• Advance Australia Fair composed by Amicus (Supplied)Source: Supplied
With four players refusing to sing Advance Australia Fair before the opening game of the 2019 State of Origin series in Brisbane, NITV's Chris Roe takes a glimpse at the origins of Australia's national anthem.
Chris Roe

5 Jun 2019 - 5:18 PM  UPDATED 21 Jan 2020 - 2:36 PM

After NRL star and State of Origin debutant Cody Walker confirmed that he would refuse to sing the Australian national anthem before 2019's opening game, a round of anthem agony continued to rage along the social media channels, over the talkback radio airwaves and through the opinion pages of the big newspaper mastheads.

However, Walker’s quiet protest is not at odds with the official protocols surrounding the singing of the national anthem: Australians are only “encouraged to sing” and standing is “customary”, not mandatory.

Despite all the noise and patriotic posturing, the tide does appear to be turning.  Walker joins a growing list of Indigenous athletes who have rejected the sentiment of our national song and are challenging Australians to reflect on what it says about our national identity.

Queensland Origin legend Jonathan Thurston backed Cody Walker’s decision and told Fox Sports that, similar to Walker, “the national anthem doesn’t represent him or his family.”

Shortly afterwards, Walker's New South Wales Blues team-mate and the mighty Melbourne Storm try-scoring machine Josh Addo-Carr followed suit and announced he too would refuse to sing the anthem. Also, Biripi champion Latrell Mitchell joined them in silence, as did Queensland centre Will Chambers.

Scot Of Origin

An ex-pat Scot named Peter Dodds McCormick penned the original version and it was first performed for Sydney’s Highland Society on St Andrew's Day, 1878. 

It comprised of five verses and was something of a rollicking tribute to a colonial nation-in-the-making that overflowed with British pride and optimism.  

While God save the King/Queen remained the official anthem, McCormick's tribute to his new home soon became the unofficial ode for “Australian Sons” everywhere. 

Advance Australia Fair captured the spirit of the times and a couple of decades later a ten-thousand strong choir was assembled for a rousing rendition at the inauguration of the Commonwealth in January 1901. 

Advancing a Nation

There can be no question that the Australia being advanced at the turn of the century was a white nation.  

At its founding in 1901 around 98% of people in Australia were white - excluding of course the inconvenient and uncounted Aborigines.

An 1887 editorial in the Bulletin offered a handy definition of exactly what qualified some one to be an Australian:

An Aussie was “not those who have been merely been born in Australia.  All white men who come to these shores—with a clean record—and who leave behind them the memory of class distinctions and the religious differences of the old world.”  

And just so it was clear, the author went on… “No nigger, no Chinaman, no lascar, no kanaka, no purveyor of cheap coloured labour is an Australian.” 

Fair Go, Mate

At the turn of the century, Australia was labelled the land of the “fair go”.  But only for the fair. 

As the leaders of the newly federated nation laid out their vision for the future, it was a decidedly pale one. 

For Prime Minister Edmund Barton, the now infamous Immigration Restriction Bill of 1901 was about shaping the national character.  

He made no apologies when he declared: “These races are, in comparison with white races—I think no one wants convincing of this fact—unequal and inferior”.  

Future PM Billy Hughes agreed and laid out Labor’s position: “Our chief plank is, of course, a White Australia. There’s no compromise about that.” 

The White Australia Policy was the defining law of the new nation and remained the cornerstone of Australia’s approach to immigration for the next 70 years.  

For proud White Australians, it was something worth singing about. 

Getting the Lyrics White

The ironically titled Australian Natives’ Association (ANA) was a society for Australian-born men of European decent and was instrumental in the push for Federation.  

At their national fete in 1910, the ANA debuted a fresh composition entitled the “White Australia March” celebrating the “Great White Policy”.  

The boldly decorated cover of the sheet music proclaims it to be Australia’s “National Song” and proudly bares the ANA slogan, “Advance Australia”. 

While the ANA's ditty for “the White Man’s Land” failed to catch on, its catch-cry has echoed through the years.

Fair enough for you?

We all know the title and refrain of today’s official anthem, but do you  really know what it means?  

Advance Australia Fair is an enigmatic phrase that could be interpreted a number of ways.  The ANA slogan “Advance Australia” is pretty clear, but once you tack “Fair” on to the end, it becomes a bit ambiguous.


What do we mean by Fair?  Equitable, or Beautiful, or …  Pale?  Maybe a combination of all three? 

