National Archives of Australia

Issue 5 January 2012

Out of the Cabinet: Desperately seeking a national anthem

In this ‘Out of the Cabinet’ series, Canberra writer Ian Warden immerses himself in the Cabinet records of the 1982 Fraser government, and highlights particular policy decisions that captured his imagination. Here, Ian looks at a 1982 Cabinet submission that has some qualities of a songsheet. It contains the words for several possible versions of ‘Advance Australia fair’ (once accused by the musicologist Roger Covell of having ‘a tune of trudging dullness’) and also the lyrics of Banjo Paterson’s beloved ‘Waltzing Matilda’.

Dame Nellie Melba sings the national anthem ‘God save the King’ at the opening of federal Parliament, Canberra, 9 May 1927. NAA: A1200, L83823

‘Advance Australia fair’, its words and music written by Peter Dodds McCormick in 1878, is today firmly ensconced as our national anthem. It was proclaimed by the Hawke government to be our national anthem in April 1984, in time for it to be played instead of its predecessor ‘God save the Queen’ at that year’s Anzac Day ceremonies.

A page from 1982 Cabinet Submission No. 5271: Official words for the national tune ‘Advance Australia fair’ or a national song. NAA: A12909, 5271

But in 1982 ‘God save the Queen’ was, controversially, our national anthem. There was effervescent debate then, as there had been from the 1840s, about appropriate Australian anthems and national songs. In 1977 Roger Covell noted that in the previous 100 years there had been 17 major national anthem competitions in search of an Australian replacement for the utterly British ‘God save the Queen’.

The January 1982 Cabinet Submission 5271: Official words for the national tune ‘Advance Australia fair’ or a national song by Kevin Newman, Minister for Administrative Services, and Ian Wilson, Minister for Home Affairs and Environment, addressed the ‘uncertainty’ they said existed about tunes and words to be used at public occasions.

The Whitlam Labor government, elected in 1972, had prepared the way for the replacement of ‘God save the Queen’. But then the Fraser government, elected in 1975, restored ‘God save the Queen’ to the throne of national anthemdom and wanted it played whenever regal and vice-regal personages were present and at other prescribed occasions of great pomp. On lesser occasions organisers could choose either ‘God save the Queen’ or ‘Advance Australia fair’.

The ghost of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ may be heard

In 1982, though, some organisers of occasions were still choosing ‘Waltzing Matilda’, and the ghost of Banjo Paterson’s ballad may be heard as you read through this 1982 submission. Often called ‘Australia’s unofficial national anthem’ it had been defeated by ‘Advance Australia fair’ in a 1977 plebiscite, but the ministers’ 1982 submission discussed it as though the lilting, lovable song was still an option for high musical office.

‘Since 1977,’ the ministers noted, ‘many representations received have emphasised the need to have words to sing at public gatherings and that a National Song is required. At some public events the original words of…Advance Australia Fair are sung. On other public occasions a verse of Waltzing Matilda has been sung.’

The ministers thought the government’s options included official approval for a modernised version of McCormick’s verses one and three (replacing ‘Australia’s sons let us rejoice’ with ‘Australians all let us rejoice’), or for some use of ‘Waltzing Matilda’. They strongly recommended that ‘God save the Queen’ be the national anthem and that ‘Advance Australia fair’ be the national song, but they did give ‘Waltzing Matilda’ some grudging consideration. They conceded it had the ‘advantage’ that the ‘words and tune are widely known internationally’ but grumbled that its ‘disadvantages’ included ‘many of the words and phrases [are] no longer in common use’ (presumably a reference to words such as ‘jumbuck’), and that perhaps a mere ‘ballad’ would never do as a national song.

‘Waltzing Matilda’: ‘too good a song’ for a national anthem

To help Cabinet, Submission 5271 included as attachments McCormick’s original words for ‘Advance Australia fair’, some new words to his melody written by others, an amended version of his words and also Banjo Paterson’s familiar words (alas only for an undignified ballad about the theft of a sheep) for ‘Waltzing Matilda’.

One wonders whether ‘Waltzing Matilda’ had any passionate minority supporters in Cabinet on that January day in 1982. The song is dear to Australian hearts. Roger Covell thought, on the eve of the 1977 plebiscite, that ‘Waltzing Matilda is too good a song to be consigned [as our anthem] to…pompous and vainglorious occasions’.

Sheet music (words: AB Paterson, music: Harry A Nathan) accompanying the copyright application for ‘Waltzing Matilda’, 1901. NAA: A1716, 261

Cabinet, considering the submission, decided (with Decision 17380 of 19 January 1982) ‘That no change be made at this time to existing arrangements for the National Anthem, the National Tune and the National Song’. But change was in the offing. Two years later ‘God save the Queen’ was deposed by the Hawke government and ‘Advance Australia fair’ was proclaimed to be, with all uncertainty swept aside, the Australian national anthem for all occasions.

It’s taken to the national bosom now, and as Vanessa Amorosi showed in her controversially soaring rendition of it at the 2011 AFL Grand Final (with 95,000 happy patriots singing along), our anthem can be more thrilling than trudging.
What else did Cabinet consider in 1982?

Each year on 1 January the Archives releases the Cabinet records that document the decisions which have shaped the social, cultural and political life of Australia. Following changes to the Archives Act 1983, the closed period for Cabinet records is gradually being reduced from 30 to 20 years. On 1 January 2012, Cabinet records from 1982 and 1983 were released. This video provides an overview of the issues considered by the Fraser and Hawke Cabinets in 1982–83.

One comment on "Out of the Cabinet: Desperately seeking a national anthem"

  1. Anthony Staunton says:

    The irony of the 1977 plebiscite was that the national tune was decided on the words. Everyone knew the words for Waltzing Matilda whose tune was recognisable worldwide as Australian. However, few knew the words of Advance Australia Fair in which there were many inappropriate lines. Only the 1st and 3rd verses are used now for the national anthem and some of these words have been officially modified. How many today realise that the 2nd verse of the song Advance Australia Fair includes the following:

    True British courage bore him on,
    Till 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,
    “Brittannia rules the wave!”

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