Shortcuts / 07 January 2021

Changes to Australia’s National Anthem

Discussion about our national anthem Advance Australia Fair was a big part of the start of 2021. That’s because our PM announced that the song’s second line, ‘for we are young and free’ would be officially changed to ‘for we are one and free’. So in the first episode of Squiz Shortcuts for 2021 we dig into the background of our anthem, how it came to be the song for our nation, and what changes have been made to it over the years and why. 

Why do we have national anthems?

They really only started being used from the 19th centuries onwards, with most at the time paying homage to a reigning monarch, or serving as a patriotic song for newly formed states. And a few countries in the world still don’t have a national anthem. But these days, they tend to be played on national holidays, sporting matches, official events, and as many of us will fondly remember, at schools.

What was our national anthem before Advance Australia Fair?

As part of the British Empire, the colonies pre-1901 and then Australia used variations of ‘God Save the Queen’ or ‘God Save the King’, depending on who was monarch at the time.

So where does Advance Australia Fair come in?

While it didn’t officially become our national anthem until 1984 during Bob Hawke’s first year of government, Advance Australia Fair was actually already pretty well known amongst Aussies before then.

It was written by a Scottish-born bloke by the name of Peter Dodds McCormick in 1878. McCormick is said to have penned the song after attending a concert in Melbourne where national anthems from around the world were performed. But of course, those excluded Australia because Australia wasn’t federated then. It took just a day to write – McCormick wrote the first verse on the bus ride home from the concert, and by the next day the music and lyrics were complete.

That same year, the song was first performed, and it was also featured in the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia on 1 January 1901, where it was sung by a 10,000-strong choir.

And it’s popularity continued to grow throughout the 20th century, with the ABC for example using a shortened version of the tune to announce its news bulletins throughout WWII up until the early 50s when it was replaced with the ‘majestic fanfare’ that it still uses today. And during that period, it was also frequently played at official functions, and in movie theatres, along with God Save the King/Queen.

So why did we make the swap?

Around the middle of the century with patriotism in the air post-WW2, the mood in Australia was shifting, with more people now supporting the idea of moving away from Great Britain and establishing our own national anthem. And that desire continued to grow with the arrival of the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956.

But it wasn’t until republican Gough Whitlam’s Labor government came to power in 1972 that moves were made by those at the top to establish an Aussie national anthem. In 1973, the Whitlam government launched a nationwide competition, which received over 2,500 entries. But the judges deemed them all inferior to Australia’s three unofficial national songs at the time: Banjo Paterson’s Waltzing Matilda, Carl Linger’s Song of Australia and of course Advance Australia Fair.

So the following year in 1974, the Whitlam government polled around 60,000 Australians, and those were the songs that were given as options as an alternative to God Save the Queen – and Advance Australia Fair won by a long shot. That saw Whitlam declare it would become our national anthem. But Whitlam was dismissed in November 1974, and the new Coalition government under Malcolm Fraser actually stuck with God Save the Queen as our national anthem. But pressure from the public continued, and in 1977, Fraser launched a plebiscite to settle the matter. And Advance Australia Fair won again by a large margin. But it wasn’t until Labor’s Bob Hawke came to power that it officially became our national anthem on 19 April 1984. And that’s because while Advance Australia Fair came out overwhelmingly on top in the national popular vote, public opinion was still pretty divided and voters in some states preferred other options. South Australia, for example, voted for the Song of Australia. And many wanted to stick with God Save the Queen, particularly for its references to our head of state.

What changes were made to Advance Australia Fair throughout the 20th century?

When Advance Australia Fair officially became our national anthem in 1984, there were a few significant changes made to McCormick’s original song. For one, the length was reduced from four verses to two with a new second verse adopted at Federation in 1901. It included references to Captain Cook and Great Britain, with lines such as ‘When gallant Cook from Albion sailed’, ‘From England soil and Fatherland’ and when once ‘Britannia rules the wave’.

A few alterations were also made to make the lyrics more gender-inclusive. In the original version, the first line read ‘Australia’s sons let us rejoice.’ But that line was changed to ‘Australians all let us rejoice.’ And the line ‘For loyal sons beyond the seas’ was changed to ‘For those who’ve come across the seas’. And a line in the second verse originally reading ‘To make our youthful Commonwealth’, was replaced with ‘To make this Commonwealth of ours’.

What have been some problems identified with the national anthem?

Over the years, there have been calls for our national anthem to change further, particularly to include references to the First Nations peoples. And others want the anthem scrapped altogether, saying it’s outdated and colonialist.

In recent years, the debate has really played out in the sporting world, where the national anthem is often played before matches. It’s particularly reflecting what’s been happening in the US after NFL player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during America’s national anthem to protest injustices suffered by black Americans.

In Oz though, Indigenous boxer Anthony Mundine has consistently refused to stand for the national anthem since 2013.  And we’ve seen players in a number of sporting codes refuse to sing the national anthem, one of the prominent of which was a refusal by some State of Origin players in 2019 to sing the anthem. And last year there was a whole controversy when the NRL decided not to play the national anthem during the State of Origin series but reversed the decision after after a backlash from PM Scott Morrison and from fans. Other codes have had different approaches for example, late last year a tri nations match between Australia and Argentina saw the the anthem sung in both the indigenous Eora language and English.

So what is the latest change to the anthem about?

On 1 January this year, one word in the anthem was changed announced in a nod to Australian’s Indigenous heritage. And to give a bit of background, in 2017, a not-for-profit organisation called Recognition in Anthem was established to rewrite the lyrics to Advance Australia Fair. It proposed changing the lyrics from “we are young and free” to “we are one and free” in the first verse, deleting the second verse, and adding two new verses which referenced Australia’s Indigenous history, as well as immigration. That version was endorsed by the former PMs Bob Hawke and Malcolm Turnbull, both Republicans. Turnbull even allowed it to be sung on certain occasions as a ‘patriotic song’, but stopped short of officially changing the lyrics.

While the full change hasn’t been adopted, there has been movement on that lyric change. It was in November last year when NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said Australia should officially adopt the line ‘we are one and free’ – she made that statement off her own bat as the leader of our most populous state. She recommended it to the PM and to make that change all it took was the swipe of a pen and the agreement of the Governor-General. It was the first change to the national anthem since 1984.

What have the reactions been?

PM Scott Morrison said the change “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.” The change was embraced by many in the Indigenous community and elsewhere, but has attracted criticism from some corners who argue that the move is only symbolic and will do little to change the lot of Indigenous Australians. And some criticised the lyrical change as not going far enough.

One more question… what does the word ‘girt’ in the lyrics ‘our home is girt by seas’ mean?

It comes from the Old English verb ‘gird’ which means to surround or encircle.

Squiz recommends:

Advance Australia Fair performed in both the Eora language and English

Song of Australia 



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