Anthem defenders have been quick to link it to the classic Australian expressions, “Fair Go”, “Fair enough” and “Fair Dinkum”.  In this context, we would sing of a land of opportunity; a land of justice for all.

It could equally be interpreted as Australia the beautiful – with a loveliness of the “rich and rare” variety. 

But Advance Australia White?  Surely not!

Advance Australia White

At the turn of the century, dreaming of a white Christmas was not just about a nostalgia for the European winter.  A postcard from 1907 that is retained in the National Library of Australia proudly proclaims, “Xmas Greetings White Australia”. 

It is accompanied by a charming little poem about heather blossoms that concludes:

“And the White stand for Fair White Australia, While we both sing this Joyous Refrain, Hurrah for the Land of the Fair and the Free, Always White may it ever remain.”   

Sounds About White

By the time Advance Australia Fair was officially given the thumbs up by referendum in the 1970s, it had been cut back to its two familiar  verses.  

The “Australian Sons let us rejoice" line was adjusted to the more gender inclusive. “Australians All let us rejoice” and three verses of British flag-waving were relegated to the dustbin.  

While the scrapped verses were never part of the official Australian National Anthem, they do offer some insight into McCormick's original intent. 

While the first verse remains virtually untouched, the second verse celebrates Australia's colonial history, as a “gallant Cook” plants The Jack and one and all chime in with love for the Old Dart and a round of “Rule Brittannia”!

When gallant Cook from Albion sail'd,
To trace wide oceans o'er,
True British courage bore him on,
Till 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,
"Brittannia rules the wave!"
In joyful strains then let us sing
"Advance Australia fair!"

Verse three of the original remains intact but has been promoted to the place of occasionally-recited second verse.  It’s often celebrated for its inclusive sentiment and a desire to share our boundless plains with “those who’ve come across the seas”. 

Beneath our radiant southern Cross,
We'll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands;
For those who've come across the seas
We've boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To advance Australia fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing
"Advance Australia fair!"

Unfortunately the multi-cultural vibe is quickly undone by the final two verses.

In verse four McCormick spells out exactly who we are prepared to share our bounty with.  Even poor Wales misses out as he narrows it down to England, Scotia (Scotland) and Erin’s Isle (Ireland).

While other nations of the globe
Behold us from afar,
We'll rise to high renown and shine
Like our glorious southern star;
From England, Scotia, Erin's Isle,
Who come our lot to share,
Let all combine with heart and hand
To advance Australia fair!
In joyful strains then let us sing
"Advance Australia fair!"

If verse four seems a little exclusive, verse five delivers a good old rattle of the sabre, warning foreign foes to keep-off-or-else before McCormick concludes with a final shout out, “Brittannia then shall surely know, Beyond wide ocean's roll, Her sons in fair Australia's land Still keep a British soul.”  

Shou'd 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; Brittannia then shall surely know,
Beyond wide ocean's roll, Her sons in fair Australia's land
Still keep a British soul.
In joyful strains the let us sing "Advance Australia fair!"

But is Advance Australia Fair racist? 

Exactly what McCormack meant with his title remains unclear, but it can certainly be argued that equity, beauty and whiteness were all integral to the understanding of Australia and Australians at the time of federation.  

As we can see with the 1907 postcard, Fair was sometimes used to mean White in the context of a Fair Australia.

Is it a song for “All Australia”? 

In its original form, Advance Australia Fair clearly defines “Australians” as citizens of British decent.

Advance Australia Fair is an enigmatic and exclusivist relic from another age.  As our understanding of what it means to be an “Australian” and to advance in “fairness” continues to broaden, we shouldn’t be afraid to confront our past and to question our national emblems.

There can be no doubt that our national anthem is the product of an anglo-centric and xenophobic society.  While perhaps not explicitly racist, the early incarnation of the song proclaims the “British soul” of the Australian colonies to the exclusion of all else. The promises of wealth and freedom were only meant to apply to some.

But the biggest flaw in our national song is not found in what it does say, but what it doesn’t say.  It is a deep cultural sin of omission. 

As the opening lines celebrate a nation “young and free”, the ancient story of this continent’s First Peoples is erased.  For more than two centuries, Indigenous peoples were confined the shadows of Australia’s narrative and continue to pay the price for this discursive exclusion. 

It is a form literary genocide that is repeated every time the lie is proclaimed.

- Chris Roe is the executive producer of NITV's The Point

NITV presents a selection of dedicated programming, special events and news highlights with a focus on encouraging greater understanding of Indigenous Australian perspectives on 26 January. Join the conversation #AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe