Ian Robinson: Changing one word doesn’t fix the National Anthem but makes it worse

Jan 7, 2021

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is deluded if he thinks changing one word can fix our deeply flawed National Anthem. There are too many things wrong with it. Tinkering around the edges cannot save something that is rotten at the core.

In trying to solve one problem, Morrison has only created another. In his press conference, the PM claimed: “The changes [sic] we have made today” “reflect” the fact that “[w]e live in a timeless land of ancient First Nations peoples …”.

Leaving aside the dismissive clichés of “timeless land” and “ancient … peoples”, how does saying “we are one” even begin to reference the long-term Indigenous presence on this continent? It seems to be claiming Australia is a single homogenous entity, when the whole point of the Uluru Statement From the Heart was to ask for unique treatment for Indigenous people, via a Treaty that recognised their previous ownership, a voice to Parliament and a truth and reconciliation process.

The conservative argument against the Uluru Statement From the Heart is precisely that encapsulated by Morrison’s revised anthem. That is – “we are one”. Therefore Indigenous people should not be treated differently from anyone else. Rather than advancing the Indigenous cause, Morrison’s change sets back the cause, and plays into the hands of its detractors!

But the real problem is that his minor change still leaves untouched the enduring and deep-seated difficulties with our National Anthem.

In the first place, and most significantly, the epithet “fair” in the National Anthem’s title and in the refrain is indisputably racist. It reinforces the pernicious equivalence of “white” equals “good” (versus “black” equals “bad”), which permeates European culture.

We see this across the board, from expressions such as “He’s a white man” (meaning “he is good/generous”) and “He has a black soul” (meaning “he is evil”), to the cliché of the colour of the cowboys’ hats in classic Hollywood Westerns.

Our Anthem was written at a time when the isolationist sentiments that later became institutionalised as the White Australia Policy were more or less accepted by the entire colonial population, so there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that “fair” in the song meant both “attractive” and “white”. Arguments that the word in the current context just means the former founder on the fact that “fair” only meant “attractive” in European eyes because it was referencing “whiteness”.

“Advance Australia” was the motto of the influential (and racist) Australian Natives Association, which supported the White Australia Policy well into the second half of the 20th century and which long used “Advance Australia Fair” as its theme song.

In the world of our song, it’s as if the original inhabitants were never here! And for most Australians at the time and right through to the middle of last century, the thought was that even if they were here, they wouldn’t be here for long. The received wisdom was that they were a “dying race” and we could best salve our collective conscience by making their passing as painless as possible. So we left them out of our Constitution, we left them out of our National Day, and we left them out of our National Anthem.

There are also problems with “advance”. According to the Macquarie Dictionary, the verb form of ‘advance’ has 12 meanings. The three closest to what seems to be intended in our song are to bring into view or notice; to raise in rank; and, possibly, to improve or further. But where or to what are we advancing?

The sad answer is in the second verse: “We’ll toil with hearts and hands / To make this Commonwealth of ours / Renowned of all the lands.” So the singular national aim of all our advancing is not, as one might have hoped and even expected, to care for the land and its people, or to be good custodians and good citizens, or to make a positive contribution to humanity, but is solely to make us famous, perhaps even the most famous. According to our National Anthem, renown is the sum total of our ambition. This is a disgrace.

It seems that the only acceptable word in the title “Advance Australia Fair” is “Australia”. Australia and Australians have many many things of which to be proud, from our inventiveness, our forthrightness and our inclusiveness to our innovative democracy, our egalitarianism, and our social health and welfare system. It is disturbing that none of our many obvious virtues or accomplishments, apart from our freedom and our newly acquired but dubious ‘oneness’, is celebrated in our National Song.

I am a proud Australian and greatly admire our many worthy accomplishments. Our National Anthem is not one of them. It has to go.

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