Refusing to sing the Australian national anthem is a conscientious objection which must be supported

Deborah Cheetham, associate Dean of music at the University of Melbourne, was offered the opportunity to sing the Australian national anthem at the opening of the October 2015 Australian Football League (AFL) Grand Final. Having sung the national anthem on numerous prior occasions, she was offered the dream-job for every performer – to sing a rousing rendition of the national anthem in front of thousands of people at a major sporting event, and viewed by millions of television viewers. Singing the Australian national anthem at a popular sporting event like the AFL Grand Final is a regular, and normal part of the sporting fixture. What could be more indicative of pride in Australian history and culture than belting out the national anthem in front of thousands of spectators?

After consultations with the AFL, Professor Cheetham declined the offer. Why?

She stated that she could not, in good conscience, sing the words ‘for we are young and free’, lyrics which are in the first verse of the national anthem. She suggested to the AFL governing board a compromise – she would sing the words ‘in peace and harmony’ as a replacement, and stick to the rest of the words for the anthem. The AFL, after considering this request, refused to support this change of lyric. So Professor Cheetham refused to take the stand and sing the national anthem, and she was replaced by Kate Ceberano. Professor Cheetham explained her reasoning for her refusal in an article published in The Conversation magazine. Cheetham is of indigenous background, descended from the First Nations of Australia. She is one of the Stolen Generations, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children forcibly removed from their indigenous parents and handed over to white Australian families as part of Australian government policies designed to assimilate indigenous people. Cheetham was born to the Yorta Yorta people, a region that crosses over the Murray and Goulburn rivers in north-east Victoria.

The Yorta Yorta people have a proud history of resistance and defiance against their mistreatment at the hands of the Australian authorities. Back in the 1930s, the Yorta Yorta staged protests and walk-offs in response to their lack of control over their land, water resources and work output. Cheetham herself admits that she is one of the lucky ones, having forged a successful career as a musician, academic and soprano. She could have ignored this history of her people and considered her own career advancement prospects in singing the national anthem. Yet, she objected to the imperial, British and colonial-oriented view of Australian history upon which the national anthem is based, and following her conscience, refused to sing its original words.

As Cheetham explained, being asked to sing the national anthem is a great honour – that is not the problem. It is the silence around Indigenous culture that is the problem:

Over the past half-century Australians have come to realise much about the persistence, sophistication and success of Aboriginal Australia. The 1967 referendum, the Bringing Them Home Report (1997) and the Apology to the Stolen Generations (2008) have all caught the nation’s attention and raised awareness of our shared history.

But many people have remained content to leave it there, to settle for what little information they received during school years. For such people, most of Australia’s Indigenous cultures remain unwrapped, unacknowledged and unexplored.

Cheetham has written about the need for a new national anthem, one that acknowledges not only our multicultural makeup, but recognises the unique contribution, philosophy and cultures of the First Nations of Australia. As she elaborated:

Our national anthem tells us that we are young and free. Blindly, many Australians continue to accept this.

But it’s not true. Setting aside for a moment 70,000 years of Indigenous cultures, 114 years on from Federation and 227 years into colonisation, at the very least, those words don’t reflect who we are. As Australians, can we aspire to be young forever? If we are ever to mature we simply cannot cling to this desperate premise.

How much better would it be if were to finally acknowledge the nuanced and sophisticated society discovered by those who arrived 230 years ago was deliberately and systematically overlooked? What if the next person to sing the anthem at the AFL Grand Final were to reach beyond the Western imperial history and harness the power of 70,000 years of accumulated wisdom and knowledge?

When Australian historians began to dig deeper into the history of colonial Australia, how it was settled and how the Australian capitalist state took hold in this continent, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard described this effort as the “black armband” view of history. Borrowing this phrase from conservative Australian historian Professor Geoffrey Blainey, this ‘black armband’ view of history supposedly downplayed the achievements and successes of European-settled Australian history. The history of Australia, settled through the use of coercion, torture, mass murder and racist exploitation, was too pessimistic a perspective.

The national anthem’s lyrics reflect this imperial history, and celebrate the colonisation of the Australian continent. No doubt the history wars will continue, however, there cannot be a full reckoning of Australia’s past without a full understanding and accounting of the First Nations of Australia. If we non-indigenous Australians continue to expunge the worst aspects of colonial settlement and the obscure the foundations of Australian capitalism, then there will never be a complete solution of the Indigenous issue in Australian politics. In May 2015, Peter Catt, Dean of the Anglican church’s St John’s Cathedral in Brisbane wrote in an article for the Sydney Morning Herald, the ‘black armband’ view of history is necessary for healing, because confronting the horrifying past of murder and land theft is essential, albeit painful, to achieve full comprehension of and justice for the First Nations of Australia.

