Common Ground: Steven Oliver On Changing The Date Of Australia Day


Aboriginal or Australian or Aboriginal Australian, we all have a lot more in common than we think, writes Steven Oliver.

As I type this first line, I have to admit I’m not exactly sure what path this article is going to go down. I just know I had to write it because I find myself being bombarded with thoughts that I have to put on paper so I can gain a clearer picture of what it is I need to ‘actually’ think about.

See, writing has always eased my mind in the sense that I find it a process of elimination. For me to reach a conclusion about something that I find extremely serious or confronting then I’m going to have to ‘think about that shit’ in order to know what it is I actually ‘think’ about it.

I write, I read, I edit, I rewrite then I conclude. Yes, I know that’s slow and who has time to sit around writing about shit that people are fighting about on Facebook right now? Lucky for me, I’m a freelance writer (note to self: my manager’s name is Lance, think of a ‘free Lance (freelance)’ joke for next conversation because it’ll make him giggle and then I’ll giggle at him giggling and we’ll be a pair of giggling idiots).

Speaking of giggling, I’m hoping that what I’m currently writing is going to give people a giggle or two while at the same time, give food for thought about some stuff that I find quite serious.

It seems that nowadays, if a discussion doesn’t come with threats, absolutes, blame, falsehoods, fear or guilt then it’s not a discussion. A notion that could even be said for having a debate. A notion that for many reasons is problematic (like all out, one time, proppa ways problematic).

So, what’s wrong with using threats, absolutes, blame, falsehoods, fear or guilt? I could attempt to break each action down and give my particular (some might say, peculiar) thoughts but that would bore the shit out of most people so I’m just going to focus on one point that encompasses all.

People don’t learn anything beneficial to the betterment of all and so it becomes ‘us’ and ‘them’ and neither side ever actually sees where the other side was coming from and therefore never works out a resolution that could’ve ended any feeling of ill will. If we continue down this path, we will be having ‘discussions’ that never end and the ‘big’ discussions are already going to take long enough as it is.

Aboriginal writer and performer, Steven Oliver.
Aboriginal writer and performer, Steven Oliver.

When people end up more confused and resentful towards one another, instead of gaining some common ground, they only end up further apart. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be discussed because the truth of it is, they’ve become part of the discussion that’s been set in motion. Problem is, they’re distractions that have been turned into a focus and we’re now using political identities as a display of putting on the boxing gloves (or indeed, taking them off) in preparation for the fight that’s about to be had.

Now, anybody who knows me, knows I don’t like fighting (in any form). That’s not to say I don’t fight if the need arises but I’ll always try to defuse the situation before it gets to any yelling, name calling, personal attacks or punch ups.

Most people think it’s because I’m scared of violence when the reality is, I’m sick of it. I’ve seen a lot of it in my life and there are two things I have learnt; it isn’t the answer and it isn’t right.

Even if violence is used in defence of another violent act, there is always a cost. Violence ingrains for the simple fact that it is the act of being violent. It’s not something that can easily be erased or dismissed. It’s why I can’t picture myself ever living in a world where it doesn’t exist. Whether it’s seeing it first hand or from an image on my screen, I’ve concluded that humanity will always have blood on its hands until there is no blood left to spill and no mouths to speak of the atrocities. It will only end when there is nobody left to embrace the peace which is something I find incredibly sad.

Still, doesn’t mean I can’t try to defuse violence I believe could possibly be on the horizon which – I guess – says, maybe I do still have a faint glow in my heart for humanity and maybe I haven’t actually concluded that we’re destined for a future of emptiness and nothingness devoid of any life on Mother Earth. The whole ‘no blood left to spill’ and ‘no mouths to speak’ sounded poetic though so, I’m leaving that shit in because it’s still food for thought (and still poetic).

Anyway, I digress (if you read my shit then you know that’s what I do. It’s like my thing. It’s all those thoughts, even the sexy ones. Anyway, digressing again). I suppose for transparency that I should declare that when it comes to politics, I sorta, kinda lean to the left.

