Australia Day is going to be a little different this year, at least for those celebrating in the port city of Freo. On Saturday January 28 the City of Fremantle is presenting One Day in Fremantle, a free, family-friendly event and – controversially – the city’s “culturally-inclusive” alternative to traditional Australia Day celebrations on January 26. The decision has polarised opinion.

Dr Richard Walley OAM is one of Australia’s leading Nyoongar performing artists, and will be performing the welcome to country ceremony at the event. The longtime Indigenous-rights campaigner spoke to Broadsheet about the event’s significance to the Indigenous community, and about broader reconciliation efforts.

“The decision to shift Australia Day celebrations in Fremantle was a council decision. I believe they have put a lot of thought into the decision and I know they consulted Aboriginal elders. The decision to hold celebrations on an alternative day is quite a brave one, but I firmly believe it’s a good decision, for several reasons.

“Australia Day has been held on many different dates before and has often been shifted to fit in with a long weekend. It has been celebrated on the 25th, 26th, 27th and 28th, depending on the Monday it fell on. Australia itself was formed on January 1 [1901], so the 26th is not true to the original coming together of us as a federation, and I do say ‘us’ because we as Aboriginal people are included in Australia and are Australian.

“Facts, figures and dates – they’re hard to argue with. All of the historical data available at this moment doesn’t point to Australia being celebrated on that particular day as a nation. So if both parties can see this, I have no problem with that. But if the majority says, ‘Well, we take all of that into consideration, but we’re going to hold this date precious’, well, hold it precious whether it’s a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Don’t take a long weekend. I am quite willing to be convinced otherwise, but I haven’t seen any information to tell me why we should hold celebrations on that particular date.

“The other reason I believe it’s a good decision is to do with inclusion. Since Australia Day has been celebrated, there has been another event on the outskirts of the cities and on the outskirts of Australia Day celebrations, called Survival. The Survival concert is the gathering of Aboriginal people where we remember our people who have been disadvantaged, murdered and all sorts of things since settlement started. To think that Australia was peacefully and harmoniously settled isn’t true, so to remember those in this sense is very important. Rather than having a Survival concert and an Australia Day celebration, we should combine the two and not marginalise Aboriginal people. That’s what I think this is all about. I think the bringing of all of us together is a good thing.

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“I believe that when you give people the facts and reasons behind a decision, they can make up their own mind. That’s what I’m advocating: look at why decisions are made and the reasons behind them, and have a discussion on both sides of the argument. No one is challenging Australia as an entity, but we are looking at historical dates.

“If we want to come together on a particular day to celebrate us as one nation, I believe it should be either on January 1, when Federation occurred, or at a time when we can all come together. I also think it should be a standalone event, rather than associating it with something that happened in New South Wales, which was a colony. Western Australia was never part of that.

“I’ve had a long association with Fremantle. Me; my mother and father; grandmothers and grandfathers; and even great grandmothers and great grandfathers have all been involved with the Fremantle area. That association has been a very good association. My role for One Day in Fremantle is to do a welcome, which is asking the good spirit to keep all of us safe during the event.

“I had an earlier role as a councillor for the Centenary of Federation, which celebrated 100 years of us being a nation [in 2001]. As a council, the first thing we wanted to do was to make the event inclusive of all Australians – so the first celebration was held in Sydney on January 1 in true recognition of coming together as a nation. When each state celebrated at various times throughout the year, it was very inclusive – us as a collective, us as a community, us with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, celebrating together. I think that’s what One Day in Fremantle is doing as well – it’s all of us celebrating together. If you look at January 26, there are still two celebrations that take place in most cities around Australia – Australia Day and Survival.

“I believe the City of Fremantle has made a decision that only history will prove as right or wrong. People are divided at the moment. Let’s give it a couple of years and see how people are feeling. By that time, more information will be available and there will have been more debate and dialogue. I think getting people talking is a very good thing. That’s what our democratic process is. It’s about allowing people to have differences in opinion.

When celebrations have been held on the 26th, I’ve performed welcomes at ceremonies because that’s part of Australia’s tapestry, which people choose to celebrate on that particular day. It’s not a matter of me jumping on one side of the fence. There’s no fence, it’s a moving date that’s been moving for quite a while.”

One Day in Fremantle runs 2pm–8pm at the Fremantle Esplanade on Saturday January 28. The smoke- and alcohol-free event features art workshops, food trucks and performances from John Butler, Dan Sultan and Mama Kin. Entry is free.