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Tinkering with National Anthems: Australia’s Patriotic Song for Children

It was a New Year gimmick that would have warmed advertising executives across the country. For the first time since it was proclaimed as Australia’s national anthem on April 19, 1984, Advance Australia Fair has been tinkered with. The jarring words from the second line, “For we are young and free” have been amended to “For we are one and free.”

Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, beamed with smugness at his first press conference for 2021. “We live in a timeless land of ancient First Nations peoples, and we draw together the stories of more than 300 national ancestries and language groups.” Rhetorically, he asked, “How good is Australia?” The change to the anthem “simply reflects the realities of how we understand our country and who we will always hope to be and the values that we will always live by.”

This change put Morrison in the good books of Indigenous singer Deborah Cheetham, a Yorta Yorta woman. “It is an important acknowledgment. The word young underestimated the lives that have lived on this continent for some millennia.” First Nations Foundation chairman and Yorta Yorta man Ian Hamm was also warmed by the change. “In terms of culture, society, and population, we go back 60,000 years. We’re very definitely not young.”

It was also encouraged by New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who suggested the altered wording last November. “I think it’s about time we recognise the tens of thousands of years of the First Nations people of this continent.”

Spending time in Australia is an experience, not with strapping youth but extended age. The continent exudes the severity of the critically worn and experienced. It suffers surly changes of mood: punishing droughts overcome by vengeful flood; fires that burn with incandescent fury. But in human and cultural terms, age has become a fetish of mourning in Australia. The words “continuous, uninterrupted civilisation” is a grieving statement, commemorating a past rudely disrupted by European invasion.

In keeping with anthems that are skim reads rather than deep evocations of national character, Advance Australia Fair fails to impress. The work of Scottish-born composer Peter Dodds McCormick, it was first performed in the late 1870s. A short note heralding its arrival on the music scene can be found in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate. “The song is in the key of C, is simple in its accompaniment, and has a fairly decided air. The words are essentially patriotic, and are well selected.”

The original version is unmistakably Britannic, colonial and childish. It features rejoicing sons (daughters are secondary and absent) and golden soil (that was a bit off the mark) and wealth for toil; it mentions James Cook’s voyages, the raising of “Old England’s flag, The standard of the brave.” The fourth verse suggests that, however distant Australia might be, Britannia’s outpost will “rouse to arms like sires of yore, To guard our native strand”.

There is no mention of the horrors of penal servitude, the fatal shore and such, no hint that the land was populated. If one is to believe a descendant of McCormick, one G. Murrow, it was never intended as a national anthem but “a simple melody for children.”

It was certainly no competition for that more accurate telling of Australian character found in Waltzing Matilda (1895), featuring an outlaw swagman, theft of livestock, and eventual, drowning suicide. It is also apt that the consumed sheep is itself the property of a squatter, that great symbol of frontier appropriation. Thieving comes in degrees. “I put it to you,” asserts writer Patrick Marlborough, “that Banjo Patterson’s banger and monster-mash, about an outlaw swagman gone troppo, epitomises the madness that haunts the Australian psyche.” But a plebiscite in 1977 favoured the less revealing version of McCormick, replacing God Save the Queen.

Australia’s current anthem sounds like the outcome of a committee process marred by endless meetings of crushing dullness. It is a statement of underachievement, saying little. What little it does say is disingenuous. The old “golden soil and wealth for toil” remains. Australia’s home is “girt by sea.” Disquietingly, “For those who’ve come across the seas/ We’ve boundless plains to share.” A dedicated concentration camp system to deter boat arrivals suggests other emendations are in order.

Prosaic and hardly inspiring for school ground parades, the national anthem has struck such songwriters as Shane Howard as “racist on so many levels, written for a white Australia that is irrelevant, or should be. Apologies to the writer but it’s also poorly crafted lyrically, is largely meaningless sentimentality and is a substandard melody.”

Howard’s views came in response to the very public refusal of a then nine-year-old schoolgirl Harper Nielsen in September 2018 to stand to the anthem. “When it says ‘we are young’ it completely disregards the Indigenous people,” she explained. As school children are discouraged from having strong opinions, Harper was given detention for “blatant disrespect” in refusing to participate in the anthem ritual with classmates at Brisbane’s Kenmore South State School. One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson preferred even harsher treatment. “We have a kid that has been brainwashed and I tell you what, I would give her a kick up the backside.”

Defenders of the anthem include such former public servants as Frank Cassidy. In a letter to the Canberra Times last November, Cassidy insisted on the uniqueness of Australia’s anthem (they always do) and praised the revision of the lyrics, which “were rewritten in 1982 to make them politically correct, totally inclusive and widely reflective of the modern nation Australia was then and still is today.” Only a bureaucrat softened by lengthy meetings could express such satisfaction.

In the anthem debates, Morrison has economised. The change is cosmetic, the timing fine. The prime minister has even gone so far as to admit that it “takes away nothing… but adds much.” In truth, it adds very little to an anthem best confined to a substandard reliquary of colonial knickknacks.

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  1. Baby Jewels

    We are “one?” Not while some get COVID support and others don’t. Not while inequality widens. Not while there’re rules for the rich and separate, much harsher, rules for the poor. Etc. etc…. Brainwashing continues.

