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The Australian National Anthem

Photograph of singer Margaret Roadknight looking at sheet music for Waltzing Matilda at the National Library of Australia, 1994.

Loui Seselja, Portrait of Margret Roadknight, singer, looking at sheet music for Waltzing Matilda while visiting the National Library of Australia, Music Section, Canberra, 22 July 1994, negative: b&w. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an24493323

Australians are not renowned for rushing into major decisions—change is usually a slow and considered process. The journey towards choosing our own national anthem was no exception.

The move to replace God Save the Queen with an anthem unique to Australia began as early as the 1820s. Over the decades, public opinion has been constantly canvassed and numerous competitions held to find a suitable song.

Peter Dodds McCormick's Advance Australia Fair was officially declared Australia's national anthem by the Governor-General on 19 April 1984, close to 160 years after the first alternative anthems were put forward. The song was first performed in Sydney in 1878 and, interestingly, was sung at the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia by a choir of 10,000 people.

Some early nominations

John Dunmore Lang, who published an Australian Anthem and an Australian Hymn in 1826, was an early advocate of a distinctively Australian anthem. South Australian Carl Linger wrote Song of Australia in 1860, which was suggested to the (then) Prime Minister in 1929 as a possible national anthem. Linger's composition remained a favourite with Australians and was on the shortlist of 'possibles' 117 years later when Australians voted for an anthem at a national poll.

The lead-up to change

The issue of the anthem provoked more and more debate. The Australian Broadcasting Commission held two competitions in 1943 and 1945, and the 1951 Commonwealth Jubilee celebrations competition was won by Henry Krips with This Land of Mine. The 1956 Olympic Games, staged in Melbourne, sparked a fresh and passionate debate about the need for a truly Australian anthem.

Portrait of Gough Whitlam, c. 1972.

Portrait of Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister of Australia, December 2nd 1972-1975, c. 1972, negative. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an12265747

In 1974 a public opinion poll, which sampled an estimated 60,000 people, offered three songs for choice: Advance Australia Fair; Banjo Paterson's Waltzing Matilda ; and Linger's Song of Australia. Advance Australia Fair polled 51.4 per cent, prompting the (then) Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, to announce that it would become our national anthem.

After some intense political debate, a national poll was conducted in 1977 with over seven million people issued with ballot papers. The results were: Advance Australia Fair 43.2 per cent, Waltzing Matilda 28.3 per cent, God Save the Queen 18.7 per cent and Song of Australia 9.6 per cent.

A new anthem

In April 1984 the Governor-General issued a proclamation declaring that God Save the Queen was designated the Royal Anthem, to be played at public engagements in Australia attended by the Queen or members of the Royal family. At the same time, Advance Australia Fair was finally declared to be the official national anthem.

The original words of the song have been changed with 'Australia's sons let us rejoice' – the original first line – being replaced with 'Australians all let us rejoice' and further changes have occurred in the rarely sung third verse.

Waltzing Matilda – our 'unofficial' national anthem

A photograph of Banjo Paterson at Jindabyne, 191-?.

Colonel J.M. Arnott, chauffeur and Banjo Paterson at Jindabyne, 191-?, photograph: gelatin silver. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an21273582

Waltzing Matilda is recognised as Australia's 'unofficial' national anthem. It is one of nation's most loved songs and Banjo Paterson's lyrics certainly strike a chord with many Australians.

Written in 1895, Paterson's song speaks the language of everyday Australians. Its informality, simplicity and upbeat melody – the very qualities that gave it such broad appeal – are also the reasons why many thought it inappropriate as a national anthem. After all, the critics argue, how can our national anthem celebrate the theft of a sheep?

It seems many Australians agreed with the critics and let their minds rule their hearts when they overwhelmingly endorsed Advance Australia Fair as the national anthem.

The debate continues

While Waltzing Matilda had its critics during the debate, so too did Advance Australia Fair. The simplicity and direct language of Waltzing Matilda is in contrast to the sometimes stiff, formal and obscure lyrics of Advance Australia Fair, for example 'Our home is girt by sea'.

And while there is a growing affection for the anthem, there are still those who believe it to be somewhat antiquated. It is a debate that seems certain to continue.

National Anthem

Australians all let us rejoice,
For we are young and free;
We've golden soil and wealth for toil;
Our home is girt by sea;
Our land abounds in nature's gifts
Of beauty rich and rare;
In history's page, let every stage
Advance Australia Fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing,
Advance Australia Fair.

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.

Useful links

The Australian National Anthem

Advance Australia Fair

Waltzing Matilda

Last updated: 2nd March 2007
Creators: ACME

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