‘Dud tune. Dud words. Dud song.’

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?

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Bill Cushing
Bill Cushing
13 years ago

National anthems, with one notable exception, are musical rubbish and their words cringe-worthy.

Consider ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, if you want proof. Or ‘O Canada.’ Or even ‘God save the Queen’ (‘Hearts of Oak’ so much better!).

The exception, ‘La Marseillaise’ — esp the Berlioz version.

But, I think the world can accommodate only one anthem like that — ‘… qu’un sang impur abreuve nos sillons …’, indeed!

Look, what we’ve got for Australia is a ‘least worst’ solution. Except for ‘… girt by sea’, it’s not too embarrassing. Let’s stick with it.

Pavlov's Cat
13 years ago

I think we should lock Don Walker, Don Watson, Paul Kelly, John Doyle and Les Murray in a room with a keyboard and whiteboard for a couple of days.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

Jacques,

I’m taken aback by your comment that mentioning the Howard policy on refugees is ‘gratuitous’ when talking about the relevant lines in the song. Just like your comments regarding the apology. Not mentioning the context is precious. Mentioning it, straightforward.

I hate AAF too. I rather like NZ’s song – is it ‘God Defend New Zealand’? – though that may be preciousness on my part, or lack of familiarity. Hearing it at the rugby one night it conjured up an innocent sweet kind of pathos for me. So I though it was OK. Our sea girt number is just awful.

But I am you are we are Australian? Give me a break. Give me the innocent faux pompous awfulness of AAF any day compared with that bilge.

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

Puke. What’s with the ‘one voice’? What’s it all about? Beats me.

I’d never listened to the verses, but clicking on your link I was waiting for the verse with the post 50s migrants. Now I would have hated it for completing the cliche, but it couldn’t even manage that. After the abos get a nod via Albert Albert Namatjira, it’s back to Ned Kelly. It’s a kind of John Howard multiculturalism – celebrating migration but without the migrants. Funny huh?

Sorry mate, I can’t stand it.

Give me the jumbuck any time.

What stops Australians from embracing it? Pomposity I’m afraid. We’re a pompous lot behind all the palaver about mateship and how informal we are.

We just can’t imagine what the neighbours would think.

David Rubie
David Rubie
13 years ago

God Save The Queen is a great song! “God save the queen, her fascist regime, they made you a moron” etc., marvellous stuff. If I thought that could be our national anthem, I’d ditch Advance Australia Fair in a heartbeat.

c’mon, you know the words:

‘No future, No future, No future for you’

And Pavlov’s Cat, if you substitute “Revolver and one bullet” for whiteboard you’ve got a deal, but only if it’s televised.

Nabakov
Nabakov
13 years ago

Oh c’mon everyone.

Australia already has long had a de facto national anthem that evocatively captures the founding ethos of what made this great nation what it is today.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

Nicholas, this isn’t Jacques’s post. I’d hate for him to fall in your esteem on account of it.

skepticlawyer
13 years ago

Waltzing Matilda by a country mile. I seem to remember Howard admitting that even he voted for it in the national anthem referendum.

Nabakov
Nabakov
13 years ago

Waltzing Matilda by a country mile.

Are you kidding? A melancholy ballad about a suicidal livestock thief rendered in almost incomprehensible archaic argot?

OK, you talked me into it. Provided Vanda and Young do the arrangement.

skepticlawyer
13 years ago

Ummm, Nabs, that’s kinda the point.

TimT
13 years ago

Waltzing Matilda should stay where it is. It functions perfectly well as a national cliche: it wouldn’t do half so well as a national anthem. It’s more singable than memorable, and so it’s a fun tune for kids in schools.

PeterC
PeterC
13 years ago

Nicholas

“John Howard multiculturalism – celebrating migration but without the migrants”

You’re wrong in saying “without the migrants”. Immigration under Howard was the highest that it’s been for many years, certainly higher than it was under Hawke and Keating.

It’s environmentalists like Tim Flannery who are the strongest opponents of the view that we have “boundless plains to share” with “those who come from across the seas”. It’s impossible to reconcile an immigration program with the view that Australia is already overpopulated.

