There has been increasing commentary surrounding the original lyrical intentions of the Australian national anthem ‘Advance Australia Fair’. Was it originally sung with the intention of promoting a ‘fair-skinned’ Australia not a fair and just society?

The tune was originally written in 1878 by Scottish Composer Peter Dodds McCormick after lamenting that Australia not yet had a national song of its own. However, it was not officially adopted until 1984, over 100 years after its composition and in a different context. As a candidate for the national anthem, removal and revision of some verses from the original ‘Advance Australia Fair’ took place to reflect some contextual differences.

Undoubtedly, the original verses were written at a time when public sentiment was largely against the increasing numbers of Chinese immigrants. Concerns ranged from a belief that Chinese immigrants would take away jobs to eventually overrun the country. In addition, the concurrent resentment of Indigenous populations was also a factor in the colonial sphere.

As discussed in Christopher Kelen’s article, the anthem is contentious in presenting certain ideals without acknowledging or incorporating past atrocities that stemmed from a view of a white Australia as the ‘best’ Australia. He argues that the song does not necessarily require changing but education surrounding the song should not be whitewashed to blur certain aspects of history. The article contends that this whitewashing would not do marginalised communities justice.

An interesting side note to this is that not only was a general ‘white Australia’ sought after to make up the population but more specifically that it be composed of middle to upper class Anglo-Saxons. This notion is evident through the many examples of Irish immigrants also being poorly treated. There are also numerous examples of Irish and Chinese mixed marriages which may have been due to both nationalities being considered on the fringe of society.

Here are the deleted verses of the original ‘Advance Australia Fair’ for consideration-

Verse Two

When gallant Cook from Albion sail’d,

To trace wide oceans o’er,

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!”

In joyful strains then let us sing

“Advance Australia fair!”

Verse Three

While other nations of the globe

Behold us from afar,

We’ll rise to high renown and shine

Like our glorious southern star;

From England, Scotia, Erin’s Isle,

Who come our lot to share,

Let all combine with heart and hand

To advance Australia fair!

In joyful strains then let us sing

“Advance Australia fair!”

Verse Four

Shou’d foreign foe e’er sight our coast,

Or dare a foot to land,

We’ll rouse to arms like sires of yore

To guard our native strand;

Brittannia then shall surely know,

Beyond wide ocean’s roll,

Her sons in fair Australia’s land

Still keep a British soul.

In joyful strains the let us sing

“Advance Australia fair!”

There appears to be a strong promotion of a particular kind of fair- the success of a British Australia.

The strong sentiment can also be inferred through this poster dated in 1910 about a song called ‘White Australia’. Promoted by organisations like the ‘Australian Natives Association’ (a predominantly Anglo-Saxon group), the song itself was written around the time of federation and close to ‘Advance Australia Fair’. It even features portraits of the Governor-General and Victorian Governor highlighting the top-level support on this divisive issue.

The white Australia song ventilated a fear of being overrun and encouraged trade protectionism. These were arguably compelling factors which assisted in propelling discussions for the formation of the Australian Federation.

Here are examples of two verses-

White Australia bold and free, our National policy, we mean to face the conquest as a Nation: Our Northern Territory, no longer is to be the open gate of coloured immigration. This continent of ours is now a white man’s land, and not for alien surplus population: Britain’s sons shall now maintain, and Anglo-Saxon’s reign to rule and guide Australia’s destination. Our policy will ever be –

It is plain for all to see, that the future is to be A struggle to defend Australia home and beauty The conflict has begun, and each and every one Must face the fact that he must do his duty, let us train our Austral sons, to stand behind our guns, One flag, one tongue, one people’s destination. The question one and all, must be the bugle call to strike with all our might for White Australia. Our policy will ever be ..

It has been contended that the use of the term ‘Advance Australia’ in some versions of the racist poster promoting the ‘White Australia’ song provide insight into the context of the term’s original use and consequently to the original of ‘Advance Australia Fair’ written in 1878.. This could raise complex questions about what is being sung. However, this link has not been established and certainly does not reflect the modern, good faith intentions of singing ‘Advance Australia Fair’.

See more about the ‘White Australia’ song on the Museums Victoria website.

Sheet music for the 'White Australia' song. Words by Naunton and H.J.W. Gyles and music composed by W.E. Naunton. Museum Victoria Collection, Item HT17014.