I grammatically incorrectly say sorta, kinda because come these last few elections, I’ve preferred to cop the fine than to vote. It’s kind of my protest against the system which (I admit) doesn’t actually do anything except see me out of pocket. People have said I could use my Aboriginality to not vote and while that may be true, in the end, it wasn’t an option for me.

Faboriginal writer and performer, Steven Oliver.
Faboriginal writer and performer, Steven Oliver.

After a lot of thought and questioning of myself I realised yes, I am Aboriginal but I am also Australian. A claim to identity I had to make peace with over the years. Apart from having other Aussies ask me ‘what am I really?’ when answering ‘Australian’ to their requests of my nationality, there was part of me that felt like a betrayal to not just mob here and now but to everything the old people went through.

What would they think of me? Would they be disappointed? Would they understand? Would they forgive me if they didn’t? It’s something I grappled with deeply. In the end, I saw that while I am informed by my Aboriginal identity, I am also informed by the Australian identity which inevitably (along with gay, male, middle age etc) gives me my identity. I couldn’t deny it, so I accepted it.

So anyway, I was going to do like a whole footnote kind of thing surrounding how I identify but I’m worried it’ll get missed somehow, so let me just quickly make my point here. To any sideline commentators who think you can take my words and use them against other Aboriginal people about how they identify, don’t.

Please stop trying to stir up shit over something you can have an opinion on but not a say in, and is something you generally know nothing about except from your few google searches or that conversation you heard one time. I don’t tell you you’re not actually Australian because your last name says you’re from elsewhere so you don’t get to tell Aboriginal people how they get to identify.

Yes, I know my last name says I’m from elsewhere but when my great, great grandfather was removed from the Daintree as a child, the police just decided to slap the name Oliver on him. He in turn, as an adult, made it his surname.

My journey has been ‘my’ journey. If any of my people want to identify as Kuku Yalanji, Gangalidda, Waanyi, Woppaburra, Bundjalung, Biripi or whatever their clan/nation may be, then that is their right to continue a lineage that has been on this land for thousands of years. Just because I see myself as an Australian, it doesn’t mean they have to. Thank you for your time (this is where I insert multiple smiley faces).

Anyway, digressing again (I warned you at the start I didn’t know what path this article would take, sooooooooooo many thoughts!). So, back to the whole ‘sorta, kinda left’ thing and the time I even contemplated the right. Yes, I know. I can already hear a symphony of gasps and the sounds of people dropping glasses and spitting out their drinks as others fall to the ground in a heap of shock and disbelief but seriously, there was a time I thought I could swing to the right if Malcolm were to become in charge.

Then Malcolm did become in charge and I saw he wasn’t actually a leader. He did what people told him because he actually cared more about keeping the top job than making things right for marginalised groups. He couldn’t lead a shit out of the lower intestine.

You know, I’m in no way a fan of John Howard but I respect the fact that he just did shit. His actions backed his words and at the very least, we got gun control because of that. Malcolm paled in that comparison when he became Prime Minister.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and wife Lucy Turnbull at the 2016 Mardi Gras.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and wife Lucy Turnbull at the 2016 Mardi Gras.

Now that he got the precious job, he wouldn’t take any risks that could’ve seen him lose it and as far as I’m concerned, leaders take risks. They don’t blow out of their arse about where they stand and then lose their voice because some homophobes might go behind their back and oust them. They face that shit front on. Malcolm broke my heart. He was the nail in the coffin. I got bored with the repetitiveness and predictability of their politics and their egos.

I know what you’re thinking. Who am I to go on about ego? Well, I’m an expert actually, a sexy one. I may even be a SexYpert! But enough about me, for now (haha, I just cracked myself up).

If politicians were my partner, then I would’ve dumped their arse long ago because they just can’t help but keep lying to me. Plus, they’re the kind of partner who tells you what to do but never actually applies the rules to themselves, and if their rule comes back to bite them on the arse then you can bet your arse they’ll find a way to change it or dismiss it as if you’re the boyfriend who’s just crazy and doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Honestly, I’ve come to view voting as ‘choosing the lesser of two evils’ and me investing in a system that (I believe) is either in need of an overhaul or needs to go back to the drawing board because in its current form, it helped my bank go from a record profit of four hundred and twenty eight million dollars to another record of seven billion (seven thousand million) dollars in just 20 years and still my ATM fees (which there are less of, ATM’s that is) still rise and people are struggling to pay off homes while banks prosper. Oh yeah, I see who this system is working for.

