CANBERRA: Australia brought in the New Year differently this year by tweaking their national anthem ‘Advance Australia Fair’ slightly to recognize the country’s Indigenous history and communities, said Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
The first line, “Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free,” will now end with “one and free.” “Australia as a modern nation may be relatively young, but our country’s story is ancient, as are the stories of the many First Nations peoples whose stewardship we rightly acknowledge and respect,” Morrison wrote in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald as quoted by CNN.
“In the spirit of unity, it is only right that we also now acknowledge this and ensure our national anthem reflects this truth and shared appreciation. Changing ‘young and free’ to ‘one and free’ takes nothing away, but I believe it adds much,” he added.
History suggests that the Australian governments of the past have changed the song to make it more inclusive when Peter Dodds McCormick’s original 1878 composition was declared the official national anthem in 1984, replacing “God Save the Queen,” two instances of “sons” were switched with gender-neutral phrasing.
The American media outlet reported that the anthem has become controversial in recent years, amid growing conversation about Indigenous representation, systemic inequality, and racial injustice.
“In particular, many have pushed back against the phrase “for we are young and free” — a nod to when Britain’s First Fleet landed in Australia in 1788 — given Australia is home to one of the world’s oldest known civilizations,” CNN reported.
In 2018, a 9-year-old girl was attacked by prominent politicians, who called for her to be kicked out of school, because she refused to stand during the anthem out of respect for the Indigenous population and a year later, athletes refused to sing the anthem at the football matches.
In 2020, national rugby union players sang the anthem in the language of the Eora Nation — the first time it has been sung in an Indigenous language at a major sporting event.
Peter Vickery, the founder and chair of the non-profit Representation In Anthem, has been campaigning for a more inclusive anthem since 2016. “Many of our indigenous people found it difficult, if not impossible, to sing the exclusionary words of ‘Advance Australia Fair’,” Vickery said on Friday adding, “We simply can’t have an anthem which causes hurt to its own people.”
CNN reported that Vickery worked with other Indigenous leaders and singers to create alternate, more inclusive lyrics — one change being the phrase “one and free” that Morrison adopted.
“Frankly, I’m elated… It does achieve a major objective of our work, which was to convert words of hurt or exclusion to words of inclusion, and embrace a multicultural society of the 21st century,” Vickery said.
While prominent Indigenous Australian figures, including Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt and Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter Cathy Freeman celebrated the change, it was met with skepticism that the change was it “insubstantial, and more symbolic than effecting any real change.”
Indigenous former world boxing champion Anthony Mundine called the new change as not “good enough” adding that the country must “scrap the song and start fresh with bit of black history and white history.”
“The anthem one-word change isn’t good enough! Need to scrap the song and start fresh with bit of black history and white history in a positive light to what our great country is today,” he wrote in a tweet.
“The core of the anthem is advance Australia white!! Do your own research on it,” it read further.
Vickery acknowledged such criticisms, saying the campaign’s symbolic power “can never be a substitute for substance.” But, he added, the anthem was still “a critically important first step.”
While the country’s Indigenous population makes up 3.3 per cent of 25 million people, by they account for more than a quarter of its 41,000 prisoners, CNN reported. Indigenous Australians are also almost twice as likely to die by suicide, have a life expectancy that is almost nine years lower, and have higher infant mortality rates than non-Indigenous Australians.
The unemployment rate for Indigenous Australians is more than 4 times the national average.
Ian Hamm, chair of the Indigenous organization First Nations Foundation, praised the changed lyric — but also highlighted other, more concrete actions that need to be taken.
“I think it’s a good step, but after all, it’s just one step, one thing,” Hamm said, as quoted by CNN.
“And the anthem in itself is just that — it’s a song. There’s a whole bunch of other initiatives and changes and efforts to be done to create equity of opportunity for Aboriginal people, and equity in life outcomes for Aboriginal peoples.”