Christine Nicholls, senior lecturer at Flinders University, authored a three-part article for The Conversation magazine about the Dreamtime and The Dreaming. This woefully inadequate English translation refers to the complex of meanings, creation stories, myths and legends that underlie the philosophy and ethics of the First Nations. While it is impossible to do justice to The Dreaming in one article, Nicholls summarises The Dreaming, in an impressive attempt to convey the intricate philosophy and creation-cosmology narratives that underpin indigenous communities and their relationship to the land. Nicholls quotes the words of Jeannie Herbert Nungarrayi, a teacher at a school in the Northern Territory and member of the Warlpiri nation. She explained that the Warlpiri have had – thousands of years before the Biblical stories in the Judeo-Christian tradition – a philosophy of origins, ethics and morality called Jukurrpa. What does that mean?

To get an insight into us – [the Warlpiri people of the Tanami Desert] – it is necessary to understand something about our major religious belief, the Jukurrpa. The Jukurrpa is an all-embracing concept that provides rules for living, a moral code, as well as rules for interacting with the natural environment.

The philosophy behind it is holistic – the Jukurrpa provides for a total, integrated way of life. It is important to understand that, for Warlpiri and other Aboriginal people living in remote Aboriginal settlements, The Dreaming isn’t something that has been consigned to the past but is a lived daily reality. We, the Warlpiri people, believe in the Jukurrpa to this day.

When former Prime Minister Tony Abbott dismissively described the pre-1788 history of the Australian continent as ‘nothing there but bush’, he was not only denying the physical reality of the diverse Aboriginal nations. He and his supporters were also denying the existence of 250 language groups, the 600-800 known dialects, and the intricate philosophy and cosmology of The Dreaming. He was denying that the Indigenous nations were capable of organising their own societies, educating their children, advocating morality and ethics, living by a law code, and indeed, were capable of practicing forms of aqua- and agriculture. Rather than just living by hunter-gathering, indigenous nations practiced the forward-thinking and planning necessary for harvesting seed, building dams, irrigation and preserving agricultural surplus for future needs.

Professor Cheetham has offered an alternative national anthem, preserving the same tune, but changing the lyrics. Here is the first verse of her proposal:

Australia, celebrate as one, with peace and harmony.
Our precious water, soil and sun, grant life for you and me.
Our land abounds in nature’s gifts to love, respect and share,
And honouring the Dreaming, advance Australia fair.
With joyful hearts then let us sing, advance Australia fair.

You can read the whole thing here.

Let us conclude by listening to the words of Stan Grant, who has written a series of impressive articles for The Guardian newspaper about Aboriginal Australia and Indigenous issues. Grant wrote a thoughtful, stinging critique of white Australia’s continuing denial of Indigenous history in his article called “How can I feel Australian when this country has told me I don’t belong?” As he explains it:

Here goes. I am not an Australian or more precisely I don’t feel Australian. I am not alone among my people in feeling this way.

There is nothing in Australia’s myths that includes us. Our stories don’t form this country’s folklore. Clancy of the Overflow wasn’t black. The jolly swagman wasn’t black.

He goes on to explain that it is not for lack of trying that Indigenous nations feel excluded and isolated in their own land:

For most of this country’s history we were not citizens. Some of our people – my grandfather included – enlisted to fight in Australia’s wars but returned to a segregated country where they could not enter a pub to share a drink with the diggers they fought alongside.

We find our peoplehood in the ancient nations of this land. For me it is Wiradjuriand Kamilaroi, for others Bandjalang or Luritja or Arrernte or Ardnyamathanha or Yorta Yorta. There were many hundreds of nations here when Europeans came. Yet, we were conveniently bundled together as Aborigines – our identities extinguished along with our rights to our land.

Australian capitalism has its origins as a settler outpost of British colonial capitalist expansion in the late eighteenth century. Australia’s wealthy class began its ascent not only as a beneficiary of British colonial capitalism, but also by decimating the Indigenous nations and accumulating their land and resources. The first victims of this expansion were the First Nations of Australia, who were dispossessed of their land and their culture driven to the margins. It is time to face up to this history in order that together, we can achieve justice for the future.

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