In 1984 Australia’s Labor government adopted the secular Advance Australia Fair as the National Anthem. This was a step in the direction of republicanism. Previously, God Save the Queen was the anthem, which is still sometimes played at Anzac Day ceremonies before dawn and on occasions when there is a royal visitor.
In 1988, Dr Robin Sharwood, then a lecturer in the Law School at the University of Melbourne, wrote to the Governor-General, Sir Ninian Stephen, suggesting a new verse for the National Anthem, to put God back into the picture.
We know this because a Tasmanian Senator, John Watson, felt compelled to give us this news in a speech in the Senate on 20 October 1997.
This is what he said:
When Robin Sharwood watched the 1988 Bicentennial Australia Day celebrations of 200 years of European settlement and heard Australia’s National Anthem sung, it struck him that Peter Dodds McCormack’s amended words contained no references to God. Despite Christianity being an intimate feature of Australia’s history and the fact that our institutions are founded on Christian beliefs, there was no acknowledgment of God in the song which was proclaimed as our National Anthem on 19 April 1984.
Mr Sharwood immediately composed an alternative verse and proceeded to obtain official status for it from the Governor-General. The words were sung with sincerity and spirit at the recent opening of the extension to the St Brendan-Shaw College in Devonport, where I was privileged to pull the curtain covering the opening tablet with the Archbishop of Hobart, His Grace the Most Reverend Dr D’Arcy.
Rather than sing the amended words for the benefit of the Hansard record I will read them. They are:
O God, who made this ancient land
And set it round with sea,
Sustain us all who dwell herein
One people, strong and free
Grant we may guard its generous gifts
Its beauty rich and rare
In your great name, may we proclaim
Advance Australia Fair!
We thankful hearts then let us sing
Advance Australia Fair!
On 18 November 2013 the NSW Rationalists Association faxed a letter to then Governor-General, Ms Quentin Bryce (now Dame Quentin Bryce) asking questions that led from Senator Watson’s speech. On 6 February 2014 the Deputy Official Secretary to the Governor-General wrote back, apologising for the long delay in replying.
The verses that were created [by Dr Sharwood] have not been proclaimed and do not have official status as an alternative the Australian National Anthem.
The letter continued:
The verses written by Dr Sharwood may be used in the context of a church service as a hymn, but may not be used as an alternative to the National Anthem on those occasions when the National Anthem should be sung.
This reply is very interesting for three reasons:
(1) The Governor-General’s office contradicts Senator Watson’s claim in the parliament that the Governor-General ‘amended’ the national anthem. The Christian verses were not proclaimed and do not have official status. In fact, in any case, it would appear that under the constitution the Governor-General has no power to amend the National Anthem. When Advance Australia Fair was adopted on 19 April 1984 it was by proclamation on the advice from government.
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Max Wallace is vice-president of the Rationalists Assn of NSW and a council member of the New Zealand Assn of Rationalists and Humanists.