'We are one and free': Australia's national anthem to change in attempt to recognise Indigenous history

By Daniel Hurst

The Australian government will remove a reference to the country being “young and free” in the national anthem, amid concerns the existing wording overlooks the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that stretches back tens of thousands of years.

The conservative prime minister, Scott Morrison, made the surprise announcement on New Year’s Eve, saying the change would help foster a “spirit of unity” after a year of big challenges.

From 1 January, the second line of Advance Australia Fair will say: “For we are one and free.” This replaces the existing line: “For we are young and free.”

The minimalist change was approved by the governor general, David Hurley, on the recommendation of the Morrison government.

It picks up an idea floated earlier in the year by the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, who said the current wording ignored Australia’s “proud First Nations culture” and made some people feel excluded.

Berejiklian’s proposal to change the wording to “one and free” won support from across the political spectrum, including from the federal minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, and even from the firebrand rightwing One Nation party leader, Pauline Hanson.

The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, also backed the proposal, saying the country “should be proud of the fact that we have the oldest continuous civilisation on the planet right here with First Nations people”.

In a statement issued on Thursday evening, Morrison said the change would take effect on 1 January and was being made “for all Australians”.

“During the past year we have showed once again the indomitable spirit of Australians and the united effort that has always enabled us to prevail as a nation,” the prime minister said.

“It is time to ensure this great unity is reflected more fully in our national anthem.”

Morrison said while Australia “as a modern nation may be relatively young”, the country’s story was ancient. He cited “the stories of the many First Nations peoples whose stewardship we rightly acknowledge and respect”.

“In the spirit of unity, it is only right that we ensure our national anthem reflects this truth and shared appreciation,” he said.

In an apparent pitch to some conservatives who may be wary of change, Morrison emphasised that the planned rewording of the anthem was not radical.

“Changing ‘young and free’ to ‘one and free’ takes nothing away, but I believe it adds much,” he said.

“It recognises the distance we have travelled as a nation. It recognises that our national story is drawn from more than 300 national ancestries and language groups and we are the most successful multicultural nation on earth.

“It reaffirms our resolve as one of the world’s oldest democracies, while honouring the foundations upon which our nation has been built and the aspirations we share for the future.”

It is understood Morrison consulted with the federal cabinet, state premiers and the Speaker of the lower house and the president of the Senate on the planned change to the national anthem. Hurley also advised state governors of the plans.

Australia’s official anthem was last changed under the Hawke government in 1984 from God Save the Queen to Advance Australia Fair, which was composed by Peter Dodds McCormick.

The symbolic change comes at a time when Indigenous Australians still face significant hurdles in achieving equal opportunities.

Indigenous men have an estimated life expectancy of 71.6 years, nearly nine years lower than that of their non-Indigenous peers, according to recent data.

For Indigenous women, the life expectancy of 75.6 years is about eight years lower than that of non-Indigenous women.

In July, the Morrison government unveiled a new Closing the Gap agreement that included a commitment to erasing the gap in life expectancy by 2031.

Morrison also committed to shared decision-making between government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in priority areas such as housing, early childhood and justice reform.

But his government has disappointed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders by ruling out changing the constitution to enshrine the concept of an Indigenous “voice to parliament”, as recommended by the Uluru statement from the heart in 2017.

Morrison has previously likened the idea to a third chamber of parliament, a continuation of a controversial criticism his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, had used.

Indigenous and legal experts have rejected that characterisation, pointing out a voice to parliament would not have any veto powers, nor would it examine every piece of legislation.

Morrison was also highly critical of people participating in Black Lives Matter protests in Australian cities in June, arguing against “importing the things that are happening overseas to Australia”.

Traditional owners were shocked by mining giant Rio Tinto’s decision to destroy 46,000-year-old caves in Juukan Gorge, Western Australia in May 2020.

The federation of Australia occurred on 1 January 1901 but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been living on the continent for tens of thousands of years.

Morrison’s predecessor, Turnbull, is among many people who say the British colonisation of Australia in 1788 could fairly be described as an “invasion”.