On ABC TV’s One Plus One on Monday, presenter Stan Grant introduced his guest Kodie Bedford with the following words: “She was a journalist, she’s a writer, she’s a storyteller – just don’t call her an Aboriginal storyteller.”
Bedford’s first play Cursed! has just completed a season at the Belvoir Theatre in Sydney. Born in Western Australia, she moved to Sydney and worked as a journalist for SBS and the ABC before getting into storytelling as a writer for the screen and now theatre.
The writer of Cursed! does not like being labelled. She told Grant: “I started out as a journalist and it was straightaway ‘Indigenous journalist’ and, as I moved through every job role, it’s always been ‘Indigenous assistant’, ‘Indigenous writer’, ‘Indigenous screenwriter’.” Bedford added: “I just thought … my peers would never get ‘white writer’, ‘white journalist’ – and that really made me feel small in a way.”
This is understandable. I recall that when he was a young Labor politician in the 1970s, Paul Keating objected to being termed “the Catholic Paul Keating”. Catholics, then as now, were a minority in Australia. He queried why journalists did not refer to, say, “the Protestant Malcolm Fraser”.
Keating just wanted to be known for what he did – politics. Just as Bedford wants to be known for what she does – telling stories.
Bedford’s position, with which Grant concurred, is that there’s more to life than identity. She reflected on her time at the identity-conscious SBS and ABC: “It’s like … being an Indigenous journalist that you have to report on Indigenous things.” She acknowledged that as “a proud black fella” with a “really big family” she is “passionate about Indigenous issues”. But Bedford, understandably, “is also passionate about other things”.
The playwright of Cursed! found having to tick the Indigenous box made her “feel like you had to be grateful … you’re in this role because you’re Indigenous”.
She believes that this approach took away all the hard work she and her ancestors did in leading to her current success.
It all started when Bedford’s great-great-grandmother dropped off her daughter at the Moola Bulla Station, in the Kimberley, in the late 1930s with the request that she be educated. Permission was granted by the relevant Western Australian government authority. Bedford recalls her own grandmother’s attitude: “Education first, education first – and it wasn’t because of black fella or white fella – it was get educated.”
And it worked. Consequently Bedford told Grant: “I’m not here because I’m Indigenous. I’m here because I work hard and I’m talented as a writer.” Quite so. She believes that due to the atmosphere of condescension at SBS and the ABC her “sense of self-worth just went downhill” because having “people shove you into a box … does have a big toll on your mental health”.
Grant understands Bedford. Like her, he grew up in an Indigenous family which stressed the importance of education and in which some ancestors were non-Indigenous. Speaking at the Sydney Institute in 2017, Grant said he was also drawn from the green fields of Tipperary in Ireland, cleverly adding: “I inherited the blarney and the Dreaming.”
For her part, Bedford told One Plus One viewers that even on her “black side” she has “a huge Irish connection to the Durack family” whom she referred to as running a “cattle empire in the Kimberley”. And she has Japanese, Maltese, English and “black fella cousins”. In short, a multicultural family.
On the morning after One Plus One aired, Zali Steggall, the Independent MP for Warringah in Sydney’s northern suburbs, put out a media release titled “One Minute’s Silence needed on Australia Day”. Steggall’s office is located in Manly, one of Australia’s most prosperous suburbs.
Steggall’s focus is on identity. She wants councils across Australia to include a minute’s silence in their official Australia Day celebrations “in recognition of the Indigenous Australians’ lives that have been lost since that day”.
This would be in addition to the now traditional “acknowledgement of country” occasion. Jilly Gibson, the mayor of North Sydney, has dismissed the suggestion as “a political stunt”.
According to Steggall, “a ceremonial minute’s silence could be a powerful step in the healing journey”.
In fact, the gesture, if implemented, could well be counter-productive in that it might engender avoidance or even opposition. Steggall makes the highly contentious assertion that “the commencement of violence” in Australia followed the European settlement in 1788. This is nonsense. Certainly there was violence after 1788 as the most industrialised society in the world at the time clashed with the most traditional. And there was widescale death from disease within many Indigenous communities.
The essential problem with the one minute’s silence on January 26 proposal or reference to Australia Day as “Invasion Day” is that they not only diminish the achievements of all Australians since 1788. They also contain an element of denial. Contemporary Australia is a diverse place. So much so that many Indigenous Australians have non-Indigenous ancestors.
If the “Invasion Day” logic is to prevail, it would entail that some Australians acknowledge that their heritage has made them both invaded and part invader.
I have no idea of where the likes of Bedford and Grant stand on the Australia Day/Invasion Day debate or on Steggall’s “ceremonial minute’s silence” proposal. However, the One Plus One interview indicates precisely where the priorities of Bedford and Grant lie.
They want their “black fella” families and others to be educated and to succeed like they have. This will not be achieved by ceremonial gestures, however well-meaning they might be.
So many Indigenous Australians, like Bedford and Grant, have succeeded on their own ability with the support of their families. This is true of Australians as a whole, who have come from so many lands.
The writer of Cursed! has made it independent of background. To imply otherwise is to diminish Bedford’s achievement. It’s great that she had the courage to speak out on One Plus One – despite the likelihood that her views will be opposed by some Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.