How fair is fair?

the colour of justice in Australias official anthem

How to Cite

Kelen, C. (2002). How fair is fair? the colour of justice in Australias official anthem. M/C Journal, 5(3).
Vol. 5 No. 3 (2002): Colour
Published 2002-07-01

Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?
- Habakkuk 1:13

Australia's official national anthem since 1984 has been a song entitled 'Advance Australia Fair'1. This paper asks, very simply, what is the meaning of the word fair in the title and the song.

The song is about a collective effort, not so much at being a nation as at being seen to be one, being worthy of the name. The claim is justified on two grounds: possession and intention. We have golden soil, wealth, youth, the ability to toil, freedom, a beautiful country possessed of nature's gifts, boundless plains and so on. We make no particular claim to have done anything as yet but we have good intentions, specifically to toil with hearts and hands to make our nation famous as such. The setting of the song then is temporally ambiguous: we have x and we're about to y. The question naturally enough is: who are we? The song is naturally enough, as an anthem, about answering and not answering that question.

Note that the hymn-like qualities of 'God save the Queen' are absent from the new anthem. And yet the song begins as if it were a hymn or a prayer, with the formula: 'Let us (pray/sing?)'. A pseudo-hymn. Who is addressed? We are. The temporal setting of the hymn is substituted with the imminence of an imperative: 'Let us rejoice.' Rejoicing is something we should all do for a long list of reasons. That being the case, 'let us sing'. In 'Advance Australia Fair' it is the imminent future to which voices attend in their act of unison.

Whose act of unison? Who is the we? Anthems are always coy about this question which touches on their function and their efficacy. The unspoken answer which the song implies is however that the we addressing and addressed the self-identifying we of the song is fair and going to be fair, and will get there by being fair. That kind of fairness I would argue is characteristic of the we of white man's burden.

'Advance Australia Fair' is eat your cake and have it too stuff: we want to be a young nation about to play on the world's stage but at the same time we want to pretend that what is ours has an eternal quality. We want to borrow the timeless land myth; we don't want to acknowledge the time before our coming. We don't anymore even want to acknowledge our coming. We want to have always been here; but in an ahistoric way. The past should be irrelevant to the way we are now. This consciousness of an identity of pretended eternal rights is only achieved by multiple erasure: of time before the historic, of our historic consciousness of time. It is achieved by means of the terra nullius myth, the myth of an empty land prior to our coming. The song as it stands, the anthem as it is, is the perfect representative of that myth. The explanation of 'the historic facts' in the original version has been removed as an embarrassment. The emptiness posited by 'Advance Australia Fair' is deeply ironic. It represents a refusal of the ethical question which must lie under European presence in Australia. The land is empty because we emptied it. We have land to share because we took land. We only get to look generous because of a theft for which we do not wish to acknowledge responsibility. We sing from an emptiness wrought on ourselves in the act of emptying; the emptying of the land and at once the popular consciousness: emptying it of the fact of the emptying. Emptying ourselves of truth is the reflective act of nation: the basis of the collectivity on which a polity is claimed. It is a making colourless. How fair would that be?

The 'Australians all...' update leaves untouched two serious problems with the song, these being the ways in which it might be unsatisfactory from the point of view of indigenous Australians (i.e. their erasure) and, linked with this, the serious ambiguity of the title and the chorus: the problem with the word 'fair'. The word-order inversion in the title/chorus is a kind of pseudo-archaism which tilts the song in the direction of the unintelligible. The inscrutable sign of identity becomes a kind of rite of passage; something which needs to be explained to children and migrants alike. Perfect form of mystification to express as collective sentiment the sentiment of collectivity; no one can definitively know what these words mean. The unknowable privileges a teachers' grasp of the archaic as originary lore: the teacher says it means 'Let's all work together to make Australia a beautiful country, a great country' or 'We should all be proud of Australia because it's such a great country, so we should pull together to make it even better.' Fair enough. Who could object?

