Poor Girt. The most cutting – and possibly most accurate – comment that’s been made about the old thing is that Australia is in danger of falling off to sleep while singing the words, which barely anyone knows anyway.
That was the judgment of a former National Party senator from Queensland, Sandy Macdonald, who found himself bored and embarrassed as he listened to a military band struggling to give life to old Girt on the shores of Gallipoli on Anzac Day, 2001.
It was time Australia got itself a new national anthem, MacDonald told Parliament when he returned, to little avail.
Since Coalition MP Andrew Laming suggested the national anthem get new lyrics that reflect our values and “jocular sense of humour”, the internet has been atwitter??? about how we could improve the old Girt.
The journalist and humorist Mungo MacCallum advanced a theory about why Advance Australia Fair has always been such a clunker: there were “so few rhymes with Australia; the only obvious one is failure”. He then went on to offer alternatives: azalea, dahlia, espahlia, all hail ya, regalia, inter alia and derail ya.
Criticism and snorting derision of Australia’s national anthem have been something of a perennial ever since the Whitlam Government felt Australia ought to have an anthem to be used instead of God Save the Queen.
There’d already been a competition to find one, run by the Australian Council for the Arts, which decided that none of the entries was worthy. The fiasco ended with three songs variously championed: Advance Australia Fair, Waltzing Matilda and Song of Australia.
If Advance Australia Fair would end up being nicknamed Girt because of its curious use of “girt by sea” to point out that Australia was an island, it seemed positively extravagant that Song of Australia – an old favourite of South Australians – included the deathless line “from mountain-top to girdling sea”. No nation, surely, has been blessed with so much musical girting and girdling.
Not to mention jolly swagmen and stolen jumbucks.
With no one prepared to make a decision, a poll was held, naturally. The Australian Bureau of Statistics polled 60,000 Australians and Girt won.
The Whitlam government was soon after dismissed, and Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition government reinstated God Save the Queen as the national anthem for occasions when the Queen didn’t require special honour.
But Fraser also felt there ought to be a national song for occasions when the Queen didn’t require special honour. Naturally, his government held a plebiscite.
Advance Australia Fair got the nod from 43.29 per cent of respondents. Another 28.28 per cent favoured the jolly swagman, 18.78 per cent wanted to stick with the Queen, and just 9.65 per cent liked the idea of girdling along to Song of Australia.
This left the nation in the peculiar situation of having God Save the Queen as its national anthem and Advance Australia Fair as its national song.
And there were the words, written in 1878 on a bus on the way home from an evening of national anthems at Melbourne’s Exhibition Building. The composer, upset there wasn’t an Australian note, was a Scottish-born fellow named Peter Dodds McCormick, who hid behind the pen-name “Amicus” (Latin for friend).
Old Amicus, a man of his time, wrote about “gallant Cook” borne on by “British courage” to land on Australia’s shore, where “with all our faults we love her still, Britannia rules the waves”, among other sentiments.
The government of Bob Hawke finally decided to stop the shilly shallying and adopted Advance Australia Fair as the official national anthem in 1984.
By then gallant Cook and Britannia had long disappeared, and modified lyrics had been inserted for cultural and inclusive reasons. The very first line, originally “Australia’s sons let us rejoice” became “Australians all let us rejoice”.
But all these years later, with the original four verses cut to just two, few enough Australians know the second verse, the left derides its sentiment about “boundless plains to share” as hypocritical, considering the nation’s treatment of asylum seekers’; the right worries that “boundless plains to share” is an invitation too broad; and those with an ear for music know Girt’s a dud.
After the polls, the plebiscite and decades of argument, largely by politicians – most of whom, in love with their own voices, are tone deaf – you wouldn’t bet on a change.
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