Anthem anathema

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 December, 2004, 12:00am

Sydney's New Year's Eve celebrations are the biggest and most anticipated in Australia, but they are already mired in controversy. One of the features of tonight's fireworks and musical extravaganza will be a disco version of the national anthem, Advance Australia Fair. As up to one million people gather on the shores of Sydney Harbour to see in the New Year, it will be played at regular intervals throughout the evening.

But already, half the country has decided that tampering with the national anthem verges on treason. When it was first unveiled and played on the airwaves a couple of weeks ago, it prompted a torrent of abuse to radio phone-in stations and in the letters pages of newspapers.

Even Prime Minister John Howard waded into the debate, pronouncing the song 'terrible'. Never known for his love of disco, Mr Howard said that the national anthem should be 'played in a way which facilitates maximum audience participation in its singing ... I don't think it should be played around with'.

The strange thing is that most Australians expressed nothing but disdain for their national anthem until fairly recently. Its bland tune and old-fashioned verses were considered something of an embarrassment.

The unpopularity of the anthem could be seen in the faces of national sports teams as they mumbled their way through its uninspiring lines at the start of international fixtures.

Although Advance Australia Fair was first performed in 1878, it only became the national anthem in 1984, replacing God Save the Queen.

Many Australians would rather have seen Waltzing Matilda become the nation's anthem. It has a much jauntier tune, and the story of a swagman being pursued by hard-hearted colonial police troopers embodies a rebellious, anti-authoritarian spirit - although as a friend pointed out: 'It might be a bit odd for Australia to be defined by a song about a suicidal sheep thief.'

The producers of the techno version were understandably taken aback by the controversy. It is not as if they set out to parody or denigrate the song. Only a few voices came out in support. 'I reckon the anthem could do with a bit of jazzing up,' said Craig Emerson, an MP from the opposition Labor Party. 'It's a quaint old tune going back to the 19th century.'

So, why all the fuss? It appears that in the past few years, Australians have actually come to like their national anthem. It was belted out with gusto at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and during last year's Rugby World Cup. Its lyrics may be clumsy and its tune hard to follow, but Advance Australia Fair finally seems to have wormed its way into the country's affections.