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Australia started off as a group of British colonies and didn’t have its own national anthem, instead using ‘God Save the Queen’ or ‘God Save the King’ from the time of the first British settlement at Sydney in 1788. From the early days, there were moves to establish an Australian national anthem. John Dunmore Lang, a Presbyterian minister, was the first noted advocate of an independent Australia and wrote and published ‘Australian Anthem’ and ‘Australian Hymn’ in 1826.

Over the years, many official and commercial competitions have been held to find an Australian national anthem. The first one was in 1840. A competition by the Gawler Institute in South Australia in 1859 was won by the five-verse ‘Song of Australia’ from 96 entries. It was written by Caroline J. Carleton, an English-born poet who lived in Adelaide. She received ten guineas ($21), a handy sum of money in those days, as first prize. The music to the song was composed by Carl Linger, an Australian composer from Germany. He also received a ten guinea prize. The premier of South Australia, Charles Cameron Kingston, was so impressed with the song that he asked teachers in public schools to teach it to all students. It was suggested as a national anthem to Labor prime minister James Scullin in 1929.

‘Advance Australia Fair’ was written by Peter Dodds McCormick, a joiner who had migrated from Scotland in 1855, settling in Sydney. A teacher for 20 years, he left the service in the late 1870s to concentrate on church work and music. One of the songs he wrote was ‘Advance Australia Fair’, probably in 1878, a five-verse song about the new country and its links with Britain. His inspiration came when he attended a function at Sydney’s Exhibition Building where national anthems from all around the world were played but there was nothing for Australia.

His composition was first sung by Andrew Fairfax at the Highland Society’s St Andrew’s Day concert on 30 November 1878. The song gained in popularity and was sung by a 10,000-strong choir at the Commonwealth of Australia inauguration ceremony on 1 January 1901. The federal government awarded McCormick 100 pounds for his song in 1907. When McCormick died in 1916, the Sydney Morning Herald commented in his obituary that ‘Advance Australia Fair’ “has come to be recognised as something in the nature of an Australian National Anthem”. The song was used at the start of Australian Broadcasting Commission radio news bulletins until 1952.

Another song that was often touted as a potential national anthem was ‘Waltzing Matilda’, written by Australian-born poet Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson of Sydney in early 1895 as a four-verse poem. The title is slang for travelling the countryside by foot with a Matilda bag slung over the back looking for work, which was a common method of seeking employment in Australia before World War II. The music actually came before the lyrics. Christina Macpherson played a tune she had heard at the Warrnambool races in western Victoria to Paterson and he said he could write some lines to it. He wrote the first verse in her presence and the rest at Dagworth Homestead in Queensland. It was first performed at a banquet for the Queensland premier at the North Gregory Hotel in outback town Winton in April 1895. The song was an instant success, and became a national advertising jingle by the company Billy Tea in 1903.

The call for a truly Australian national anthem steadily gained momentum in the first half of the twentieth century. The proportion of Australian residents born in the country rose from 65 per cent in 1901 to 88 per cent in 1954. While the majority still had a British background, there was an increasing number from other parts of the world. Britain and ‘God Save the Queen/King’ was becoming less relevant to many people. An anthem was sought that was about Australia and the lives of its residents rather than about a royal figure in another country (although Elizabeth II does remain Queen of Australia to this day). The Australian Broadcasting Commission held competitions for a new anthem in 1943 and 1945. In 1951, a competition as part of the Commonwealth Jubilee celebrations was won by ‘This Land of Mine’ by Henry Krips.

By the time of the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, the two leading contenders for a national anthem were ‘Advance Australia Fair’ and ‘Waltzing Matilda’. The stumbling block remained the conservative government, although the governments of John Gorton (1968-1971) and William McMahon (1971-1972) were moving in the direction of a possible Australian national anthem. In August 1971, a non-government body, the Australian National Anthem and Flag Quests Committee, started a competition for a new anthem and flag. It was the sixth contest for a national anthem since 1902. In the latest competition, more than 400 entries were received by Australia Day (26 January) 1972, although no actual winner was announced.

One of the Australian Labor Party’s policy platforms for the federal election on 2 December 1972 was to find an alternative national anthem to ‘God Save the Queen’. Labor won the election, breaking a long period of conservative rule. Less than two months later, in his Australia Day address on 26 January 1973, new prime minister Gough Whitlam announced that the Australia Council for the Arts would conduct a competition to find a new national anthem. Some 2500 lyric and 1300 music entries were received. Six lyric entries were each awarded a prize of $500, but no music entries won a prize. However, the Council felt that none of the songs was as good as ‘Advance Australia Fair’, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ or ‘Song of Australia’, and recommended that one of these three well known songs should be the anthem.

Subsequently, the Australian Bureau of Statistics undertook a poll of the three songs in February 1974, surveying 60,000 members of the public. ‘Advance Australia Fair’ was the choice of 51.4 per cent of respondents, followed by ‘Waltzing Matilda’ with 19.6 per cent. Whitlam announced ‘Advance Australia Fair’ as the new national anthem, except for regal occasions. However, in January 1976, the new conservative government of Malcolm Fraser reverted to ‘God Save the Queen’ for all royal, vice-regal, loyal toast, and defence ceremonies. ‘Advance Australia Fair’ would be used for other official occasions, and any of the four songs for civilian events.

Public opinion was very mixed and in May 1977, the government asked Australians for their choice of a national anthem as part of a referendum by the Australian Electoral Office. Over seven million people out of an electoral role of 8.4 million voted on the issue. ‘Advance Australia Fair’ received 43.3 per cent of the vote, followed by 28.3 per cent for ‘Waltzing Matilda’, 18.8 per cent for ‘God Save the Queen’, and 9.6 per cent for ‘Song of Australia’. After distribution of preferences, ‘Advance Australia Fair’ had 65 per cent of the vote and ‘Waltzing Matilda’ 35 per cent. Despite the result, there was ongoing widespread opposition to changing the national anthem.

The National Australia Day Council in 1981 recommended that only the first and third verses of ‘Advance Australia Fair’, with slight modification from the original, become the national anthem, as the other verses contained specific references to Britain. Finally, on 19 April 1984, more than a year after the Bob Hawke Labor government came to office, a proclamation was issued by the Governor-General that ‘God Save the Queen’ would be the royal anthem when members of the royal family were present and the amended ‘Advance Australia Fair’ would be the national anthem for all other occasions.