It’s all becoming complicated. So much for “Australians all”.
Aside from being a bit of a dud song, Advance Australia Fair arouses mixed feelings in many of us. I can only trace four or five family generations to this country, rather than the thousands that an Indigenous Australian grows from, but at sporting events I admit that anthems make me uncomfortable for disparate reasons. When the anthem is played, I only stand with the greatest reluctance and sometimes just plain cowardice in the face of peer pressure. We are all creatures (and captives) of the era of our childhood, and I grew up in a time when patriotism was viewed with the deepest distrust. As Dr Johnson said, it is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Patriotism, manipulated by politicians, was what sent Australians to Gallipoli, the Western Front and Vietnam. In the 1970s, when so many World War I veterans were alive, patriotism was very often a dirty word and 25 April was a sad and bitter day. Without putting too fine a point on it, schoolyard discussions in the 1970s were conducted under the shadow of a third World War. Were we scared? Ridiculously. It wasn’t the A-Bomb we feared so much as nationalism. To be against blind nationalism was to be for peace and civilisation. National symbols were not to be trusted, or sung, or waved.
Since then, patriotism has become not the scoundrel’s last refuge but his first. The rejuvenation of Australian nationalist symbols, such as the flag, the anthem and the annual convergence on Gallipoli (Oi, oi, oi), are disturbing not just for minorities. Many Anglo-Australians are equally uneasy about flag-waving, for their own reasons. National symbols have always been divisive. And it seems that the performance of the song at Lang Park next week is going to divide as much as unite.
Rugby league could solve this, of course, by not having the anthem sung. Why is “Advance Australia Fair” sung anyway for a match between Queensland and New South Wales? This is not a national occasion. I can see why, when Australia is represented, the anthem is sung. On some occasions in sport, such as when an Olympic gold medal is awarded, it can be deeply and universally moving. But a Queensland-New South Wales match is not such an occasion. For presumption, it is moving into the territory of those grand masters of presumption, the AFL, who will stage the national anthem for Collingwood versus Essendon. Yeah, big event. Get the flag out.
Advocates of the anthem-singing will say that at Origin, the song is a reminder that we/they are, beneath the state hatred, all one nation. (Maybe more in Queensland than in New South Wales). It’s a bit of a head-scratcher, this. In what possible respect are Australians an indivisible whole? And in what respect does an Origin match remind us of those fictitious bonds? Sport should not be a vehicle for political fiction-making, and least of all sport that is played between states or suburbs. Save the anthem for international appearances.
This stance will be accused of lacking patriotism. But if you grew up in Australia in the 1960s and 1970s, nothing was more quintessentially Australian than questioning, or taking the piss out of, ostentatious displays of patriotism. Anzac Day was not a celebration but a day of mourning. Australia Day flags were for dimwits. Notable sporting patriots, true-blue Aussies of that generation, from Shane Warne to David Campese, had no time for flag-waving and anthem-singing. To be Australian was to have your own mind. Those times seem long ago. Now the flag and the anthem are thrust into our faces as an aggressive interrogation of how “Australian” we are, a visceral demonstration of “true colours” silencing the questions we need to be asking about what “Australian” actually means.
All this is to say that Cody Walker, Josh Addo-Carr and any other non-singers of Advance Australia Fair at Origin or any other provincial occasion enjoy support, and not just for the cause of Indigenous rights. We might take pride in the fact that we are not America, a place where not singing the national anthem at an inter-club game is virtually a hanging offence. (Being unlike America was another characteristic of which Australians used to be justly proud.) Whether a footballer sings the song should not be, and never should have become, some kind of proof of allegiance. Not singing is not unpatriotic. When Dr Johnson spoke about patriotism and scoundrels, he was pointing specifically to manipulative politicians who used patriotism to coerce agreement. Johnson was very much a proud Englishman, and in no way unpatriotic. He was just drawing a line between patriotism’s true and false versions. I happen to think that by not singing Advance Australia Fair, those Indigenous Australians are, far from being unpatriotic, expressing a higher, truer idea of the nation’s capacities, just as the sceptical non-conformism of this non-singing gen Xer is expressing his own democratic belief.