Australians rang in the New Year with a milestone word change to the national anthem, but among the country’s unfinished reconciliation business are two whole new verses to Advance Australia Fair.
New Year’s Day of 2021 brought the new, amended anthem line, “for we are one and free”, after the Governor-General, David Hurley, agreed to the Commonwealth Government’s recommendation to the one-word fix, substituting “young” for the more unifying “one”.
One little word change is huge: the old lyric “for we are young and free” had failed to acknowledge more than 60,000 years of Indigenous existence, thus perpetuating the fiction of terra nullius, a Latin expression meaning “nobody’s land” which British colonisers used as a legal basis to justify occupation without treaty or reparations.
But the Recognition in Anthem Project wants to spell out what “one” means in detail and has also created whole new second and third verses for Advance Australia Fair, which it still hopes will likewise be formally adopted on the Commonwealth’s recommendation.
Recently recorded at Sydney Opera House with soprano Stefanie Jones singing, Keyna Wilkins on piano and Gamilaroi and Wakka Wakka man Gumaroy Newman playing didgeridoo (before and after the anthem), these new verses begin:
For sixty thousand years and more / First peoples of this land / Sustained by Country, Dreaming told / By song and artist’s hand. / Unite our cultures from afar / In peace with those first here / To walk together on this soil / Respect for all grows there …
Penned by Project Chair, the Hon Peter Vickery, who is better known for three decades at the Victorian Bar and his 2008 appointment as a Judge of the Victorian Supreme Court, these new anthem verses were redrafted many times in consultation with committee members, including Wiradjuri Elder Aunty Sue Bulger, Gunggari man Don Bemrose and Gurang Gurang man Dr Chris Sarra, as well as opera singer Deborah Cheetham.
“Although the new verses were put out by us, they have not been adopted at this stage,” Vickery tells Limelight. “Step by step. The [Federal] Cabinet was cautious about approaching and dealing with it. We’re still communicating with Cabinet. We’re hopeful of adoption, but we can’t be sure.”
Aunty Sue Bulger, who in 2015 became Tumut Shire’s first Indigenous mayor, said that during her time as a councillor she would perform Welcome to Country at Australia Day ceremonies, but many Indigenous people would not attend these ceremonies because for them it was Survival Day.
There had also been media coverage of a young Indigenous man in Wagga who refused to stand for the national anthem, a choice Aunty Sue told reporters she supported as an individual choice, declining to say whether that decision was right or wrong.
“I met Peter and he talked about changing the anthem,” she recalls. “So in my Welcome to Country I said I met a man who wants to make Australia’s national anthem more inclusive of First Nations people, and said I totally agreed.”
Aunty Sue says she found the new verses beautiful when Vickery began bringing them to the committee. “When you hear them sung, it’s really lovely.”
Advance Australia Fair was composed by Scottish-born Peter Dodds McCormick in 1878. It became the national anthem in 1984, displacing God Save the Queen, through a decade-long process begun in the early 1970s by the Whitlam Labor Government, with the subsequent Fraser Coalition Government conducting a plebiscite in 1977.
Australians were asked to vote on which of four “tunes” they preferred. “Advance Australia Fair romped home as a tune,” recalls Vickery.
But the words still need to be resolved, such as Dodds McCormick’s later amendment “Her sons in fair Australia’s land / Still keep a British soul”, which he added when tension was heating up between Britain and Germany prior to the First World War.
In 1984, the Hawke Labor Cabinet introduced the present version of the anthem, after appointing a National Australia Day Council. “It consisted of some good Australians, but none of them had musical capacity of experience, and there were no Indigenous members of that committee,” says Vickery.
“They reduced the four verses of Advance Australia Fair to two verses, they removed all references to Britain, and they also made it gender-neutral. The original song commenced with ‘Australia’s sons let us rejoice’. But not having any Indigenous members, none of them picked up the problem with the word ‘young’.”
In early 2017, Hawke, hearing about the Recognition in Anthem project, invited the committee to his office. “His first utterance was, ‘This is fantastic’,” says Vickery. “He saw the need to bring the anthem into the 21st century.”
Hawke agreed to be the anthem project’s patron, but later that year had to withdraw from all public duties due to increasing ill-health. Hawke died in 2019.
Gumaroy Newman said he needed some persuasion to play didgeridoo before and after the anthem for the recording with Stefanie Jones after his musician colleague Keyna Wilkins invited him onto the project.
“I was a little bit hesitant until I consulted a few elders,” he says. “Once I saw that it had backing of Dr Chris [Sarra] and Deborah Cheetham and a couple of other First Nations people, I decided to get in on it.”
Playing didgeridoo before and after the piece was culturally important. “You know how our people, we paint concentric circles, so there’s no beginning and no end, so I guess it’s fitting that I was playing at the start and at the end. My people were here first, and we’ll always be here.”
Might Australia be better off scrapping the anthem and beginning again with something written in the 21st century? “Absolutely,” says Newman. “Peter’s made a great start, because I like to sing ‘we are one and free’, although I can’t agree wholeheartedly we are ‘one and free’.”
Aunty Sue Bulger says Advance Australia Fair is a stirring song, and while she fully approves of the new verses, her personal preference for a national anthem would be Bruce Woodley and Dobe Newton’s 1987 song I Am Australian.
“It covers everyone, ‘I, you, me’, and just the [opening] words, ‘I came from the dream-time’. I felt included, also with other families who come from overseas, and children who are born here, they are [all] Australian … With the present anthem, we only ever sing one verse.”
Vickery says there are difficulties in changing the anthem completely: the high cost of a new plebiscite and the fact many people like the present anthem.
But Vickery agrees there was certainly nothing “fair” for Aboriginal people, particularly in 19th-century Australia, and the “boundless plains” of which the Scots composer wrote were never intended to be shared beyond white colonisers: the anthem preceded the racist White Australia Policy, which was introduced during federation in 1901.
Can adding new verses to Advance Australia Fair ever remove it from this historical taint?
“I think it can,” says Vickery. “Verse two is designed to say who we are as a people. It starts with a reference to our Indigenous heritage. It’s quite a powerful statement.”
There is now an opportunity to formally acknowledge our First Peoples “in our most important of national symbols, which is our national anthem”, says Vickery.
The new verses would “fill a gap for the moment, but not to deny the right to proceed with the Uluru Statement [from the Heart] and give it formal recognition … [the new anthem] can play a part in moving towards reconciliation.
“That’s ultimately the goal. The [new anthem] is setting the scene, if you like, for widespread acceptance of the true position, and thereby telling truth, which is a key goal of reconciliation.”
Advance Australia Fair 2.0
Verse 1 – Our Country
Australians all let us rejoice
For we are one 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 history’s page, let every stage
Advance Australia Fair
In joyful strains then let us sing, Advance Australia Fair.
Verse 2 – Our People
For sixty thousand years and more
First peoples of this land
Sustained by Country, Dreaming told
By song and artist’s hand.
Unite our cultures from afar
In peace with those first here
To walk together on this soil
Respect for all grows there.
From everywhere on Earth we sing, Advance Australia Fair.
Verse 3 – Our Values
In times of drought and flood and fire
When all but hope is gone
Australians join with helping hands
And wattle blooms again.
Tomorrow may this timeless land
Live for our young to share
From red-rock heart to sun-filled shore
Our country free and fair.
Beneath the Southern Cross we sing, Advance Australia Fair.