When my Italian grandmother moved to North Queensland in the 1950s, a German family lived across the road from her.
According to family lore, my Nonna refused to even talk to this family for some time. Herreluctance explained by the presence of German troops in her Italian hometown just a few years prior. At some point, however, Nonna overcame that terrible history, introduced herself and her German neighbours became her best friends in town.
I find it a great Australian story. People come here from all over the world. Sometimes they bring baggage with them of war and conflict. But new Australians eventually leave that baggage behind and we all become one people.
I don’t find the insertion of the words ‘one and free’ to our national anthem objectionable then. We are one people and it is a fine thing to express that in our national anthem.
Yet all countries view themselves as ‘one’ nation so this sentiment hardly distinguishes Australia from other countries.
So for whatever the new words add, we have lost more from removing the word ‘young’ from our national anthem. We are a young nation. We are made up of old civilisations, including Aboriginal people who trace their history back tens of thousands of years. But as a nation we are young and that is what makes us a little different and special from many others.
Expressing that we are a young nation does not detract from any of the history of indigenous peoples. Their history is a rich one that should be celebrated. But prior to 1788, there was no notion that Aboriginal peoples were part of one polity or one nation living in the Southern Land (Australia is Latin for Southern Land).
That concept came much more recently. Indeed, it was not until the latter half of the 1800s that people began to think of themselves as Australians, rather than British or members of the different Australian colonies.
The composer of our national anthem, Peter Dodds McCormick, was inspired by this newfound national pride. One night he attended a concert where “all the National Anthems of the world were to be sung”. As Peter later explained “I felt very aggravated that there was not one note for Australia. On the way home in a bus, I concocted the first verse of my song and when I got home I set it to music.”
Some complain that our national anthem lacks the gravitas of other nations’ songs. But I think our anthem is quintessentially Australian, written by a school teacher on a bus ride home from a concert. The story encapsulates our egalitarian nature even if the tune itself is hardly Beethoven.
So we should understand this history before we tinker with the words. Peter Dodds McCormick was expressing the newfound optimism of a new, young nation being founded. His anthem was sung by 10,000 people at the inauguration of Australia in 1901 and his obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1916 noted that his song “has come to be recognised as something of an Australian National Anthem”.
There are at least nine references to Australia being “young” in the Federation debates of the 1890s. West Australian representative William Marmion expressed the feeling most eloquently while (unsuccessfully) arguing against adopting the word ‘Commonwealth’ to describe Australia: “I say it is our duty here as statesmen, supposed to represent the intelligence, rising genius, and talents of this young country, to beware of those old associations and ideas which may cause discord in the minds of those who are endeavouring to form this great nation.”
Even as the years pass we should not easily let go of that young spirit that provides a new beginning and new hope to so many around the world. That is why I will continue to sing “young and free” in our national anthem and do so proudly!