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
13 years ago

David Marr, Don Watson, and The Luvvies writing a national anthem for Australia!!?? WTF? These people HATE Australia. One of their member – KKKomandent Bahnsich from Luvvie Prodeo – is now bemoaning the white rapists whom aboriginal women are forced to marry! Pavolv’s Cat is right. These people SHOULD be locked in a room. A room with padded walls!

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
13 years ago

We should defintely change the National Anthem to God Save The Queen. The Sex Pistols version.

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
13 years ago

Of course the irony of “Howard’s refugee policy” was that it was “Keating and Hand’s refugee policy” first.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

Sorry James, sorry Jacques,

Realignment of respective esteem has been arranged.

Robert Merkel
13 years ago

Just for the record, We Are Australian may sound great sung (if you like that sort of thing) but, frankly, it’d sound terrible played by a brass band or orchestra, which is mostly the way the rest of the world hears it. By far the most common occasion for this to occur is when Casey Stoner wins a motorcycle GP, by the way.

While the thought of making a song about a suicidal criminal our national anthem does appeal, I can’t imagine anybody will seriously go for it. Try explaining that one in the citizenship handbook…

And, finally, while it’s a dirge sung, it’s not that bad without a vocal, when competently arranged. While (de facto) English anthem Land of Hope and Glory is a belter, as is La Marseillaise and possibly O Canada, there’s a lot of terrible dreck. Only Jimi Hendrix was able to make The Star-Spangled Banner bearable. Germany’s is similarly bad. China’s is OK, but I’m buggered how you’d sing to it. And so on.

So let’s keep Advance Austraila Fair, but do something original – have a different tune for when it’s sung rather than played orchestrally. Perhaps this would do nicely…

Liam (Bring Back Punster Paxton)
Liam (Bring Back Punster Paxton)
13 years ago

There’s no question. Anyone who’s listened to the 2JJJ coverage of State of Origin knows the national anthem not only should be but is Lionel Rose’s I Thank You.

When a boy
becomes a man
he must do the best he can…

Kris
13 years ago

Personally, I think that AC/DC’s ‘It’s a long way to the (if you want to rock and roll)’ would be fantastic. Seriously, the opening riff would strike fear and awe at any event, just what you want! The overall message is also worthy.

Either that of Icehouse’s ‘Great Southern Land’.

I’m not sure why we have to stick with European orchestration, it’s the twenty-first century!

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
13 years ago

Kris

I’ve always favoured Men At Work’s “Where the women fart and men chunder.” But Great Southern Land is a fantastic idea.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

Great Southern Land is a fave for me too.

anyone will tell you its a prisoner island
hidden in the summer for a million years

Great Southern Land, burned you black

so you look into the land and it will tell you a story
story ’bout a journey ended long ago
if you listen to the motion of the wind in the mountains
maybe you can hear them talking like I do
“. . they’re gonna betray, they’re gonna forget you
are you gonna let them take you over this way . .”

TimT
13 years ago

Im not sure why we have to stick with European orchestration, its the twenty-first century!

True, there’s always the good old rock combo – guitars (European instrument), drums (European instrument), bass-harmony (European, goes back at least as far as the basso-continuo of the baroque era), vocalisation (standard European technique, as seen in countless operas and lieders and popular songs from medieval times to the present)…

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago

Closet Icehouse fan here, so a definite vote for Great Southern Land, but as per Robert Merkel’s concern, it probably wouldn’t sound great played by a brass band, or indeed any instrumental combination I can think of. BTW, Robert, your link is broken.

Speaking of instrumentation though, something that uses at least one uniquely Australian instrument would be be a plus (whatever happened to the lagerphone?).