Anyway, back to the ‘sorta kinda’ left thing (again). I felt the need to mention the whole ‘kinda left’ thing because it seems that nowadays, in order to be left, you have to hate the right or vice versa (does anyone say ‘vice versa’ anymore?).

There’s this whole thing around ‘the other’ being created that I’ve seen too many times in the realms of ‘black and white and gay and straight’ that I know isn’t healthy and for the most part isn’t ‘really’ important. It’s only been made important because others decided that differences were unacceptable and took it upon themselves to tell others how to live and in turn, created a whole lot of shit that we’re still sifting (or is sifting shit called shifting?) through.

I don’t hate people who think differently. I only have a problem with people who impose their thoughts via law and legislation over my actions that in no shape or form involve cruelty or ridicule upon others. Laws and legislation that are either hypocritical or stand in the way of equality.

When people say to me, “Why do Aboriginal people have to be different? Why can’t you just be like the rest of us?” I reply, “We don’t ‘have’ to be different. We just ‘are’ different’. The real question is, why do you need us to be just like you?”

Too much focus gets thrust upon difference and when we do that, we separate ourselves from one another. Trying to mould another to be like us doesn’t breed unity, it breeds resentment through conformity. The truth of it is, we’re more alike than we give ourselves credit but because we’re so distracted with colour, faith, sexuality, gender and even class, we fail to recognise it. And now, it’s gotten to the point where it’s all coming down to just a single day.

Yes, this is where all the bombardment of thoughts are coming from, Invasion/Survival/Australia Day.

You either celebrate it or you don’t. You either show you’re a ‘true’ Aussie or you be an arsehole who bludges a day and is living in the past because you don’t celebrate something that happened in the past over 200 years ago.

(IMAGE: Cacau & Xande, Flickr)
(IMAGE: Cacau & Xande, Flickr)

Let me make this clear, I don’t hate people who celebrate Australia day. I don’t have any ill feeling towards a family who wants to enjoy the day. I don’t think people are scum if they want to have a few drinks with mates and just sit around talking about shit that in the grand scheme of things may not matter, but matters to them. And I don’t think having a national holiday is bullshit and needs to be abolished then burned in the pits of hell to never again be spoken of only to be declared as ‘day that shall not be named (Harry Potter fans are shitting with excitement right now)’.

So, what do I think? I (of course) think a lot of things. I think people can’t know what they haven’t been taught. I think people can’t feel what they haven’t been hurt by. I think, if I were on the side of a process that were to gain via the detriment of others, would I so easily confront and question my life as I knew it to be?

That last thought isn’t there as some kind of guilt mechanism. It’s seriously a question I’ve posed to myself at different times in my life. Usually after an experience where people have said something so hurtful that I need to understand how someone could be such a prick.

I know some people are just arseholes. I get that. However, I believe that mostly, people are good. It’s that ‘faint glimmer in my heart’ I spoke of earlier. So, when I’ve seen comments where people says things like “I wish it was like the old days where we could just go around and shoot them” or “Next Australia day, I’m having a fancy dress party where it’s colonial soldiers versus Abos”, I sit there among the anger and hurt and try to see how people got to a point where they can say something so devoid of any consideration and compassion that it fails to acknowledge me as an actual person.

I’ve concluded it’s one of two things or collectively both. To them I’m not a person, I’m an Aboriginal. So to them, that makes me lazy, stupid, an alcoholic, a whinger, a bad parent, a criminal, untrustworthy, a bludger, oversensitive, a child abuser, a domestic violence perpetrator, I always play the victim and I’m a racist because I said “some white people said horrible things about me” so therefore, I’m not a real person.

I’m a myriad of stereotypes and racism so it’s totally fine and socially acceptable to treat me and my kind like shit and if I get angry then I’m just that other stereotype being one of those angry abos so, I should just be ignored. Honestly, if people are sick of reading this shit, imagine how sick I am of writing it. I know, I could not write about it but unfortunately, that doesn’t make shit go away, it enables it.

