Make 'I am Australian' our national anthem

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Let's make 'I am Australian' our national anthem, or at least our national song, says David Donovan 'Advance Australia Fair' just doesn't cut it anymore.

In tomorrow's Herald Sun, I have been told Jeff Kennett will be saying that the song I am Australian should be our national anthem, or at least our national song. I was told this because I was interviewed this morning by the newspaper to ask me what the Australian Republican Movement's view might be on this proposal.

My response was that the ARM is not seeking to change the Australian anthem. I told him that since we are a single-issue Movement dedicated solely towards creating a republican form of government in Australia, changing the national anthem is well outside the ambit of our organisation's aims. I went on to say, though, that if there was to be a national debate about the anthem, this song would be sure to figure strongly as it had sentiments that all Australians could get behind.

What I didn't say was that it had a fantastic tune that's sure to draw a patriotic tear from the most granite-faced Australian, though that's also obviously true.

There was no need for me to mention that, on a personal basis, I couldn't agree with Jeff Kennett more. I am Australian has lyrics that speak to me as an Australian, far more than Advance Australia Fair has ever done. The way it respectfully speaks in the first verse about the "First Australians" – our Indigenous compatriots – and then goes on to mention parts of our  shared culture of which almost all of us are familiar – including Ned Kelly, the diggers, the land, the battlers, the bushies, Clancy of the Overflow, and so on – is all incredibly poignant. I find myself  moved when I watch the Seekers version of this song, and that's pretty rare for me now that I'm a cynical 40 year-old.

Here are the lyrics of this provocative song:

I am Australian

I came from the dream-time,
From the dusty red-soil plains.
I am the ancient heart,
The keeper of the flame.
I stood upon the rocky shores,
I watched the tall ships come,
For forty thousand years I've been
The first Australian.

I came upon the prison ship,
Bowed down by iron chains,
I fought the land, endured the lash,
And waited for the rains.
I'm a settler, I'm a farmer's wife
On a dry and barren run,
A convict, then a free man,
I became Australian.

I'm the daughter of a digger
Who sought the mother lode.
The girl became a woman
On the long and dusty road.
I'm a child of the Depression,
I saw the good times come,
I'm a bushie, I'm a battler,
I am Australian.

We are one, but we are many,
And from all the lands on earth we come.
We'll share a dream and sing with one voice,
"I am, you are, we are Australian"

I'm a teller of stories,
I'm a singer of songs,
I am Albert Namatjira
And I paint the ghostly gums.
I'm Clancy on his horse,
I'm Ned Kelly on the run,
I'm the one who waltzed Matilda,
I am Australian.

I'm the hot wind from the desert,
I'm the black soil of the plains,
I'm the mountains and the valleys,
I'm the drought and flooding rains.
I am the rock, I am the sky,
The rivers when they run,
The spirit of this great land,
I am Australian.

We are one, but we are many,
And from all the lands on earth we come.
We'll share a dream and sing with one voice,
"I am, you are, we are Australian."

"I am, you are, we are Australian."

Now, Advance Australia Fair is a reasonable song, not at all the dirge that many people make it out to be. It has also stood the test of time, being in the public consciousness virtually since it was composed by Scottish-born Peter Dodds McCormick in 1878. It gained popularity quickly, was sung by a choir of 10,000 at Federation, used to announce ABC news bulletins until 1952, and generally been used in many official and unofficial capacities since Federation and even before.

Despite all this, we shouldn't be too sentimental about it—Advance has not been our national song for long and our anthem for even less time.

It's first attempt at being our song was in 1974, when the Whitlam Government made it our national song for all but regal occasions after conducting a national poll of 60,000 Australians. Its status was temporarily reduced by Malcolm Fraser in 1976, who reinstated God Save the Queen for royal, vice-regal, defence and loyal toast occasions. In 1977, a plebiscite chose Advance again as our national song and it was reinstated, although God Save the Queen remained our national anthem until 1984, when Bob Hawke finally declared Advance to be our national anthem. God Save the Queen, curiously, remained as our "royal anthem", whatever that is—certainly no-one knew at the 2000 Sydney Olympics or at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006.

So, Advance has been our national anthem for less than 30 years. Despite this, most of us probably feel some attachment to it, hearing it so many times as we do at the Olympics and Commonwealth Games. It also has some appropriate lyrics, such as Australia being a "land abounding in nature's gifts" and "boundless plains" (though the line "girt by sea" does often attract criticism).

Where the anthem really falls down is on the patriotic front as it was originally written mainly as a lovesong to Britain—of the original four verses of Advance, three were actually dedicated towards declaring Australia's eternal devotion to the mother country and everlasting Britishness. Verse three was removed at Federation and replaced by the current second verse, but it was not until Advance was declared our national anthem in 1984 that the other "British" verses – two and four – were removed.

Here are the original lyrics of Advance Australia Fair, as written by McCormick in 1878: 
Advance Australia Fair

Australian 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 history's page let every stage
Advance Australia Fair
In joyful strains then let us sing
Advance Australia Fair.

When gallant Cook from Albion sailed.
To trace wide oceans o'er.
True British courage bore him on.
Til he landed on our shore
Then here he raised Old England's flag.
The standard of the brave.
With all her faults we love her still.
Britannia rules the wave
In joyful strains then let us sing
Advance Australia Fair.

When other nations of the globe.
Behold us from afar,
We'll rise to high renown
And shine like our glorious southern star
From English soil and Fatherland
Scotia and Erin fair
Let all combine with heart and hand
To Advance Australia fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing
Advance Australia Fair.

Should foreign foe e'er sight our coast.
Or dare a foot to land.
We'll rouse to arms like sires of yore
To guard our native strand.
Britannia then shall surely know,
Though oceans roll between
Her sons in fair Australia's land
Still keep their courage green.
In joyful strains then let us sing
Advance Australia Fair.
Co-omposer of I am Australian (with Dobe Newton of the Bushwhackers), Bruce Woodley (Seekers)

A song that was originally written to declare Australia's loyalty to a another land is hardly an appropriate anthem in 2011. This is even more starkly apparent when you consider that its competitor, I am Australian, makes a point of respecting the diversity of origins of the Australian people—'we are one, but we are many and from all the lands on earth we come', it says.

And, vitally, it spends the first verse showing the appropriate respect and putting into context the original owners of the land— 'I watched the tall ships come, for forty thousand years I've been the first Australian'. This is something that would never have entered the thoughts of the original Scottish composer and, critically, doesn't makes its way into the revised version either.

But beyond all that, in every respect, I am Australian is just a much better song. It has a better tune and it has lyrics that have relevance and appeal to all Australians, ones that we can use as a clarion call to declare our identity and values to the world and, more importantly, to ourselves and our children.

As an individual Australian, I hope other Australians will get behind Jeff Kennett's call for I am Australian to be made our national anthem or, at least, our national song. Let's have national symbols that are powerful, attractive and reflect who were are, not who we thought we were 142 years ago.
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