That’s David Marr’s verdict on the national song, and he asserts that many of his fellow best and brightest agree:
EXTENSIVE soundings among delegates confirm I was not the only one who suddenly realised on Saturday morning as I was singing Advance Australia Fair that among the urgent tasks we face as a nation is ditching this wretched anthem.
I was grateful to Marr for raising the topic, since it seems to be almost off limits in public debate. This is partly because the anthem seems a trivial issue by comparison to aboriginal health, global warming, soil erosion, the tax system, and even the monarchy; so any interest in it betrays a trivial frame of mind. But a likely second reason is that the globalised, globe trotting chattering intelligentsia don’t want to appear condescending to their less reflective, more patriotic, non-chattering brothers and sisters, who seem quite fond of their anthem, even if they don’t know what girt means.
So I was surprised when Kerry O’Brien raised the issue with the PM on tonight’s 7.30 Report. ‘Does it move you?’ was his question, in a tone that left no doubt O’Brien is of the same opinion as Marr. Well, if it isn’t a taboo topic with journalists, it certainly is with politicians. Rudd at first resisted offering an opinion at all, suggesting that the choice of anthem is immutable. But he finally realised he’d seem cold-blooded if he couldn’t say he was moved one or the other, and unpatriotic if he didn’t stick up for the anthem. He could have defused the question just be saying that as a proud Australian he would be moved by any anthem with a bit of tradition behind it; but instead he opted to champion the song, and managed to put his finger on those very few lines in it that, though they sound naive to a contemporary ear, do in fact carry an elevated sentiment:
For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
Unfortunately Rudd spoiled this performance with a bit of petty point scoring of the same kind that briefly marred his Sorry speech, by gratuitously invoking Howard’s refugee policy. Nonetheless, I was pleased to discover that my leader wanted something more than chest-beating and swagger from in his national song.
But once we know what we want in terms of message, there must be plenty of songs that convey that message better than Advance Australia Fair, and with a much more uplifting tunes. This includes song that have been written and songs yet to be written. My favourite in the first category is Bruce Woodley’s I am Australian. That song expresses Rudd’s particular notion of what we stand for much better and more prominently than the incumbent anthem (without bringing boundless plains into the picture at all) as well as giving a pretty unobjectionable potted social history of the nation. The music is also moving, whether it’s sung by one voice or by a throng of children.
There are four arguments I can conceive of for keeping the anthem: (1) It may not be a great song, but it’s the only one we have that can serve as an anthem, which has to be a particular kind of song. (2) It ensures that other, much better, songs, like Waltzing Matilda and I am Australian, don’t suffer the indignity of being sung at football matches. (3) Constancy and tradition is what anthems are all about: it’s a great anthem precisely by virtue of the fact that it’s ours and we’ve been using it all this time. Only fickle and shallow peoples change their anthem every few decades. (4) The majority like it.
None of the first three is good enough for me. It’s a truly awful song. The lyrics make me cringe every time I hear them. I never rose to the lyrics of God Save the Queen either, but I at least enjoyed singing it, at school assemblies, just for the tune. After thirty years I still get no pleasure from hearing AAF. At the same time, thirty years by no means constitutes a long tradition: in the time frame of national traditions, three decades can be regarded as a short probation at best, and we shouldn’t punish ourselves for a momentary lapse of taste. The flag has been around much longer, and isn’t nearly as objectionable as the song, but we’ll probably change that in due course.
I would respect a poll result, obviously, but I’m confident that a powerful, arresting alternative would win the masses over. In the 1977 plebiscite the only alternatives were Waltzing Matilda, God Save the Queen and Song of Australia (which I can’t remember at all). Any other suggestions?