Anthony
Anthony
13 years ago

Rob Merkel’s point at 17 is a good one: lyrics aren’t the whole point of a national anthem. Most European anthems began as tunes without words, I think. Spain still doesn’t have any words for its anthem. Or rather, it did have some words under the fascists, but after Franco’s demise they were scrapped. Since then it’s been impossible to come up with lyrics that sum up Spain as a national entity that also satisfy the Catalans, the Basque, the Andalusians, Galicians etc et6c

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago

As anyone ever suggested trying to set Dorothea Mackellar to a decent tune?
True, it’s only about the physical aspects of the Australian landscape, but trying to mention anything else these days is bound to offend someone. And supposedly Australians now care about the environment more than anything else (but only when answering opinion polls).

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

Anthony,

that does it for me. Waltzing Matilda just IS a national anthem. And those that don’t like the words can either not use them or sing God/Yahweh/Allah/Shiva Bless Australia.

But I love the idea that a national anthem survives without the words.

I also like Deutschland Deutschland Uber Alles, words of megalomania set a tune of lyricism and pathos. Gives me goosestepsgoosebumps. Still that’s reading it through the German’s stained history. I guess without that history the words would strike us as no more than childish boosterism at worst or well intentioned patriotism at best.

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago

Oh, and Dulcie Holland’s version: http://nla.gov.au/nla.mus-vn468 doesn’t count, sorry.

Gummo Trotsky
13 years ago

NPOV,

Yes, it has been set to music. Doesn’t pass the brass band test unfortunately.

“Skippy the Bush Kangaroo” would be my choice.

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago

Did you mean Ms Holland’s version? That actually seems quite apt for brass band usage, but give me AAF over that tune anyday.

If we’re going to kangaroos involved, “Let me abos go loose, Lou” has to be the frontrunner.

Patrick
Patrick
13 years ago

I like the Marseillaise just for that scene in Rick’s in Casablanca.

But I agree with Bill Cushing that the lyrics are probably a bit rich for this day and age.

I quite like the South African anthem Nikosi Sikel’iAfrica (with five languages!)

But for ours, why not just keep it? It sounds fine when sung before the Rugby.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

So the Spanish don’t sing their anthem, and the Swiss don’t surf. In fact, contra Robert, the main occasion for anthems in our culture is actually school assemblies, so you’re asking for a middle sized cultural change if you want to do away with singing. I also would have thought singing together was part of the national bonding process. I don’t get all the stuff about brass bands; most bands these days — including school bands, have big wind sections and can get quite a sophisticated sound happening.

The Icehouse song is nice, and the lyrics have a certain timelessness about them, but there’s not enough by way of catchy tune for it to work as a singalong anthem. Both We Are Australian and Waltzing Matlida, by contrast, have powerful and easily recognisable tunes.

As far as lyrics go, any song that tries to convey something about our cultural essence is bound to reflect the preoccupations of the day. and to sound a bit quaint and dated after a while. The Albert Namatjira line is case in point. But I can’t see what Nicholas’s problem is with the ‘one voice’ formulation. It’s pretty clear what it’s saying — for all our diversity we share a passion for the country and certain fundamental characteristics that make it special to us. That’s what national anthems should be — statements of unity, mutual commitment and so on. Someone who hates being herded or feels generally cynical about that probably doesn’t want a national anthem at all, and that’s a legitimate position. All I’;m saying is that if we must have an anthem, we can do much better than AAF.

I agree we need to guard against pomposity, but I don’t see anything in those lines that smacks of self-importance or hubris. On the other hand, if you want an anthem that specifically makes a point about irony and self-deprecation as core Aussie values, earnestness and sincerity as core national aversions, then Waltzing Matilda is the obvious choice.

Speaking of Paul Kelly, I think that, suitably adapted, From Little Things, Big Things Grow wouldn’t be a bad anthem, but indigenous people probably wouldn’t want to see it appropriated by the mainstream.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

Yes, the SA anthem is terrific, Patrick.

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago
Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

OK, I take it all back.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
13 years ago

“I also like Deutschland Deutschland Uber Alles, words of megalomania set a tune of lyricism and pathos”

It’s actually “Das Lied Der Deutschen – The Song of the Germans (“Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles” is the first line)and it was the far from megalomaniacal Weimar government which declared it to be the official anthem in 1922.

The Nazis only used the first verse and added the Horst Wessel Lied in lieu of the
other two.

