Global Extremes: Opinion

The change to Australia's national anthem is a lesson in how not to do symbolic politics

Prime Minister Scott Morrison changed a line in ‘Advance Australia Fair’ from “For we are young and free” to “For we are one and free”. But his edit may make the situation worse.

Clayton Chin
Clayton Chin Geoffrey Brahm Levey Varun Uberoi
01 Feb 2021 - 12:56pm
Demonstrators in Melbourne march in an 'Invasion Day' protest on 26 January 2021, highlighting British colonisation, the killing of Indigenous peoples and the dispossession of their lands
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Sydney Low/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved
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“Change the nation. Then we'll sing ‘one and free’. #TreatyNow.”

It wasn’t what you might expect to read on a church noticeboard. But Leichhardt Uniting Church’s declaration to Sydney passers-by this month expressed what many Australians feel about a one-word change to their national anthem, announced on New Year’s Eve: it’s tokenistic and insubstantial.

In perhaps his final act of 2020, Australia's prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced that the line “For we are young and free” in ‘Advance Australia Fair’ would henceforth be rendered “For we are one and free”.

Is the Church right? Should nations change themselves before they change their symbols? In fact, symbolism is central to the very process by which nations transform their identity. Symbolic politics are what enable more substantive accommodation and reforms to unfold. But symbolic change achieves little without sincerity and sensitivity. Morrison’s edit may even have made the situation worse.

A sign outside Leichhardt Uniting Church in Sydney reads:
A sign outside Leichhardt Uniting Church in Sydney objects to the one-word change to Australia's national anthem | Geoff Levey. All rights reserved

For decades, Indigenous groups and supporters had complained that deeming the country “young” ignored or, worse, denied Australia’s pre-European history.

The contention received an unexpected boost last year from the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, who is of Armenian heritage. “I love our national anthem… but I think one word change will make such a difference,” she said last November. A host of public figures added their support, including Ken Wyatt, Morrison’s Indigenous minister for Indigenous Australians.

As he had done previously, Morrison rejected the idea as untimely. Then on 31 December, he suddenly switched course and unilaterally announced the word change, effective the very next day, 1 January 2021. What had changed?

Morrison’s intervention came after the National Rugby League suggested that it might stop singing the national anthem at matches in deference to Indigenous players and supporters.

It also followed the spectacle in early December, widely applauded, of a young Indigenous woman singing 'Advance Australia Fair' with a verse in her native Eora language at an Australia vs Argentina rugby match. This was the first time the Australian anthem had ever been sung in dual language at a public event.

These incidents left the impression of a prime minister pushed to reconsider his position in hopes of forestalling even more elaborate Indigenous recognition.

Morrison stressed that the change was as much about recognising how Australians had pulled together during the COVID-19 pandemic as it was about Indigenous recognition, as though one changes a national anthem to reward good behaviour.

Scott Morrison
The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced the one-word change to the anthem on 31 December 2020 | LUKAS COCH/AAP/PA Images/ All rights reserved

Morrison also authorised the change to take effect from 1 January rather than the more symbolically fitting date of 26 January, Australia Day, which is annually embroiled in its own recognition debate. Many Indigenous Australians regard the date – which marks the arrival of the British First Fleet – as Invasion Day. Downplaying the connection of the word change to Indigenous Australians is itself an insult.

Equally, dropping the word “young” is one thing; installing the word “one” is another. Despite its surface appeal, asserting the oneness of a nation is loaded in the Australian context. Notorious xenophobe Pauline Hanson (who supported the anthem change) called her political party “One Nation” with exclusionary intent, seeking to sharpen the divide between “us” and “them”, the latter comprising Indigenous people, Asians and, more recently, Muslims.

When he was prime minister, John Howard stressed “oneness” to underscore the established Anglo-Australian culture and the imperative on migrants to assimilate. He rejected calls for a treaty between the government and Australia’s Indigenous peoples on the basis that a nation can’t make a treaty with itself.

In the United Kingdom, “one nation” has been deployed more inclusively. Following Benjamin Disraeli, the patrician wing of the UK Conservative Party invoked the phrase in support of including the poor in the nation. More recently, the Parekh Report agreed Britain needs to be “One Nation” but “understood as a community of communities and a community of citizens”.

However, unlike the UK, Australia doesn’t have four territorially defined cultural nations to help pluralise its collective identity. Rather, it has a plethora of ancient, culturally unique but territorially dispersed Indigenous tribal nations that have repeatedly been denied cultural recognition and self-direction in the name of an imagined oneness to the Australian people.

For example, Scott Morrison followed his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull in rejecting the Uluru Statement from the Heart’s call for an Indigenous voice in Parliament, on the specious grounds it would constitute a third chamber, granting veto power to one group of Australians.

“Equal and free” would be a more inclusive, if aspirational, replacement lyric than “one and free”.

In Australia, then, the language of oneness is always likely to have the ring of narrow uniformity. “Equal and free” would be a more inclusive, if aspirational, replacement lyric than “one and free”.

Well-executed symbolic reforms, such as occurred when Canadian governments constitutionally (1982) and legislatively (1988) committed to multiculturalism, can be ways in which nations begin to change themselves. But it is crucial that they be undertaken in the right way and that the result is a net improvement.

The public and key stakeholders must be included in the process, especially when dearly held and contentious symbols are in question. Morrison actioned the anthem change without consulting the public. Rather than improving the anthem, his change responds to calls for acknowledging the Indigenous presence with reassertions of unity that ignore that very presence. Soliciting public input may have produced a more inclusive lyric and wider support.

As it stands, Morrison’s reform has continued a sad cycle of non-inclusion: a top-down change that once again fails to recognise Indigenous peoples in the representation of the nation.

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