John Isaac



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.