“Australians all, let us rejoice,” our anthem goes, but perhaps we don’t have to force people to sing it. In primary school, my son had to sing Advance Australia Fair every week on assembly. I don’t remember having to do this when I was at school. We had a school song one of the nuns could break windows with, but we never sang the anthem, not even God Save the Queen. I certainly didn’t sing the current one; I didn’t even know the words until my son started school, and I’m pretty sure I’d remember having sung “girt by sea” before. I’d remember having sung girt by anything before.
One night when my son was still in prep, I heard him singing in the bath. First time through, something wasn’t quite right. I listened. “Australians all are ostriches…” he sang full-throatedly on the second run. Although at the time, I couldn’t remember the anthem’s actual words, I was pretty sure it didn’t say we were ostriches, which are African, and although I couldn’t swear there wasn’t another large flightless bird we might all take after, emus didn’t have enough syllables.
Last year a primary school principal in Victoria invited students to leave assembly before the anthem. Their parents were observing a month of mourning in their faith, and singing was viewed as joyful and not allowed. Forgetting whether our dour anthem has any joy at all, I thought the principal’s solution was great. The kids didn’t have to worry about breaking rules at home or school. Some commentators were outraged – “Your allegiance is to Australia. What don’t you get?” Miranda Devine wrote to the children. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that they lacked devotion to the thing we’re girting with our sea by not singing, but some felt it very strongly.
The film Cabaret has a scene in which a young blond man stands up in a café and starts into the German folksong, Tomorrow Belongs to Me. It takes on new meaning when the camera pulls back and we see the swastika on the boy’s sleeve. By the end, almost everyone is singing.
Proclaimed finally as the national anthem in 1984, Advance Australia Fair was actually written by a Scot. Australians could rejoice in diversity. Here we are now, home to the oldest peoples on earth, a rich mix of cultures, girt by that blue blue sea. So long as we’re not harming each other, isn’t it enough? Do we have to make people sing? Let’s ungirt a little, rejoice in difference for once.