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A march in Perth on Australia Day this year in support of Indigenous people. Angie Raphael/AAP

Changing the date – and a state of mind – from the westerly edges

The decision by the City of Fremantle to dispense with the customary Australia Day festivities on January 26 has garnered national attention. Following the urging of local Indigenous leaders, the council recently announced it would shift the celebrations by two days to January 28.

In the Brisbane Times, Brendan Foster described the council’s stance as a “history-defining moment” for the country as a whole. Certainly, this small Indian Ocean town suddenly finds itself at the forefront of the Change the Date movement which is gathering daily momentum in the media.

In a brave and inspiring editorial, The Saturday Paper called for musicians and artists, ferry crews and families, to lead the way where politicians have failed us: “At a basic level, politics is the search for will. It is about finding the possibilities for a country. But if anything has defined the past decade or so of public life in Australia, it is the misplacing of this key principle.” In the absence of political leadership, the editorial puts forward “a call to move the culture, so the politics follows”.

In the same spirit, though in a more flippant vein, New Matilda announced a campaign that adopts a “Change the Date” beer can as an agent for change.

The WA premier, Colin Barnett, has lost no time in denouncing the move, in the name of “all Australians”. It’s a familiar gambit that ignores the place of the country’s first peoples, and conveniently glosses over the truth that January 26 is a celebration of violent, white incursion. Indigenous Australians have long used terms such as Shame Day, Invasion Day and Day of Mourning to describe this date.

Among non-Anglo migrants and refugee Australians, the sickening rise in racist slurs and attacks in the lead-up to January 26 is an all-too-well-known experience. Changing the date may well lead to an initial increase in these kinds of abuse, but even as we dread the influx of flag-waving racists into the streets of Fremantle, where I have lived for over 15 years, the council’s decision is undoubtedly one that moves us forward into a less racist future.

Fremantle: a historic city perched on the edge of the Indian Ocean. Susanna Dunkerley/AAP

In this port city, perched on the edge of the Indian Ocean, perhaps it is something in the water that makes us feel the urgent need for change? But the council’s move resonates with other local developments, ones that are contrary to the national image of the wild and wayward west.

Western Australia has, of course, surfaced nationally of late in ways that reinforce those all-too-familiar and all-too-troubling scripts. The revelation of the tortuous dealings involving the Commonwealth attorney-general, the solicitor-general and the state government dredge up the unfinished business of the Alan Bond years and WA Inc. They connect with warnings of an economy in tatters as boom (again) turns to bust; of fly-in fly-out ghost towns fuelling support for One Nation and a Trump-style politics of white grievance; of a state government scandalously indifferent to shocking Indigenous suicide rates in the Kimberley and elsewhere; to the recent racist violence in Kalgoorlie leading up to the death of 14-year-old Elijah Doughty; and to the obscene and antiquated laws that led to the jailing of Ms Dhu in a Port Hedland cell where she died in agony.

Still, the Change the Date push is one example of how, at the edges of these frightening and well–worn scripts, others are being acted out, and new stories are being written. On the walls of the new Perth Stadium, a poem in Noongar is being inscribed, literally, into the concrete façade.

Seventeen verses of Kim Scott’s specially commissioned poem, Kaya, interspersed with 11 verses of English translation, will engirdle the stadium’s outer perimeter, greeting all manner of motley arrivals to Whadjuk Country.

The project embodies the same generous spirit as the NoongarPedia project, a living testament to the survival and sharing of the language of the place.

Meanwhile, at another building under construction, the new WA Museum, the projected display of the state’s maritime heritage will feature The Bremen, a boat that successfully evaded extensive surveillance to sail straight into Geraldton Harbour in 2013, carrying 67 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka. Many of the children, women and men on board were immediately deported, while others were dispersed into mandatory detention.

But the boat itself, contrary to standard operating procedure, was not torched or scuttled. Instead the WA Museum acquired it as part of the story of the state’s relationship with the Indian Ocean and those who come across the seas. An ambiguous witness, it bears the traces of arrivals who themselves have been disappeared, hinting at their unrealised aspirations and unknown dreams.

The same urgent imperative to “find possibilities for the country” shapes the conference, Reimagining Australia, scheduled to take place in Fremantle from December 7-9. The convergence, surely, is no coincidence; it seems that something is shifting here at the edges.

While a new insularity appears to have taken hold at home and abroad, Reimagining Australia’s watchwords, Encounter, Recognition, Responsibility, are an attempt to “to move the culture, so the politics follows”. Over 200 speakers from 18 countries – cartoonists and weavers, dancers and writers – are coming to this small place, promising to re-imagine Australia through story, critique, reflection, activism and art. Theirs is a bid to counter the urge to seek cover in a “post-truth landscape”, to hunker down behind new walls and “rings of steel”.

Yes, something is happening here, at the edges: a stirring and unsettling of words, an unmooring of certainties, a small change of dates.

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