Current use is restricted to the third verse which confines itself to celebrating unity, justice, diversity and the annexation of sun loungers at foreign holiday resorts.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

Yes, the poor Germans have to spend a disproportionate amount of their time explaining to everyone else that the ‘

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

My criticism of the ‘we are one’ business is essentially aesthetic rather than ideological. Lyrics of songs are appreciated according to a different and more permissive standard than words in other contexts.

I wonder if there are any anthems that work that seek to somehow capture some cultural essence. I think the great anthems do capture something, but that is appreciated almost without exception in retrospect. I don’t particularly like La Marseillaise but that’s just me. I don’t much like the tune and I think it’s hackneyed. But most people love it and it conjures up a moment in history and something of which the French are proud. So in it goes with the greats.

Lots of people hate the star spangled banner. But for me it’s fine for mostly the same reasons that others like La Marseillaise. I can see why it makes Americans proud. It makes me proud and I’m not even an American. It captures the romance of the US revolution on which American sensibility is built. It’s hard to appreciate it because it’s now a clich

Robert Merkel
13 years ago

James, my link was a joke – Adam Hills doing the words of AAF to the tune of Jimmy Barnes’ “Working Class Man”.

Anyway, what I meant was that while we might sing it at school assemblies (something guaranteed to ruin any tune – nobody murders a melody like a bunch of adolescent boys) foreigners hear it mainly in as an orchestral accompaniment to a) Australian sportspeople winning something, or b) when Rudd Force One lands in Upper Volta or wherever he’s off to next. So a basic requirement of an anthem is that it should sound good, both when played instrumentally on typical anthem instruments (again, a brass band or full orchestra), and when sung by a large crowd of amateur singers.

I can tell you now (as somebody that actually learned quite a bit of music as a kid) that We Are Australian, or just about any other riff-driven pop song, sounds like crap when played by such a group. The verse melody is too repetitive and dull when stripped of lyrics, and the guitar riffs that the song relies upon for its punch simply don’t translate well to brass, strings or woodwind. The same would apply to Great Southern Land, or From Little Things, Big Things Grow. Any arrangement that did sound OK would be so different from the original that it’d be damn near impossible to sing along to.

I’m not knocking any of these tunes for what they are, but they aren’t going to work as anthems. Sorry.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
13 years ago

I rather like the tune of AAF. The words can always be changed. How about asking Les Murray to come up with a few lines? :) There is also only so much change that (old) people can take. The Germans changed their lyrics (don’t mention the war) but kept the song.

I do not think that Walzing Matilda means anything, except to white baby boomers like Nick and me. I also wonder about the value of lyrics that glorify the “land” part of the great south land. Most of us live in the suburbs.

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
13 years ago

Nicholas Gruen

There is far too much of this vapid “celebrate diversity” muzak pumped through our polity. And it’s a crock. People are tired of being pushed into being “different.” Without solidarity, a sense of being bound together, social capital collapses and so does society. If folks are going to reject nationalism as a source of that social glue, then we really are in for a rough trot old son.

Kris
13 years ago

I still don’t understand why you can’t have a banging rock or pop tune? Seriously, is it written anywhere? Who’s gonna stop a country from picking a ‘modern’ song?

Historically speaking, national anthems are relatively new. Why stay stuck in a nineteenth century timewarp? Time to bring ’em into the present, I reckon!

TimT
13 years ago

Wot Rob Merkel says.

Also, it’s interesting that AAF, introduced by the Whitlam Government after basically being chosen by a committee, doesn’t ever seem to have got popular traction. Well, that’s probably predictable when you usher out a traditional, well-known song (God Save the Queen) and replace it with a poorly known song.

According to Pete Sculthorpe, who I took some music classes under at Sydney Uni – and who was one of the committee selecting the ‘new’ national anthem – it was sort of a case of worst amongst equals.

