In 1977 a national poll was taken to determine which of four songs would be the Australian National Anthem. On offer was the imperial relic, God Save the Queen; Advance Australia Fair, which had been used as a sort of de facto anthem for years; the ballad Waltzing Matilda; and something called Song of Australia which no one had ever heard of anyway. The result was a narrow win for Advance Australia Fair over Waltzing Matilda. With the exception of Joh Bjelke Petersen’s Queensland regime where God Save the Queen officially remained the national anthem, the new anthem was played at all those functions where an anthem is required, learned by schoolkids and became generally and ubiquitously accepted.
The lyrics embodied what we wanted to believe about ourselves and what, perhaps, we once were. “Young and free” conjured up a nation with a bright future; “wealth for toil” enshrined a respect for gainful work and earned prosperity; “our land abounds in nature’s gifts” included, I suppose, the minerals under our supposedly “golden soil” and the trees growing out of it that we have comprehensively exploited in the pursuit of the aforementioned wealth for toil. Yes, it’s trite, but over the years we’ve got used to it and now we just sing it without really thinking about the words. Especially the “girt by sea” bit, which is a particular favourite of mine (we’re a bloody island, what else is our land going to be girt by?)
Buried somewhere in our national anthem, in about the third verse – that’s the verse after the one that includes the lines “For all her faults we love her still, Britannia rules the waves” – are the lines “For those who’ve come across the seas we’ve boundless plains to share”. Sadly, sharing is something Australians are not very good at anymore.
The empty platitudes of the great Australian ‘fair go’, of egalitarianism, of offering a helping hand to those in need, the same values we celebrate noisily and with jingoistic zeal on Australia Day and commemorate solemnly on Anzac Day, turn to hot air and vapour when put to the test of deeds instead of words. The bumper stickers that read ‘Fuck off, we’re full’, and ‘We grew here, you flew here’, belie any attempt at pretending to be a country that welcomes the outsider and gives her the opportunity to build a life on those boundless plains with her family. To contribute to nation-building in the same way our ancestors all contributed.
The debate about sustainable population is racism painted a vague shade of green. Yes, of course, resources are limited – what, we’ve only just discovered that? We live on an island that we stole from its original inhabitants, exploited its natural resources, degraded its river systems, declared open season on its wildlife, and now we’ve suddenly decided that we’re a closed shop. We slavishly follow the USA into a war without reason, a war without justification and then tell the people fleeing the country we’ve just helped bomb back to the stone age that they’re not welcome to come here to rebuild the lives we’ve helped to shatter.
Two days ago a rickety wooden boat carrying an unknown number of refugees smashed into the cliffs at Christmas Island and sank. So far the body count stands at 30, the survivor tally is 42. No one knows for sure how many people were on the boat and we may never know. In a knee-jerk, populist response to the racist ravings of Pauline Hanson in the 1990s, the Howard government excised a lot of islands from Australian territory and pronounced that refugees would not be accepted on the mainland. They would be taken to one of several offshore ‘processing centres’. We don’t welcome refugees any more, we process them, like sausages are processed. Christmas Island, a tiny dot in the Indian Ocean closer to Indonesia than to Australia, is one processing centre. That was where the boat was heading and, apparently undetected by our surveillance units, it got there but foundered in heavy seas with tragic consequences.
At least 30 people dead. Thirty people, including children, who risked everything to get out of a situation where their lives were constantly in danger and their human rights violated, to get to a country where wealth is the reward for toil and where boundless plains are there to be shared. What cowardly hypocrites we are. What weak, paranoid, insular hypocrites. The Prime Minister has formed a committee, the rabid right wing is braying for tougher refugee laws, the refugee advocates are braying for leniency. Thirty people, at least, are dead, drowned in mountainous seas trying to get to a country where they would be free.
In 2009 there were about 60,000 visa overstayers in Australia. Many of them, I imagine, European kids on gap year adventures. There were about 1000 refugees. That’s 60 times more people who outstayed their welcome than who arrived unannounced. Yet what do we hear about the visa overstayers? Are they persecuted, hounded, placed in detention? No, they are quietly given consular assistance and placed on the first available plane home. Or given an extension on their visas. Let’s not kid ourselves, our problem with refugees is not their legal status, it is their race. We need to face up the damage that Hanson and Howard have done to our national psyche, compounded by Rudd and now Gillard, in a deplorable race to the bottom of the human rights chain.
I will never sing our national anthem again. I will never hear it without thinking of those lives lost. Perhaps we should change the national anthem to Waltzing Matilda after all – it embodies those great Australian values of theft and suicide – more in keeping with the narrow, bitter country we have become.