A refusal to stand for the anthem has braced Australia. In the interest of fairness, let’s take a look at the history of the national anthem, warts and all.
Many Australians may not realise that until 1984, our national anthem was God Save the Queen. We’ve always been a bit slow to cut the apron strings tying us to Britain, the once-called “mother country” – just look at the long-running debate about becoming a republic. Advance Australia Fair enjoyed a brief stint as the national anthem in 1974-75, when following a public opinion poll conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam announced that the people had chosen it to replace God Save the Queen, but he lost the next election and incoming Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser reinstated the British anthem.
A plebiscite held in 1977 overwhelmingly favoured Advance Australia Fair over the other nominees – Waltzing Matilda, Song of Australia and God Save the Queen – but it would be another eight years and another change in government before it all became official. The wheels of bureaucracy certainly do turn slowly.
The reality was that the competition was only really ever between Waltzing Matilda and Advance Australia Fair. We’d been told that God Save the Queen would continue to be used at official government functions regardless of the outcome – so why bother voting for it? And hardly anyone at all had ever even heard of Song of Australia so that had no hope of winning. The prevailing attitude seems to have been that Waltzing Matilda, with its sheep-stealing suicidal swagman hero, may not have been lofty enough to play the part of official national song.
The words and music to Advance Australia Fair were written in 1878 by Peter Dodds McCormick, a Scotsman who emigrated to New South Wales in the 1850s. It quickly became popular, its patriotic words and easy melody appealing to listeners, and it became a favourite at official functions. It was even performed at Federation ceremonies in 1901.
Officially now there are two verses, but in the original version, there were five. Thankfully, three were dropped because they’re basically about the glory of Britannia, they verge on being sexist, and they also give the impression that Captain James Cook discovered Australia, which of course he did not. The two verses we sing today have undergone a few modifications over the years. The opening line for instance used to be “Australian sons, let us rejoice”, but that was later changed to “Australians all, let us rejoice”, so that’s one for inclusivity. As for the second verse, few people even know the words. More about that below.
Some Aboriginal artists have refused to sing the anthem, finding “young and free” not only incorrect but deeply offensive to the oldest continuous culture on Earth.
One of the striking things about Advance Australia Fair is that it’s intended to be a joyful anthem – it’s an upbeat melody and we’re told to rejoice because we’re young, free and prosperous. It exhorts us to sing “in joyful strains”. Consider the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, with its lyrics of bloodshed and cutthroats, of fighting against oppression and injustice; and America’s Star-Spangled Banner with its celebration of a military victory against the British. Ours is in marked contrast to such sentiments: it revels in our rich agricultural land, the natural beauty of the country. It praises our hard work beneath the Southern Cross.
One of the most loved words in the song is “girt” as in “our land is girt by sea”. The word originates from the old English word “gird” meaning “to surround” and although every now and then someone complains that it’s archaic to keep “girt” in the lyrics, the truth is there’d be an uproar if it was ever changed. We all have a chuckle at it; it’s kind of an Aussie in-joke, a word used nowhere else by anyone ever. We’re probably the only English-speaking people on the planet who actually have a deep and ingrained affection for this odd archaic word. It could be said that we’ve appropriated it. It’s kind of daggy, but it’s ours. Most of us will mumble through the anthem’s verse but will happily enunciate “girt”. You can’t get much more Australian than using “girt” in a sentence.
But the lyrics of our national anthem are not all rosy and uniting.
In recent times, Australia’s first peoples have expressed concern, indeed dismay, over some of the lyrics. For example the phrase “young and free” is not embraced by Aboriginal Australians for obvious reasons. They have lived on this continent for over 60,000 years, proud of their many ancient nations, and since white settlement the idea of being “free” has been a moot point given the often violent and patriarchal treatment meted out to the original inhabitants of this continent since 1788. Some Aboriginal artists, notably soprano and composer Deborah Cheetham, have refused to sing the anthem at official events or sporting gatherings, finding “young and free” not only incorrect but deeply offensive to the oldest continuous culture on Earth. Even a 9-year-old white girl took a stand because she feels the anthem glosses over Indigenous Australians.
The word “fair” has also come in for criticism. Most Australians interpret “fair” to mean both “just” and “beautiful”, reflecting the land that prides itself on giving everyone “a fair go”, but others have pointed out that it could just as easily be interpreted as meaning “white”, “Caucasian”, “non-Indigenous”, especially considering the still quite significant gaps in life expectancy and education and health opportunities between indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
In the not-often sung second verse, the words proudly declare, “For those who’ve come across the seas/We’ve boundless plains to share”. They’re somewhat misleading. Soon after Federation, the government introduced what became known as the White Australia Policy, a system that favoured immigrants from certain countries; it was essentially designed to keep out Asians and other non-Europeans including people from Oceania. This racist policy was gradually dismantled between 1966 and 1973. But it seems we’re still not so keen to share these “boundless plains” – refugees and asylum seekers who’ve come “across the seas” are certainly not welcomed readily. So our anthem’s lyrics are open to more than one interpretation.
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On a less political level, Advance Australia Fair has also been criticised for being boring. Many people sing it as if it’s a dirge, dragging out the notes and employing the slowest possible tempo. Played like that, it’s not rousing. It would be better if people actually sang it with gusto or in the “joyful strains” instructed. The reality is Australians are not enthusiastic anthem singers. No hands on hearts like the Americans – we mouth or mumble our way through it on the rare occasions we’re asked to sing it.
Advance Australia Fair is perhaps not among the most riveting anthems in the world, but imagine the palaver that would be involved in changing even a few words, as easy as that could be. Many Australians would like to see a new national flag, one without the Union Jack in the top left quadrant; many Australians would like to change the date of Australia Day; many Australians would like our country to become a republic. These things have not yet changed and indeed may never change, so in spite of the many criticisms levelled at our national anthem, it’s probably here to stay. “In history’s page let every stage advance Australia fair”.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Australia Explained.