It’s time to advance unfair Australia – and ditch the anthem that fails to acknowledge our First Peoples.
For many non-Indigenous Australians, growing up with the national anthem meant some old-timey language sung without question. But a recent proposal by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has got Canberra buzzing – and kickstarted a dialogue across the country.
Composer Peter Dodds McCormick’s 1878 ode to his adoptive homeland was popular with his colonial contemporaries – those, like Dodds McCormick himself, who’d “come across the seas”.
But when it comes to recognising the oldest continuing culture in the world? Advance Australia Fair falls very, very short.
Are we ‘young and free’?
Australians all let us rejoice,
For we are young and free.
– Peter Dodds McCormick, Advance Australia Fair
It’s the word ‘young’ in the above that has inspired Gladys Berejiklian’s proposal. In this context, the word is a reference to the short period of time that European settlers have been in this country, the not-quite-120 years since Federation.
But when you’re talking about the country that’s home to a culture some 100,000+ years in the making – a culture that wasn’t even acknowledged in 1878 when the lyrics were penned – ‘young’ is exposed for what it is: a slap in the face.
‘Absurd’ and irrelevant
The lyric – or indeed the anthem itself – is not something that resonates with Evolve Co-Director and Bardi Elder Aunty Munya Andrews.
“To me, promoting youth over the wisdom of Elders is obnoxious, and telling people who are locked up in jails that they are ‘free’ is absurd,” she explains. “What does being ‘young’ and ‘free’ mean anyway?”
Co-Director Carla Rogers also struggles to identify with the song. Despite a lifelong love of singing, she notes that any situation requiring her to sing Advance Australia Fair has left her feeling less joyful, more strained.
“From my earliest memory – early Primary I think – I recall feeling less than enthusiastic, definitely uncomfortable and even embarrassed about singing the anthem … it’s like the anthem is someone that you are expected to respect and uphold, but it represents so much that goes against your values.”
The song clearly has some flaws – and they’re not going unnoticed by the wider community, either. At the time of writing, an online poll by SBS showed that 86% of respondents were in favour of Berejiklian’s change.
The proposal also comes with the support of some of Berejiklian’s First Nations colleagues. Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt, Yanyuwa Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and Wiradjuri MP Linda Burney have all voiced their agreement. However, not all are in favour.
Logical solution, or lip service?
Gunnai and Gunditjmara Senator Lidia Thorpe is one critic, noting that “We will need to do more than change the national anthem, we need to change the nation.”
And national change is definitely necessary. While some good work is being done, this year’s Closing the Gap report has made it clear that there is still a tremendous gulf between outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their non-Indigenous counterparts.
Then, there’s the issue of the new lyric itself. While it might be an improvement on the original, a deeper dive into Berejiklian’s suggestion reveals its flaws.
“What does we are ‘one’ mean?” reflects Aunty Munya. “Is that a One Nation thing?”
“The truth of the matter is we are NOT one – there is great dissension and divisiveness among us.”
A new Australian anthem
It might be hard to imagine how we would go about changing a national anthem, but it’s possible – in fact, the version sung today is actually slightly different to the version first written.
The original, 1878 lyrics began with Australia’s sons let us rejoice, and were altered under Bob Hawke’s leadership to the more inclusive Australians all let us rejoice.
What if we were given free rein to choose our own lyrics to the anthem? What would those be?
In 2009, Yorta Yorta musician Deborah Cheetham collaborated with Judith Durham of the Seekers and Muti Muti singer/songwriter Kutcha Edwards to do just that. They came up with the below.
Australia, celebrate as one, with peace and harmony.
Our precious water, soil and sun, grant life for you and me.
Our land abounds in nature’s gifts to love, respect and share,
And honouring the Dreaming, advance Australia fair.
With joyful hearts then let us sing, advance Australia fair.
– Excerpt from Advance Australia Fair, alternate lyrics by Deborah Cheetham, Judith Durham and Kutcha Edwards (You can read the full lyrics here.)
“I believe one day we will sing these words at grand finals and other important events,” Cheetham wrote in a 2015 article for The Conversation, “and that they will serve to bring us together.” A world-renowned composer and soprano, Cheetham had just turned down an invitation to sing the anthem at the AFL grand final.
But even changing the lyrics can feel like a token gesture.
“Honestly, retrofitting does not work for me,” says Carla.
“We need to start afresh. If we had an Indigenous Representative Council, I’d be happy for them to run a competition, outline the parameters and select the winner. Or perhaps we get a top three and Australia votes. Isn’t it important that all Australians have a say?”
What can I do?
As we’ve established, the current anthem is, at best, divisive, short-sighted and potentially very offensive. For Aunty Munya, its selection back in 1974 is not easily forgotten. “I was in high school,” she reflects. “I thought it was a terrible choice then and still do.”
So if we want to be allies, the first place to start is to arm ourselves with information. Educate ourselves so that we can understand why it has the potential to be so offensive.
To guide this discovery, Carla recommends trying the R3 Culture Approach: reflect, relate, reconcile.
“Reflect – there is an issue, as some people find it saddening,” she explains. “Relate – put yourself in another’s shoes. How would you feel if the anthem denied your existence? Then reconcile – see if there are places where you can learn more, and when you are ready, take action for change.”
Do you like folk music? Would you enjoy an effervescent three-part vocal arrangement, bolstered further with decisive drums, fiddle and squeezebox? If so, there’s another recommendation: “Listen to ‘Anthem’ by Tiddas,” says Carla.
Don’t sing me your anthem
When your anthem’s absurd.
– Tiddas (Amy Saunders, Lou Bennett, Sally Dastey)
We think they’re on to something – don’t you?
You can listen to Tiddas’ song Anthem on YouTube here. If you’d like more information on how to be an ally, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.