Australia needs billabongs in its anthem, not 'girt'

Under the shade of a coolibah tree. Picture: Shutterstock
Under the shade of a coolibah tree. Picture: Shutterstock

The Prime Minister's proposed change to the national anthem is welcome - but it doesn't go far enough.

Changing "for we are young and free" to "for we are one and free" is an improvement in so many ways.

Firstly, it is a much better sentiment, more attuned to democratic times and the idea that Australia is united. It's just a better line.

But, secondly, the idea that Australia is a young country comes as offensive news to those descendants of the peoples who have inhabited this continent since time immemorial. Australia is an ancient land not a young land, and the national anthem should recognise that.

But why stop there?

There are so many odd lines. "In joyful strains then let us sing", for example. What on earth is a joyful strain? Does a mother completing childbirth feel a joyful strain? Is it something to do with constipation?

"For those who've come across the seas, We've boundless plains to share" might be more apposite if it were changed to "For those who've come across the seas, We've a place called Christmas Isle to share".

An early version sounds even more incongruous today:

When gallant Cook from Albion sail'd,

To trace wide oceans o'er,

True British courage bore him on,

Til 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',

Britannia rules the waves.

Thank goodness that's gone - but what does "girt" in the current version mean? Maybe it's a typo for grit.

The problem, of course, is not only with the words. It's with the tune, which (whisper this) is just a bit dull.

There are only a few national anthems which get the back of the neck tingling - the Marseillaise is top of the anthem hit parade.

But think of the miserableness of God Save the Queen.

What a dirge that is (though I speak as a biased Welshman who, in the daftness of radical youth when I carried around the Thoughts of Chairman Mao, refused to stand for it. I still don't sing it with any volume or enthusiasm, both on republican and musical grounds).

The Welsh national anthem, by the way, is so uplifting that there have been Englishmen who have heard it and said they wished they were Welsh.

Both God Save the Queen (1745) and Advance Australia Fair (1878) were written in different eras when anthems were respectful of monarchs. They were not tunes to be sung full-throated by the common people in sports stadiums. The words reflected the pomposity of the eras of Queen Victoria and her predecessors.

Advance Australia Fair has been changed with the times, but the original version does sing out about Australia's loyalty to "England soil and Fatherland". That doesn't quite get the current moment, either.


The best anthems don't come down to the people but up from the streets (or the shearing sheds).

Somebody should write a dissertation on rousing songs which should officially be national anthems but aren't. The people sing them even though they have no formal designation, like Jerusalem for England, with its full-throated chorus:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,

Till we have built Jerusalem,

In England's green and pleasant Land.

O Flower of Scotland is also a terrific anthem, not rousingly loud but quiet and steely. It must have been too nationalistic for the worthy lick-spittles who failed to choose it as the official Scottish anthem.

And, of course, Waltzing Matilda.

Australians have only themselves to blame for choosing Advance Australia Fair instead. You voted for it in 1977. Given the choice between Advance Australia Fair, God Save the Queen, Waltzing Matilda and The Song of Australia in the "National Song" plebiscite, 43.3 per cent gave the current anthem the tick of approval.

I can only conclude that the true patriots were outmanoeuvred by monarchists who went for the English anthem and the timid who rejected the democratic, roustabout spirit of Banjo Paterson's bush ballad.

It was presumably deemed inappropriate because of its low language and larrikin atmosphere. The ponderous people who approve anthems don't like low songs about jumbucks:

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong,

Under the shade of a coolibah tree,

And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled,

'You'll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me'.

Now, that is not an anthem to be snoozed through. It can be roared out by proud, misty-eyed Aussies.

  • Steve Evans is a Canberra Times reporter.
This story Australia needs billabongs in its anthem, not 'girt' first appeared on The Canberra Times.


Discuss "Australia needs billabongs in its anthem, not 'girt'"

Please note: All comments made or shown here are bound by the Online Discussion Terms & Conditions.