being able to get work and have a good life with a family in safe communities.
This always relates, I think, and has an effect on what we are trying to do today. We are trying to get school attendance up, because that is the single most important feature in being able to get work and have a good life with a family in safe communities. Kwementyaye spent a lot of his time fighting for improved access to education for Indigenous students. He was also a firm believer in Indigenous people having the opportunity to build an economically sustainable future. Education. Jobs. Business. These were the goals Kwementyaye Tilmouth pursued in the entire time that I knew him.
A long-time member of the Labor Party, he was the frontrunner to be pre-selected as the party's senator for the Northern Territory in the late nineties before pulling out of the contest. He says he just could not be tied down, and he was a singular individual. Chief Minister Adam Giles said:
I would have sincerely liked to have seen Mr Tilmouth take his passion for Aboriginal advancement to Canberra. He would have been the best Labor senator never to be preselected.
And that is no slight on the current and past senators from the Northern Territory. The Northern Territory government has offered his family a state funeral.
Kwementyaye actually was not very impressed with the apology to the Stolen Generations. He said:
I'll go the big party at the end of the day when everything is done.
We are still working on it, Kwementyaye. It is going to take a bit longer without you. Kwementyaye described former Prime Minister and good friend Mr Rudd as:
… going around hugging people and carrying on like a pork chop …
He said of the then prime minister and friend:
Every time he sees me he hugs me.
I have to tell him now 'release' because he won't let go.
He was a completely irreverent character, and I know I can relate that anecdote as I know that he and Mr Rudd were good friends. Almost everything he said and did was full of irreverence, but he had the capacity to reach across every political divide and had the capacity to influence so many people in this place and the other and at a state and territory level. Kwementyaye was a tough man, stoic in the face in the face of adversity. Whilst he was receiving medical treatment, he jokes he was the only patient to put on weight whilst receiving chemo.
Kwementyaye was someone who stood up for countrymen at every turn. He was a fighter for the mob, an extremely generous man who was as sharp as a whip and just as insightful. He was characterised by his family, unsurprisingly, as unorthodox and he was as irreverent at home as he was in public. Kwementyaye has always been there, right in the middle of it. He will be sorely missed by all Indigenous people. It was a real pleasure knowing him as long as I did. His passing is a great loss, and I extend my condolences to his wife, Kathy, and three daughters, Shaneen, Cathryn and Amanda.
The tributes, Kwementyaye, are glowing. To some he had great stature. To others he was a true hero. To others he was a man who will never be forgotten. Bundle them all up and you have a legend. I will conclude with some self-analysis by Kwementyaye in his own words:
We don't lie down, we never laid down, we have some sting in us. We're non-conformist.
… … …
If we was a weed we'd be bloody good I tell ya.
Vale Kwementyaye. You will be missed, mate.