Much is being made of the Government’s decision to change the words of the national anthem to appease the loud voices of black victimhood.
Like much else that has occurred in this space, this is a politically correct gesture which will have no impact on improving the lot of disadvantaged indigenous people, Will it help more indigenous children to attend and complete school? Will it in any way help curb the senseless domestic violence which is endemic in remote indigenous communities? Will it help with indigenous housing or indigenous health issues? Of course not!
Bur a well-meaning community, whose views are shaped by the strident voices of those who indigenous academic Anthony Dillon calls the “blacktivists”, give themselves a congratulatory slap on the back for being sensitive to the concerns of our indigenous fellows.
Now the spurious reasoning behind the change is that, while the previous words of the anthem stated “Australians all let us rejoice for we are young and free”, the complainants maintain we are indeed not young because indigenous people had inhabited this land for 60,000 years prior to European settlement.
But, at the risk of stirring up some controversy, I find it hard to give the title of Australians to the indigenous peoples who preceded European settlement. They were certainly not a nation but a group of perhaps two hundred or so disparate tribes. There was no sense of a single people sharing a common homeland. They had little knowledge of the geography or the peoples that existed beyond their own local confines. There was no common language and few common cultural practices.
What does it mean to be Australian? There are two possible (but not equally convincing) answers to this question.
Are you Australian because of the geographic accident of where you were born?
Or are you Australian because you acknowledge a common nationality, allegiance to a government who makes laws that apply nationwide and largely share a common language and set of values?
In the sixteenth century European cartographers and explorers surmised there was a land mass of considerable size in the Southern Hemisphere undiscovered by Europeans. It was given the tentative name of Terra Australis Incognito (the Latin term for the “Unknown Southern Land”). Early Dutch discoverers who stumbled on to the West and North coasts of the continent and subsequently explored parts of our coastline called the land New Holland.
In 1803 Matthew Flinders circumnavigated our continent mapping our coastline with astounding accuracy. When his diaries were subsequently published he referred to the land that he had circumnavigated as Terra Australis. It is said that Flinders personally preferred the nomenclature of “Australia”. Governor Macquarie subsequently adopted the name Australia, in official correspondence after receiving a copy of Flinders journal, A Voyage to Terra Australia, published in 1814.But however you view it there was no geographic concept of Australia until the nineteenth century. Consequentially even if you prefer this weaker concept of “Australian”, there could have been no Australians until the nineteenth century.
However if being Australian implies nationhood then it could be argued that the epithet of “Australian” could not appropriately apply before the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. Pre-colonial aboriginals might only be called Australian in the sense that they lived within the lands that later became known as “Australia”.
Our anthem itself implies it had this second definition in mind. It used to say that “we are young and free”. Being “free” almost universally is associated with democracy. As early as 1823, the British Parliament enacted The Charter of Justice which laid the foundation for a limited form of representative democracy in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and New South Wales. By the 1850’s colonists in Australia were demanding that they be allowed to elect representatives to state parliaments to at least influence law making in the colonies. Over the next fifty years the states of Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia were established each subsequently being given the right to self-government and establishing democratically elected parliaments. Finally on the first of January, 1901, the Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed initiating a democratically elected Federal Parliament. This created a “free” nation able to determine its own destiny through democratic processes at all levels of government.
Prior to European settlement indigenous Australians existed in largely patriarchal communities that could hardly be called “free”.
Even more tellingly the national anthem in its second verse (unfamiliar to many) states:
“Beneath our radiant Southern Cross
We’ll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands.”
This equates Australian identity with being part of the Commonwealth of Australia.
So the notion of being “Australian” and in any sense being “one” could only properly apply for a little over a century. But even if you accept the geographical definition of “Australian” even then it could be argued that there were no “Australians” prior to Flinders and the notion of “Australian” would be little more than two centuries old which is still “young” in historical terms. But do we really expect our national anthem to be an authentic anthropological record of our pre-European history? I think not.
But certainly as the words unequivocally state, the National Anthem is designed to celebrate our Nationhood, and that Nationhood came about with the proclamation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.
All that said, I have no objection to replacing the word “young” with “one”. I have argued many times in my essays in support of the universality of humankind.
This does not detract from the fact that we should acknowledge indigenous peoples of having long occupied this continent before European settlement. But seeking to change the national anthem because it labels us as “young” is mere sophistry.