Australia’s 183-year Search for its Own Anthem

By Darren Brain, Sales Representative, Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia & Northern Territory

On 19 April 1984, ‘Advance Australia Fair’ was proclaimed as Australia’s national anthem, following many decades of debate, disagreement and campaigns for change. I used Gale Primary Sources to research more about this topic, and experienced an entertaining and enlightening journey through Gale’s extensive collection of assorted British Newspapers.
‘God Save the Queen’ (or King depending on the gender of the British monarch) had been used on ceremonial and official occasions since the federation of Australia in 1901 (when the six British, self-governing colonies agreed to unite and form the Commonwealth of Australia). In our British Library Newspapers series, I found a number of examples in the early 1900s of interest in an Australian Anthem to compliment ‘God Save The King/Queen’ including the below examples from the gossip column of the Nottingham Evening Post.


“To-day’s Gossip.” Nottingham Evening Post, 10 July 1906, p. 4. British Library Newspapers, Accessed 19 Apr. 2017.
“To-day’s Gossip.” Nottingham Evening Post, 31 Oct. 1906, p. 4. British Library Newspapers, Accessed 19 Apr. 2017.

Throughout the twentieth century – and especially during times of war – there were periods of interest in replacing it with an anthem representing Australian nationalism and achievement. According to The Daily Telegraph in 1941, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ was lustily sung by advancing Australian Diggers with fixed bayonets, in Bardia, Libya during the Second World War.

Daily Telegraph Reporter. “Italians Did Not like Men who Fought Singing.” Daily Telegraph, 20 Feb. 1941, p. 6. The Telegraph Historical Archive, Accessed 19 Apr. 2017.

Before 1950, while ‘God Save the Queen’ was the formal anthem, several other songs were considered as potential ‘national songs’. Foremost were ‘Advance Australia Fair’ and ‘Waltzing Matilda’. The former was written in the mid-1870s by the Scots-born schoolteacher Peter Dodds McCormack. The four verses had a strong imperial connection, with several mentions of England and Britannia.

‘Waltzing Matilda’ had different origins. Its lyrics were written in 1895 by the well-known Australian poet, solicitor and soldier Banjo Paterson in the aftermath of a bitter shearers’ strike in Queensland. The title was Australian slang for travelling on foot with your belongings in a swag (‘matilda’) slung over your back. An article in The Times on 24 September 1960 gives a good background and understanding of Australia’s best known bush ballad.

FROM A CORRESPONDENT. “WHO Was Matilda?” Times, 24 Sept. 1960, p. 8. The Times Digital Archive, Accessed 19 Apr. 2017.

There was certainly confusion at international sporting events. At the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 when Shirley Strickland won gold in the 80 metres  hurdles, the ceremony played two national anthems: ‘Advance Australia Fair’ and ‘God Save the Queen’. For the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, ‘God Save the Queen’ was undisputed as the Australian national anthem. But there was also a Games song – to the tune of ‘Waltzing Matilda’.

There were several moves in the 1970s to choose a new National Anthem and flag, but efforts were rather convoluted. A competition to pick a new national anthem and flag was first launched in August 1971. By Australia Day (26 January) 1972, over four hundred entries had been received and handed to the Australian Council for the Arts for judging. No decision was made, however the Australian Labour Party committed to introducing a new National Anthem after winning the Federal Election in December 1972 (as reported in The Times in November of that year). The Daily Telegraph reported on 12 December 1972 that ‘Waltzing Matilda’ would almost certainly to be chosen. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam then announced in January 1973 that the Council would conduct a national anthem quest offering monetary prizes for lyrics and music. Of the 2500 lyric entries submitted, the judges selected six as suitable, and each writer was awarded $500. All 1300 music entries received were rejected. The Daily Mail even reported on 3 July 1973 that Prime Minister Whitlam had approached Burt Bacharach to write an anthem.

