Forget empire and swaggies, we now need an anthem for all of us

Jan 5, 2021

Provoked by piss-weak, one-word Scotty and feisty Julian ‘Matilda’ Cribb, I offer my anthem words that come from a rather different place.

I was inspired by an early episode of Redfern Now, the one in which the scholarship kid at the posh school refuses to sing the AAF words because they insult his people. There are so many things wrong with those words. You can go through and pick at ‘boundless plains’ and ‘girt’, but for me, it’s the whole tone and package.

Advance Australia Fair is a white-supremacist, imperialist chant, an offensive boast, a rah-rah rant. We’re better than everybody else! (Even us colonials [cringe].) Men of Harlech! Rule Britannia! Britons never shall be slaves – except of course they were for about three hundred years, thanks to the Normans. Not to mention the Angles, Saxons and Jutes we learnt about in school, who pushed the earlier Britons into the hills. So which of those schizophrenic identities are we supposed to be? It’s all a destructive fantasy.

Of course, our present grovelling rulers of both stripes are thoroughly stuck in that world, apart from the detail of switching loyalties from Britannia to Uncle Sam in the best tradition of Orwellian double-think. Who will be their next rich and powerful sponsor?

Julian Cribb advocates for the Swaggie, the under-dog resisting the landed gentry and the plutocrat. He makes a good case there, but what about the tune? A plodding march, a near-absence of melody, boring.

True, the waltzing swaggie would inspire the odd beery tear because we all know his song (the chorus anyway) and identify with another myth: the laconic Aussie bushman, the tough, independent, no-bullshit battler. Except most of us live in big cities that have been forced to grow ever-larger, ever-more crowded and dysfunctional, at least before the virus.

We herd ourselves this way and that and, like Banjo, some of us would rather be with Clancy, for “the hurrying people daunt me, and their pallid faces haunt me As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste”. Those words are from well over a century ago when most of us already lived in the cities.

Waltzing Matilda is still an anthem of the White settlers, the invaders. What of the First Australians? How is a Blackfella supposed to identify with it? The swaggie, lowest of the Whitefellas, was still above the Blacks, the treacherous vermin, scarcely human, not even visible in Banjo’s world.

Some day we might hear the invitation in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We are invited, we Whitefellas, “to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”

Some day we might set about creating what Mark McKenna calls a reconciled republic, one in which the full truth of our history is known and acknowledged, the ancient wisdom of First Australians is being learnt and their prodigious talents appreciated. Some day we might set about becoming the best of old and new.

Another problem with anthems is many people seem to want them to be a sentimental chant about “us”, which implicitly separates us from “them” even if we don’t actually brag that we’re better. Well, that might be unavoidable to some extent, or perhaps a celebration can just be a celebration. So the different tone of my words might seem strange at first.

I think the tune of AAF is very serviceable. It is singable, unlike the US anthem, it tarts up well in orchestration, and I happen to think it has some grace and presence if you put the old words out of your head.

So, to the old tune, here are some words that come from a different place. You might think you or someone can do better. Fine. Let’s work on something better.

Australia We Share
(Geoff Davies, 30 April 2013)

An ancient land from Rock to sand
A Dreaming old and wise
White, brown and black from other lands
New ways from old arise.
From whips and chains through gold and fleece
Invention, sweat and care
A new refrain to grace the world:
A fair go and fair share.
To Dream together, old and new,
Australia we share.

A wilful land of flood and fire
Of forests lush and tall
Of rivers slow and jewel reef
And creatures fit for all
This land abounds in nature’s gifts
Of beauty rich and rare
From aeons past a heritage
For us to take due care.
We all are now custodians

Australia, we care.

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