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Monday, November 30, 2020

Explained: Why some Australians want their national anthem changed

Recently, Gladys Berejiklian, the leader of Australia’s most populous state, spoke out against the anthem, saying the line ‘we are young and free’ dismisses centuries of indigenous history.  

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: November 15, 2020 12:16:07 pm
Australia’s national anthem, Gladys Berejiklian, Australia’s national anthem controversy, Australia Day, indigenous people in Australia, Australia indigenous people issues, express explained, indian expressGladys Berejiklian, premier of New South Wales, during a Remembrance Day Service in Sydney on November 11. (Saeed Khan/Pool Photo via AP)

The leader of Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, has urged the country to change its national anthem. The anthem, ‘Advance Australia Fair’, includes the line “we are young and free”, that state leader Gladys Berejiklian believes dismisses centuries of indigenous history.

Calls to change the national anthem in Australia are not new. The lyrics have faced criticism for years. But Berejiklian’s endorsement of these calls is important given her position as a lawmaker, making her one of the most prominent voices to raise the cause.

What is the issue with the national anthem?

‘Advance Australia Fair’ was written in 1878 but became the official national anthem only in 1984. Most of the criticism regarding the national has been directed towards the second line that reads “for we are young and free”. Critics say these words obliterate more than 50,000 years of indigenous history and indicate historical revisionism by attempting to claim that Australia’s history starts with colonisation.

“Each year Australians have a national holiday on Jan. 26, marking the date the “First Fleet” sailed into Sydney Harbour in 1788, carrying mainly convicts and troops from Britain. Some indigenous people refer to Australia Day as “Invasion Day”,” Reuters reported.


For years, several prominent Australians have tried to bring attention to the lyrics and the need to change them for the sake of inclusion, diversity and representation. In 2015, Deborah Cheetham, Aboriginal Australian soprano and Associate Dean, Music, University of Melbourne, had written a blog post explaining how she had been asked to perform the national anthem at the Advance Australia Fair that year, and had requested to replace the words “for we are young and free” with “in peace and harmony”. The request was denied by the organisers.

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“Our national anthem tells us that we are young and free. Blindly, many Australians continue to accept this,” Cheetham had written. “But it’s not true. Setting aside for a moment 70,000 years of Indigenous cultures, 114 years on from Federation and 227 years into colonisation, at the very least, those words don’t reflect who we are. As Australians, can we aspire to be young forever? If we are ever to mature we simply cannot cling to this desperate premise.”

After the organisers refused to allow the changed lyrics, Cheetham did not perform.

Boxer Anthony Mundine has for years openly stated he will not stand for the national anthem. In 2019, several Australian football players, including those who aren’t Aboriginal, refused to sing the national anthem in the State of Origin rugby league series. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

Is any other line too considered problematic?  

Last year, in a segment on Australian news satire series ‘The Weekly with Charlie Pickering’, indigenous rapper Briggs had explained why the national anthem’s lyrics were problematic.

The lyrics for the national anthem are as follows:

Australia’s sons let us rejoice,
For we are young and free;
We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil,
Our home is girt by sea;
Our land abounds in Nature’s gifts
Of beauty rich and rare;
In hist’ry’s page, let ev’ry stage
Advance Australia fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing,
Advance Australia fair.

In an interview with Australia’s Daily Telegraph, Briggs had broken down each line of the anthem to show how it wasn’t just a matter of one or two phrases or sentences that needed to be changed, but almost the entire anthem.

“Now, since all children in Northern Territory detention are Aboriginal and we are the most incarcerated people on Earth, we don’t feel particularly free. And as for young, we’ve been here for 80,000 years but I guess we don’t look a day over 60,000,” the rapper had said.

Briggs had also taken issue with the inclusion of the word “wealth”. “We don’t see much of that wealth. Only one in 10 of us are financially secure,” Briggs told the news publication. He further dissected the line “Our land abounds in nature’s gifts” saying, “You see that just reminds us that our land was our land before our home was girt by you lot.”

“This song sucks,” Briggs had said.

What has the political response been like?

In 2018, when a nine-year-old school student in Brisbane was disciplined by authorities for refusing to stand for the national anthem, it set off public discussions concerning the lyrics across the country. While some like former prime minister Tony Abbot and right-wing politician Pauline Hanson criticised the student, there were many public figures who supported the student’s stance.

Opinion pieces in Australia’s leading newspapers like The Sydney Morning Herald defended the school student and called the national anthem racist. Research has indicated that Indigenous Australians continue to face racism, discrimination and exclusion in the country and are socio-economically disadvantaged.

The Reuters report said this past year, reverberations of Black Lives Matter movement have been felt in Australia too, throwing the plight of Indigenous Australians in greater relief.

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