The other conclusion comes back to one of my earlier thoughts, people can’t feel what they haven’t been hurt by. I’m acutely aware that being gay and Aboriginal, has given me insight into how it feels to be treated like shit more often than not. It’s also given me insight into how it feels to be told to shut my mouth whenever I try to talk about that shit.

It’s also given me insight into the world I see not being in alignment with the world another sees. It made me realise that right now, on this one planet, there are seven billion parallel worlds happening because all these moments happening right now are being experienced differently even when we believe we’re having the same experience.

I know that’s a lot of shit to take in. That’s like some ‘next level, too much to think about’ shit. So maybe try not to think about it. By that I mean, I wish that just for a moment, seven billion people stopped seeing and hearing the world and just felt it. Hell, right now, I’d even settle for 20 million people on the Australian continent just experiencing that. Imagine it, if we all just felt the deepest depths of a person’s pain for just the slightest moment, maybe we’d stop treating each other like shit and ignoring another’s suffering and get back to what it is that makes each and all of us human.

Maybe we could have discussions instead of fights. Well, I’m sure there’ll still occasionally be fights but maybe they wouldn’t be so absolute in the sense that you’re either for or against.

If I expect people to accept and respect the fact that I don’t celebrate Australia Day on it’s current date, then I must also afford them that in their decision to celebrate on the date that has been made official by a government. In fact, I should probably mention that I’m not even offended by people who celebrate Australia Day. Not in the slightest.

Am I offended if somebody says, ‘You abos should be grateful because you all lived shit lives before we got here and made everything better” then fuck yes because that person’s just an arsehole who obviously has no idea what they’re talking about and is shallow as all fuck. But, if you’re someone who wants to just have a great day with great company and enjoy a public holiday from a system that can stress you the fuck out, then go for it.

Maybe spare a thought for the thousands of Aboriginal lives that were taken and that have been affected and think of what it must have been and continues to be like. I’m not asking you to dwell on it, just think about it in the way you would Gallipoli. You don’t need to feel guilty because you didn’t actually take anyone’s life but it is because of the price they paid that you enjoy the benefits you do and that at its very least, deserves consideration.

The annual ANZAC Day parade in Melbourne, 2016. (IMAGE: Chris Phutully, Flickr)
The annual ANZAC Day parade in Melbourne,
2016. (IMAGE: Chris Phutully, Flickr)

Would I celebrate if the date changed? Yes, I would. I would actually look forward to it. I particularly favour the first of January not just because there’s two days in a row of public holidays but because that centres around something actually Australian and not English people and military personnel arriving on boats.

Inevitably though, my continued attendance would depend on change that didn’t just surround a date. There would have to be change that encompasses a whole lot of issues. Issues that I’d honestly like to talk about but there’s more than enough that need an in depth focus to create informed discussion and action.

Besides, this article has gone on long enough and I have other shit to work on. With that in mind, some may want to know whether or not I’ll be working come the 26th of January? If you’re one of those people, despite it not being any of your business, I’ll entertain you.

I don’t know. I freelance. I holiday when I want. It’s awesome! Plus, I’m a creative so usually I come up with shit on the spur of the moment so if something inspires me come the 26th of January, I’ll work. If not, I’ll do what I’ve come to do every year. Spend some time remembering and honouring the people who have paid a terrible price that has enabled me to live the life I do. They are never far from my mind and they are even closer to my heart.

Whatever you do this national holiday, I hope it is a safe one. I hope nobody is threatened. I hope nobody is made to feel inferior. I hope nobody is met with hatred. I hope nobody is filled with guilt. I hope nobody is hurt by the hands or words of another.

We have a long path to walk. It’s a path that our children and their children and so forth, will have to continue for us. It’d be nice if we could at least point them in the right direction. That’s a responsibility we all share, it’s our common ground.

I think Bugoy Drilon’s cover of ‘One Day’ by Matisyahu perfectly sums up what I and so many others have been feeling. Please have a listen, especially if you’re having a shit day. It always makes me feel better.

Steven Oliver is a renowned Aboriginal writer and performer. He's based in Queensland.