I also agree wtih Chris Lloyd by way of reiterating my objection to Waltzing Matilda; the lyrics and tune have become famous more through luck than art. Neither are particularly memorable, but they are just associated with a distinctive period in Australian history. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has to restrain the urge to vomit when Waltzing Matilda is pulled out every Anzac Day (or just about every other state occasion) by the television networks to symbolise ‘what it means to be Australian’. There are plenty more memorable tunes.

Aidan
Aidan
13 years ago

I think I prefer California uber alles.

“Australia, uber alles, Australia uber alles
Uber alles, australia, Uber alles Austraaalia”

Maybe not …

God defend New Zealand? At school we used to sing

“God of Nations at thy feet,
Please defend the toilet seat …”

We wuz way witty.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
13 years ago

“Lots of people hate the star spangled banner. But for me its fine for mostly the same reasons that others like La Marseillaise.”

I like them both for their affirming choruses –

“Oh! Say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave? And,

“Grab your weapons, citizens!
Let’s form our battalions!
Let’s march! March!
May [their] foul blood run in the furrows of our fields!”

Very different sentiments to the slightly desperate summing up of Australia’s attributes encapsulated in:

Well, we’ve um golden soil……um
We’ve wealth!…..for toil and ummm
our land is girt by sea?

David Rubie
David Rubie
13 years ago

Nicholas Gruen wrote:

I wonder if there are any anthems that work that seek to somehow capture some cultural essence.

In that case, we should just keep the tune and get John Singleton to write the words. Football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars could use a bit of updating though.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

John,

If you think I’m arguing for an anthem full of multicultural bumph, I’m not trying to argue for that. I’m a supporter of multiculturalism, but I get sick of multicultural propaganda being pumped through all the musak of our national identity just like you.

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago

I wonder how popular opinion of Advance Australia Fair varies with age.
I grew up singing it primary school and watching it played every time we won a medal in the Olympics from ’84 onwards*, so it’s indelibly associated in my mind with “Australian achievement”, and I’ll readily admit to something of a positive emotional reaction to it, despite the fairly uninspiring nature of the tune and lyrics. Also, it does have one word in it – “fair” – that is fairly fundamental to the Australian ethos, and is missing from any of the (obviously-not-particularly-serious) alternative suggestions here.

At any rate, in the list of things-that-need-to-change-in-Australia it surely ranks as a footnote in a rear appendix.

Robert
Robert
13 years ago

The words Advance Australia Fair are very beautiful words. But the tune is more than a touch too empty. It can be sung on auto-pilot, which rules it out in the anthem stakes. The tune too often tunes you out – there’s no musical hook in it. It seeks to dig (into the power and magic), scoops up and scoops up again, but in the end your bum has been elevated from the seat and before you know it you’ve floated away a bit. A good anthem will rivet you to the ground, then rise your spirit.

Try singing Flower of Scotland on auto-pilot. “And send him homeward.. tae think again”. The words preclude you from doing it.

How Star Spangled Banner came to be written is quite a story. The words like so many anthems are a bit too war-ry, but it’s purely American, and speaks deeply for them. A hundred thousand voices – or just one at home – can tear your heart out because of the way it’s sung, the way it holds America and the way it tells.

Over time, words and phrases can take on a changed colour and tone, such that the view they present is altogether different. The Scottish phrase above speaks of many things other than war. The words waltzing and matilda combined throw up anything other than a waltz; excepting that the wolt and the zing as easysing music have grown to speak of Australian voices combined, arm in arm as such. But would you sing that, or AAF, at home, alone?

For all of this, it’s very difficult to separate our anthem from the rugby, whatever that means.

Robert Merkel
13 years ago

David, would you prefer “baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet”, which they had in the USA? Or perhaps braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet, from South Africa, which appears to be the original source of the campaign?

Kris, it’s real simple. It’s going to be around for 50 or 100 years, get played by orchestras, and people are going to sing along with the orchestral backing. Pop songs sound like crap under such conditions.

TimT
13 years ago

Or possibly “Tiddleywinks, Blood Sausage, Tripe and Omnibuses…” – the British version.

Glenn
Glenn
13 years ago

ADVANCE AUSTRALIA CAUCASIAN, not in my name!