On 30 November 1878, Advance Australia Fair was first sung publicly at the Highland Society of NSW’s annual Scottish concert in the Protestant Hall, Sydney.
“Advance Australia Fair” is the national anthem of Australia. Written by Scottish-born composer Peter Dodds McCormick, the song was first performed in 1878, sung in Australia as a patriotic song.
It first replaced “God Save the Queen” in 1974 as the official national anthem, following a nationwide opinion survey.
“God Save the Queen” was reinstated in January 1976, with “Advance Australia Fair”, returning in 1984. This followed a plebiscite to choose the national song in 1977.
“God Save the Queen” became known as the royal anthem, which is used at public engagements attended by the Queen or members of the Royal Family.
The 1984 version of “Advance Australia Fair” has lyrics modified from McCormick’s original and verses trimmed down from four to two. In January 2021 the lyrics were changed again.
“Advance Australia Fair” was published in early December 1878 by Scottish-born composer Peter Dodds McCormick (1833–1916) under the pen-name “Amicus” (which means “friend” in Latin). It was first sung by Andrew Fairfax, accompanied by a concert band conducted by McCormick, at a function of the Highland Society of New South Wales in Sydney on 30 November 1878 (Saint Andrew’s Day).
The song gained in popularity and an amended version was sung by a choir of around 10,000 at the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia on 1 January 1901. In 1907 the Australian Government awarded McCormick £100 for his composition.
In a letter to R.B. Fuller dated 1 August 1913, McCormick described the circumstances that inspired him to write “Advance Australia Fair”:
One night I attended a great concert in the Exhibition Building, when all the National Anthems of the world were to be sung by a large choir with band accompaniment. This was very nicely done, but I felt very aggravated that there was not one note for Australia. On the way home in a bus, I concocted the first verse of my song & when I got home I set it to music. I first wrote it in the Tonic Sol-fa notation, then transcribed it into the Old Notation, & I tried it over on an instrument next morning, & found it correct. Strange to say there has not been a note of it altered since. Some alteration has been made in the wording, but the sense is the same. It seemed to me to be like an inspiration, & I wrote the words & music with the greatest ease.
The earliest known sound recording of “Advance Australia Fair” appears in The Landing of the Australian Troops in Egypt (circa 1916), a short commercial recording dramatising the arrival of Australian troops in Egypt en route to Gallipoli.
Before its adoption as Australia’s national anthem, “Advance Australia Fair” had considerable use elsewhere. For example, Australia’s national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, used it to announce its news bulletins until 1952.
It was also frequently played at the start or end of official functions. Towards the end of World War II it was one of three songs played in certain picture theatres, along with “God Save the King” and the US national anthem.
Other songs and marches have been influenced by “Advance Australia Fair”, such as the Australian vice-regal salute.
Competitions, plebiscite and adoption
In 1973 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and his government decided that the country needed an anthem, which could represent Australia with “distinction”, and started a competition to find one to replace the existing anthem, “God Save the Queen”.
This decision by Whitlam was driven by the desire to forge a new nationalism separate from the United Kingdom.
In January of that year, Whitlam dedicated an entire Australia Day speech to the search for a new anthem, referring to it as a “symbolic expression of our national pride and dignity.” The Australia Council for the Arts organised the contest, which was dubbed the “Australian National Anthem Quest”.
The contest was held in two stages, the first seeking lyrics and the second music, each having a A$5,000 prize for the winning entry. On the recommendation of the Council for the Arts, none of the new entries was felt worthy enough, so the contest ended with suggestions for “Advance Australia Fair”, “Waltzing Matilda” and “The Song of Australia”.
In 1974 the Whitlam government then performed a nationwide opinion survey to determine the song to be sung on occasions of national significance. Conducted through the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the survey polled 60,000 people nationally.
“Advance Australia Fair” was chosen by 51.4% of respondents and, on 9 April of that year, Whitlam announced in parliament that it was the national anthem. It was to be used on all occasions excepting those of a specifically regal nature.
A spokesman for Whitlam later stated that the Government regarded the tune primarily as the national anthem. During the 1975 election campaign following the dismissal of Whitlam by Sir John Kerr, David Combe proposed that the song be played at the start of the Labor Party’s official campaign launch on 24 November 1975 at Festival Hall, Melbourne.
Whitlam’s speechwriter Graham Freudenberg rejected this idea because, among other reasons, the status of the anthem at that point was still tentative.
On 22 January 1976 the Fraser government reinstated “God Save the Queen” as the national anthem for use at royal, vice-regal, defence and loyal toast occasions. Fraser stated that “Advance Australia Fair”, “Song of Australia” or “Waltzing Matilda” could be used for non-regal occasions.
His government made plans to conduct a national poll to find a song for use on ceremonial occasions when it was desired to mark a separate Australian identity. This was conducted as a plebiscite to choose the National Song, held as an optional additional question in the 1977 referendum on various issues.
On 23 May the government announced the results, “Advance Australia Fair” received 43.29% of the vote, defeating the three alternatives, “Waltzing Matilda” (28.28%), “The Song of Australia” (9.65%) and the existing national anthem, “God Save the Queen” (18.78%).
“Advance Australia Fair”, with modified lyrics and reduced to two verses, was adopted as the Australian national anthem by the Labor government of Bob Hawke, coming into effect on 19 April 1984.
At the same time, “God Save the Queen” became known as the royal anthem, and continues to be played alongside the Australian national anthem at public engagements in Australia that are attended by the Queen or members of the Royal Family.
Even though any personal copyright of Peter Dodds McCormick’s original lyrics has expired, as he died in 1916, the Commonwealth of Australia claims copyright on the official lyrics and particular arrangements of music. Non-commercial use of the anthem is permitted without case-by-case permission, but the Commonwealth government requires permission for commercial use.
The orchestral arrangement of “Advance Australia Fair” that is now regularly played for Australian victories at international sporting medal ceremonies, and at the openings of major domestic sporting, cultural and community events, is by Tommy Tycho, an immigrant from Hungary.
It was commissioned by ABC Records in 1984 and then televised by Channel 10 in 1986 in their Australia Day broadcast, featuring Julie Anthony as the soloist.
The national anthem was changed on 1 January 2021 by proclamation of the Governor-General on the advice of the Federal Executive Council. The change prior to that was on 19 April 1984.
The lyrics of “Advance Australia Fair”, as modified by the National Australia Day Council, were officially adopted in April 1984. The lyrics were updated as of 1 January 2021 in an attempt to recognise the legacy of Indigenous Australians, with the word “one” in the second line replacing the previous “young”. The lyrics are now as follows:
Australians all let us rejoice,
For we are one 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.