  2. Anthony Judge

    Given the distressing condition of Australia as variously reported on this site, there is a case for exploring the significance to be derived from playing the anthem backwards, as previously suggested with respect to Europe and its European Anthem (Reversing the Anthem of Europe to Signal Distress: Transcending crises of governance via reverse music and reverse speech?

  3. pierre wilkinson

    thank you Graham and Binoy
    Our PM is an unfeeling idiot
    suggesting we are all one when he has pushed the politics of division, continues to excoriate Unions and Labor, denigrates the unemployed and cuts funding to all in need so he can increase the profits of his wealthy donors,
    yeh sure PM
    get a refund on your empathy lessons

  4. Florence Howarth

    I am a little slow, I know but can someone please explain saying we are one, recognises our First peoples? Another Scotty boy lie? We are not one, we are many. We are many but all Australians.

    We come from many countries, as well as the first people who have been here for more than 60,000 years. We are of many faiths & none. We come in many different colours. Many different sexualities. Numerous political beliefs & dogma.

    Differ when it comes to ability & disability. Battlers, along with fewer wealthy. We range from the plodder to the genius.

  5. Terence Mills

    Another small change required here Mr Morrison :

    For those who’ve across the seas
    We’ve boundless plains to share…. and then there’s always Manus
    and Nauru, we really don’t care
    In joyful strains then let us sing,
    Advance, Australia fair.

    This one has to go, Scomo :

    When gallant Cook from Albion sail’d,
    To trace wide oceans o’er,
    True British courage bore him on,
    Til he landed on our shore.
    Then here he raised Old England’s flag,
    The standard of the brave;
    “With all her faults we love her still”
    “Britannia rules the wave.”
    In joyful strains then let us sing,
    Advance, Australia fair.

    Changing one word opens a can of worms !

  6. George

    Get rid of it entirely and replace it with the song we are One

  7. king1394

    The next generation of schoolchildren will surely sing “we are one and three” and wonder does that add up to four …

  8. Phil Pryor

    ” we are dung and pee”.., doesn’t sound too good, but.., could it be the conservative self blessing??

  9. Michael Taylor

    As much as I despise Scott Morrison with every fibre of my being, I don’t mind replacing the word “young” with “one”.

    We are not a young country. We have one of the oldest – if not the oldest – culture in the world.

  10. Consume Less

    I have never sang the newest anthem (post 1984) and don’t know the wording. So thought I had better read it before commenting. Having just read it now, I can conclude to myself it is a crock of shite.

  11. Consume Less

    Just need to add one more word to my description,…. a crock of hypocritical shite.

  12. Henry Rodrigues

    George’s suggestion that we get rid of the ‘anthem’ entirely and replace it with the much more relevant and meaningful We Are One, is only change I will ever support. And while we are in the changing mode, like changing diapers, let’s get rid of that old rag better suited to a tired old country, and design and adopt a flag that reflects all the people from all the lands and cultures who have made Australia home. And at the corner of this new flag, should be the Aboriginal ensign, to tell the world, who really owns this land. Any takers?

  13. John Boyd

    Henry Rodrigues…Fine with me for the anthem. The ABC has been giving it a good airing. I recall commenting when Cathy Freeman wrapped herself in the Aboriginal flag after her win at the Olympics, that that would do me for a national flag. I am confused by the copyright issue, and also would like to be assured that it is accepted by the whole aboriginal community as a suitable flag.

    Changing the one word in the current ‘anthem’ doesn’t achieve much, especially given the rest of the drivel in the song. Reeks of just another PR stunt by Mr hollow man, achieving nothing but an opportunity to see his smirking face on TV.

  14. Henry Rodrigues

    John Boyd…..Nothing this BS artist does, is ever altruistic. But he knows it satisfies some, and then his PR team can make it seem like he was emancipating the slaves, That’s why he smirks.

  15. leefe

    re The Flag:

    While I heartily support the concept of a permanent national acknowledgment of the many thousands of years of Aboriginal occupation of the land, I’m ambivalent about bunging their flag up in that corner of ours in place of the British Blue Ensign. It smacks of cultural appropriation to me, and ignores the Torres Strait Islanders who have their own separate symbol. It’s something that can only be done if there is a widespread consensus throughout the Aboriginal communities in support of it.

    My personal preference has always been to simplify the symbolic rag: get rid of the British ensign, bung the Commonwealth Star up in that corner and perhaps, again only with approval from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, use some combination of their colours for further inclusiveness.

    As for the song, We Are One But We Are Many is a massive improvement even if it is overly optimistic whitewashing of history (and the present).

  16. Henry Rodrigues

    leefe…. There’s always space for debate as to how and what to replace the present flag with, but the need to get on with it is necessary and compelling. What is needed is the will to start the dialogue for change. The conservatives, the monarchists, and others who see no urgency, are the real obstacles.,

  17. leefe

    Henry Rodrigues: Indeed.. The important thing is to build the will for change and get general approval, then work out the details, much as should have been done with the republic debate. That referendum was lost because of how LJH had the question framed. It should have been a two tier thing:
    Question A) Change, yes or no?
    Question B) which option?

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