“Advance Australia Fair”: we might not be responsible for the past, but we can do better for the future

“Advance Australia Fair”: we might not be responsible for the past, but we can do better for the future

This is a response to “Harper Nielsen’s protest is nothing more than virtue signalling” by Greg Dewberry.

It’s true that current generations are not to blame for the actions of their predecessors, but this does not mean that current generations should be complacent when it comes to correcting the effects of historical wrongs.

I have to refuse to accept any blame for the effects of colonialism on Australia, because if I did it would undoubtedly make me schizophrenic.

Like many Australians, I am of mixed ancestry. My earliest ancestors arrived some 50,000 or more years ago, and some arrived as convicts in the late-18th century. Throughout the 1800s, many of my ancestors arrived from Europe to seek their fortunes in the Gold Rush, to escape economic problems in Ireland and Germany, and to build better lives after the Highland Clearances in Scotland forced them from their homes. Much later, after the Second World War, my maternal grandparents resettled in Australia from Austria and Poland.

In some instances, these migrants flourished, but in all cases they were arguably better off for being here than not, and certainly all except the Aboriginals benefited from colonialism.

I am not sure how many of my ancestors are then responsible for colonialism. As far as I know, none of them were particularly involved in the frontier wars — although in one case it appears that one was killed by Wiradjuri, leaving their half-caste daughter to be raised by Christian missionaries.

But not being responsible for harm is not the same as not being responsible for rectifying that harm.

Europeans and Americans of today are not responsible for the African slave trade, but they have the opportunity and responsibility to correct the long-lasting effects of the slave trade.

Germans of today are not responsible for the Holocaust, but they have the opportunity and responsibility to correct the ongoing effects of the Holocaust.

And Australians of today are not responsible for colonial atrocities, but they have the opportunity and responsibility to correct the ongoing effects of those atrocities, including those felt by the stolen generation, which definitely persist.

Part of that is reviewing aspects of the country’s culture that purport to be universal.

Australia is undoubtedly a multicultural country, but there are elements of our sociopolitical environment that must, out of necessity, be common: these include, among other things, a single national flag that represents all Australians, and a single national anthem that celebrates all Australians.

We must be a nation united, not a nation divided, despite our rich tapestry of cultures. We must celebrate the unity that has come from diversity.

It follows, then, that a national anthem must reflect a common spirit.

A song that celebrated Australia as being “young and free” in 1879 clearly had no regard for the history of the indigenous peoples who had been on the land for thousands of years, and given the denial of indigenous culture and victimisation that continued through the 20th century — lest we forget we had a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody — being universally “free” is also questionable.

Multiculturalism is not about not offending people from other cultures. It is about not being offended by other cultures. We must all be tolerant of other cultures, within the limits of democratically-enacted and secular laws.

But this does not mean that a dominant culture ought to assert itself through state symbols in an exclusive rather than inclusive manner.

Consider the issue of the flag.

The striking flag of Nazi Germany was replaced after the war because the swastika represented something Germans collectively did not want to be — a racist, genocidal nation of eugenicists that had slaughtered ethnic and religious minorities, dissidents and the disabled. It doesn’t matter that the swastika also stood for a proud people with a distinct culture, determined to strengthen their country following socioeconomic turmoil. The flag had to go because of the atrocities committed under it.

Does the Union Flag that occupies a quarter of the Australian Flag have similar implications? Is there a reason why many former possessions of the British Empire — including South Africa, India, Ireland and Canada — have chosen not to “honour” the impact of colonialism, and removed the Union Flag from their own? They all made the conscious decision to abandon the colonial symbolism at some point.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s part of our history — colonialism shouldn’t be honoured as part of our future.

Those parts of our national identity that disregard the historical and contemporary suffering of minorities must be stripped away, including anthems that pervade the national psyche, reinforcing positive views of the objectionable parts of our history.

“Advance Australia Fair” is not an inclusive or representative anthem and is not an especially good musical or lyrical composition.

I am a fan of Formula 1, and am quite proud to be Australian when an Australian, like Daniel Ricciardo, or Mark Webber before him, is victorious. But it is deeply disappointing to hear the plodding dirge that is “Advance Australia Fair” be played on the podium, when so often it is followed by the Austrian “Bundeshymne”, and contrasts enormously with the double-treat of “Deutschlandlied” and “Il Canto degli Italiani” when Sebastian Vettel wins for Ferrari.

Former Nationals Senator Sandy McDonald told Parliament in 2001:

The tune is outdated and boring, and the words are banal and meaningless. Nobody knows the second verse, and most of us try our best with the first … .

To all of us, internationally, Waltzing Matilda is Australia. We have the O’Hagan words to it, “God Bless Australia”, but there are other wonderful tunes and words, including Bruce Woodley’s “I am Australian”, sung most wonderfully at the Centenary of Federation sitting
in Melbourne in May. But whatever change we might make in a country so full of talented musicians as Australia, it will be an improvement on “Advance Australia Fair”.

While the Australians of today are not responsible for the disastrous effects of colonialism on indigenous Australians, either then or now, they have the opportunity and the responsibility to take steps and provoke thought as to whether our national identity is one that includes all Australians.

We might not be responsible for the past, but we can do better for the future.

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