As more Australians back calls to change the national anthem, this is how it would work

A growing number of political leaders are backing calls to better reflect 60,000 years of Indigenous history in the national anthem, but others disagree.

NSW Blues players stand for the national anthem during the State of Origin series.

NSW Blues players as the national anthem is played during the State of Origin series. Source: AAP

Calls for the national anthem to be changed to better reflect the history of Indigenous Australians are gaining weight, with several politicians lending their voice to the cause this week. 

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt, Labour leader Anthony Albanese and for a revision to the first line of the song during NAIDOC Week, which celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander achievements and culture. 

The proposed change would see the words "we are young and free" changed to "we are one and free" to reflect Indigenous Australians as the longest living culture in the world. 

But what would it take to change the anthem and how much of an impact would it have on reconciliation? 

Who is calling for the anthem to change?

The national anthem has long been a source of contention for some Australians due to its failure to recognise the culture and history of First Nations people.  

The discontent has been seen during sporting matches with some players speaking out about boycotting the anthem and choosing not to sing along. Last week, a number of players  

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has expressed her support for a revision to the first line of the anthem. Source: AAP

Speaking on the morning of the second Origin game, Ms Berejiklian said it's "about time" Australia's history was recognised.

"I feel for Indigenous Australians who don't feel the national anthem reflects them and their history," she told the ABC. 

"And I think if we say, 'We're one and free', it acknowledges that we're not really young as a continent. We're tens of thousands of years old when it comes to human inhabitants."

Mr Wyatt also told this week he would support the change to the lyrics.

“It takes away that 'other' construct that I know has troubled us for some time  … and I would support her suggestion on this change," Mr Wyatt said. 

Mr Albanese also backed the cause, telling the ABC's 7.30 program it is "a really practical suggestion". 

“It does jar. We are a country that should be proud of the fact that we have the oldest, continuous civilisation on the planet right here with First Nations people," he said. 

What has to happen for the anthem to change?

It would not be the first time the anthem has been changed. Back in 1984, then Prime Minister Bob Hawke used his executive powers to change to the first line from "Australia's sons let us rejoice" to "Australians all let us rejoice" because the anthem made no reference to women. 

This was done on the recommendation of a body called the National Australia Day Council which was tasked with refining the number of verses from four to two. 

Peter Vickery, chair and founder of the Recognition in Anthem project and a former Supreme Court judge in Victoria, said a change to the current anthem could follow a similar “simple process”. Or, he said, it could possibly be referred to the parliament as legislation to be voted on. 

“It is important that our key national symbol being the national anthem is not exclusionary,” Mr Vickery told SBS News. 

“There is no room in our national anthem for it to be hurtful - it should not do that. It should contain words of inclusion, not words of exclusion." 

Who is opposing a change?

In the past, public opinion has been divided. 

The current anthem, Advance Australia Fair, was written in 1878 by Peter Dodds McCormick when God Save the Queen was the anthem at the time.

But it would take another century before the song became the national anthem. Following polls conducted in 1974, the reinstating of God Save the Queen in 1976, and another poll in 1977, it was adopted in 1984.

Nationals Senator Matt Canavan
Nationals Senator Matt Canavan says Australia is a young nation. Source: AAP

Nationals Senator Matt Canavan earlier this week said the proposal to change the anthem would "unfairly" seek "to tarnish our ancestors" saying "our country and nation" are "not just about the people who live today". 

“We have old civilisations and we have a rich history over tens of thousands of years but we are a young country,” he told the Nine Network.

A spokesperson for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet said the government has no plans to change the anthem.

"The Australian National Anthem is widely accepted by Australians. The words and tune of the Australian National Anthem were proclaimed by the Governor-General of Australia on 19 April 1984, after extensive surveys of national opinion, starting in the 1970s," they said in a statement provided to SBS News.

"The government has no plans to change this important national symbol. However, debate around these matters in the wider community should be celebrated as an important part of a healthy democracy."

How much impact would it have on reconciliation?

The anthem debate has prompted questions over whether changing one word would merely amount to a symbolic reconciliation effort.

Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, a Yanyuwa woman, said the suggested change is an “important step” towards a greater discussion around the inclusion of First Nations people. 

“I would like to see us start thinking about the anthem as a whole and working out, as a nation, what kind of anthem we want to have,” she told SBS News.

Labor's Malarndirri McCarthy and Linda Burney
Labor's Malarndirri McCarthy and Linda Burney are backing calls to change the anthem. Source: SBS News

Labor MP Linda Burney, a Wiradjuri woman, also said the proposed change would help begin to repair disunity.

“That would mean that the national anthem is something that we can all be proud of,” she told NITV.

"The national anthem is the national anthem - it's something that everyone should be able to sing and sing with pride."

But Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe, a Gunnai and Gunditjmara woman, told SBS News that “one word” would make no real difference for First Nations people.

Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe
Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe said one word would make no real difference. Source: AAP

“The rights of Aboriginal people in this country have never been taken seriously,” she said. 

“If this nation wants to move forward and mature, then the oldest continuing living culture, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, need to be genuinely part of this country's identity."

Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council CEO Nathan Moran agreed the change would be a step towards progress but said he believes a new anthem is needed to unite all Australians. 

“We believe the anthem should reflect the true identity of Australia rather than, in my words, a very terrible past. The start of a truly inclusive society that includes us,” he told SBS News. 

“I don’t perceive one word change will fix it when you’re talking about an anthem that is written … in a time when we were whites only.”

Do you think the anthem should be changed?

Answer our poll near the top of this article. 

National NAIDOC Week (8–15 November 2020) celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

Join SBS and NITV for a full slate of . For more information about NAIDOC Week or this year’s theme, head to the .

#NAIDOC2020 #AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe

7 min read
Published 13 November 2020 at 8:08am
By Tom Stayner