“Anthem plan for Australia.” Times, 20 Nov. 1972, p. 8. The Times Digital Archive, Accessed 19 Apr. 2017.
Kemp, Gerard. “Australians Go for Matilda as an Anthem.” Daily Telegraph, 12 Dec. 1972, p. 3. The Telegraph Historical Archive, Accessed 19 Apr. 2017.
Purgavie’s, Dermot. “At this point in time, enough is enough.” Daily Mail, 3 July 1973, p. 2. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2004, Accessed 19 Apr. 2017.

Public frustration with the ongoing and lengthy process was starting to show as reflected in the article below in the Financial Times on 13 July 1973. There was also some uncertainty around the copyright ownership of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and due to the potential future royalties payable, this option was apparently withdrawn by Prime Minister Whitlam.

“Men and Matters.” Financial Times, 13 July 1973, p. [24]. The Financial Times Historical Archive, 1888-2010, Accessed 19 Apr. 2017.
In February 1974, the Australian Bureau of Statistics held a public opinion poll to determine the relative popularity of the three unofficial Australian songs: ‘Advance Australia Fair’, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘Song of Australia’. Just over half of the 60,000 people sampled preferred ‘Advance Australia Fair’ (51.4%), followed by ‘Waltzing Matilda’ (19.6%). Using this result, Prime Minister Whitlam announced to Parliament on 8 April 1974 that ‘Advance Australia Fair’ had been chosen by the people of Australia as the new national anthem (though ‘God Save the Queen’ would be retained for all regal occasions). There was much debate and conjecture at the time that the push for change was part of a political move to cut Australia’s formal British ties and the debate is reflected in a Letter to the Editor published in The Times on 10 December 1973.


MILLER,, J. D. B. “Britain and Australia.” Times, 10 Dec. 1973, p. 17. The Times Digital Archive, Accessed 19 Apr. 2017.

The greatest political and constitutional crisis in Australian history occurred on 11 November 1975 – the Whitlam Government was dismissed by the then Governor-General Sir John Kerr. Following the dismissal, the incoming government of Malcolm Fraser reinstated ‘God Save the Queen’ as the national anthem, to be played on all regal and vice-regal occasions, though any of the four songs could be used for civilian events.
A plebiscite to select a tune for a national song was conducted in May 1977. Fueled by debate in 1976 over an appropriate song to represent Australia at the Montreal Olympic Games, the Fraser government requested the Australian Electoral Office hold a direct national poll in conjunction with a set of constitutional referenda. Over 7 million people chose to vote. Again, ‘Advance Australia Fair’ was the preferred song, followed by ‘Waltzing Matilda’, ‘God Save the Queen’ and ‘Song of Australia’. Despite the results, the government kept ‘God Save the Queen’ as the national anthem, with ‘Advance Australia Fair’ as the ‘national song’. In a sporting low point, Australia didn’t win any gold medals in Montreal, so it was never played at the Olympic medals ceremonies.
Finally, in 1984, seven years after the plebiscite, the then Governor-General Sir Ninian Stephen formally proclaimed ‘Advance Australia Fair’ as Australia’s national anthem. The song was modified – the official version now has two verses, and no longer any mention of Britannia (see lyrics below). ‘God Save the Queen’ was designated the Royal Anthem. There is still some debate about appropriate usage of the Australian National Anthem. In December 2004, for example, there was criticism in The Independent of plans for New Year’s Eve celebrations in Sydney to include a ‘techno dance’ version of ‘Advance Australia Fair’!

Marks, Kathy. “Techno version of Australian national anthem sparks chorus of disapproval.” Independent on Sunday, 26 Dec. 2004, p. 10. The Independent Digital Archive, Accessed 19 Apr. 2017.


And so, the full final version of Australia’s national anthem:

‘Advance Australia Fair’

Australians all let us rejoice,
For we are young and free;
We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil;
Our home is girt by sea;
Our land abounds in nature’s gifts
Of beauty rich and rare;
In history’s page, let every stage
Advance Australia Fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing,
Advance Australia Fair.

Beneath our radiant Southern Cross
We’ll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands;
For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing,
Advance Australia Fair.

About the Author

Darren Brain, Sales Representative, Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia & Northern Territory