National anthem: Trivial change damages our quest for justice

Opinion Article

2021 January, 3

In the middle of her ICAC corruption investigation crisis, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian proposed that one word of the 36-year-old national anthem be changed from “young” to “one”. The motivation was to cause a diversion from the controversies engulfing the Premier. It worked.


I have no objection to politicians doing things like this. What I object to is politicians invoking a cause for which they have no other record of sympathy or action, as a means of saving their political hides.

Come on, Gladys. Did you have to drag the black fellas into your miserable saga?


Berejiklian’s idea was trivial and meaningless at the time she proposed it. Now that Prime Minister Scott Morrison has actually turned it into reality makes it no less trivial and meaningless.

This change might warm hearts with its first rendition at the forthcoming Test cricket match, but in the sweep of history its embarrassment will soon become apparent. I give it to the next government for the enthusiasm to fade and we’re left with the emptiness of a public relations stunt rather than national poetry.

No country does Claytons better than ours. The change you have when you’re not making a change.


But in the larger scheme concerning the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Nations in the nation — and the parlous social and economic present — this anthem business is a useless diversion.

Changing the word (some think it should have been words) to the national anthem was not the priority.

There are many “nice to haves” when it concerns recognition of Australia’s Indigenous peoples and heritage.

The problem is that any individual with a Twitter account can come up with the next symbolic change agenda item, and start prosecuting it as if it’s the most important priority in Indigenous and national affairs.

Protesting anthems, bending knees and toppling statuary are all ideas that we can mimic from other countries — invariably the US — but should they really be just bowled up to the rest of the country because of a social media urge?


Shouldn’t we stick to the priorities agreed through proper discussion and debate, and that are consistent with the history of advocacy of First Nations politics? Or should we just demand that the Aboriginal flag be flown on the Harbour Bridge because one of us came up with the idea?

I don’t entirely agree with the liberal and conservative backlash to leftist identity politics, but I can see their point. These identity agendas are too ephemeral and social media storms rather than serious agendas seeking justice. Indeed, they cheapen the longstanding and deep cause of Indigenous justice.


Ours is not a cause of identity politics. Ours is a cause for the recognition that Australia has a long history preceding the Europeans, and this history still lives in the present. Ours is a cause of justice.

Australia today is a nation that has not fully embraced its Indigenous heritage. But this is not to say we have not made progress.

There is much work to do. The true Australian languages continue to decline and will disappear unless we recognise them.

Many thousands of places in Australia are named in these native languages. Hundreds of thousands of other place names remain unrecognised. As I write this I look out at the bay in which the Lutheran missionary landed in 1886 among the Guugu Yimidhirr of Cape York and I can count up to 100 places named in the language of this land.

But we can’t just change symbols as a matter of impulse and in response to social media convulsions. Proposals for change should be properly deliberated, and the public given the chance to learn, contribute and participate.


The great achievement of the Keating government was to recognise the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags through the necessary formal process. Today the ubiquity of these flags is, to my mind at least, the most profound recognition we have in the country’s civic life. Parliaments, city halls, shire council chambers, schools.

Maybe if we had a proper process for the consideration and public consultation of ideas for symbolic recognition, this business wouldn’t be so divisive and conflicted. There is no such mechanism so it provides all sorts of opportunities for identity politics wars and useless provocation. Neither does it provide opportunity for the nation to be further enriched through sensible recognition.


If such a mechanism existed, then a poor idea like this one-word change to the national anthem might have been properly canvassed, deliberated and politely but firmly dismissed. Instead, it was sprung on the nation on New Year’s Eve.


Conservatives want unity and fear diversity. Leftists want diversity and are too careless about unity. The standard progressive nostrum about “unity in diversity” needs to be turned on its head. It should be “diversity in unity”.


Unity is foundational and will only be real if grounded in careful recognition. To just insist that unity means we can’t acknowledge difference is retrograde.


Two more things I want to say about the anthem. It’s not the words as much as the music that makes ours such a poor song.

I know my hymns. My hymnody is that of Johannes Sebastian Bach and Martin Luther. We Lutherans are blessed with the greatest.

English hymnody is also exemplary and the Catholics follow. But by the time you bring in the syrup and the guitar playing of the Pentecostals you cross the line from Bach to Cat Stevens.

I don’t know what the Hawke government was thinking when it adopted this tune 36 years ago.


I know legions of patriotically correct readers will bridle at my views here, but the fact is that ever since Mark Ella, I have been a loyal and patriotic follower of the Wallabies. I still create white noise in my ears when the anthem is sung at Bledisloe Cup matches. Then I open them to hear the glorious strains of God Defend New Zealand. Now that’s an anthem.

National anthem: Trivial change damages our quest for justice