The central ambiguity means that when we sing the song we don't know whether we are describing how things are or how they should be. Advance Australia because it is fair or so that it will be fair or both reasons: to keep the fair fair? Of course this speculation begs the question about the meaning of the word 'fair'. Of all the various dictionary entries for the word fair the three which seem to coalesce in this usage are: fair as in beautiful, fair as in just and fair as in white. I would argue that these three uses coalesce likewise in the use of fair equally in that typically Australian expression, fair enough: characteristic expression of a country seriously worried for most of its European history about the risk of racial impurity even from 'other' Europeans. In the song the line is emphatic because it is actually repeated in each rendition of the chorus. It is the point the song is making. Or we could say it is the question the song asks: how should Australia be advanced? But this form of the question implies an adverbial construction. An adverb in this position would imply process and therefore a future orientation toward the quality of that process: how Australia ought to be advanced. But if the 'fair' of the chorus is really an adjective then the implication is that Australia is already a 'fair' entity; in advancing Australia one advances its already attained quality of fairness.

The beautiful inhabit a just polity. A just polity is a white polity. This is the advance, in the song, that is happening, or has happened, in Australia. In fact this is the advance which the European word (Latin made English down here) constitutes for the continent formerly known to Europe as New Holland: Australia is becoming a white man's country.

This song is specifically about the civilising process, about the white man's burden, as it applied to this particular far-flung reach of empire. The advance of the title concerns the progress of civilisation; it assigns to this process a very specific metaphor, that of a military movement. The progress of the white race over the continent is an advance. What appears to be an external motion (promote Australia abroad) belies an internal one: the still ongoing process of conquest and likewise the encouragement to get that done without miscegenation. That Aborigines are given no specific role in this song becomes less mysterious in this light: it is not their country or nationality which is being described here; rather the advance of fair Australia, an advance which takes place at the expense of an unmentioned (unmentionable?) non-polity.

The non-inclusion of Aboriginal people in the Australian polity prior to the 1967 referendum shocks many today. And it shocks as unjust, unfair, unreasonable. That it did not seem so for long stretches of white Australia's memory indicates that a different logic was then in force.

The convergence of moral value or integrity with race, with language, with tribal membership, is certainly a widespread human phenomenon and one with plenty of Old Testament backing (and plenty of Old Testament caveat as well). And it is familiar to anyone over the age of about thirty in Australia today, to anyone who ever sang the hymn 'All things white and wonderful'. That it is a sentiment unacceptable today in a world dominated by human rights consciousness indicates that the ethics of the last couple of decades have evolved radically from those which preceded them.

The British Empire may have carted a lot of white man's burden about the globe but it is fairly hard to claim that it did not primarily exist for the benefit of white men. To argue otherwise now is to acquiesce in a rhetoric which those of us who accept universal human rights have no choice but to reject as racist. Today the civilising mission of the white man and the personal gain it brought white men remain spectacularly successful even and perhaps especially as the colour has been drained from the map. The sun sets on one kind of empire but only because that empire has been succeeded by one more lucrative, and, like the words of the successful anthem, harder to pin down than those in the one that preceded it.

As to the event of singing ourselves into the 'fair' future: three connotations just, beautiful, white conflate in an ambiguity where through repetition, through emphasis, and through the dignifying effect of an anthem setting, they come to imply each other. The unspoken terms of the song suffice to imply the conflation: the white man (now all the people) toil to make the land beautiful and just. Whether this is an accomplished fact or an uphill battle, regardless of who is now included in this mission, there is no doubt that this notion of progress as 'Australia-making' is owing to the coming of the white man.

Should the question be asked of this chorus then: if this is not blatant racism, is it something subtler? Is it a kind of deep-seated racism which survives the bowdlerizing of those for whom white supremacist rhetoric might be a little close to the bone? One can go further: this polysemy, on which nothing can be pinned, might be a closet racist's gift, because it generates paranoia. It accumulates the force of an exclusion without resorting to any culpable act of exclusion as such. Is this racism at the inscrutable and unconscious core of the nation's sense of itself? Is this the taunting of those whom the nation defines itself as excluding? Is this song taunting them to sing themselves out of the picture? If so then note that they would have two ways to go: they could be assimilated (fair enough?) or they could see themselves excluded.

If the effect of this chorus is to say that Australia should go forward under the stewardship of the fair=inter alia white race2, then it is not a question of a particular idea of progress being conveyed despite the erasure of a previous story. The erasure of a particular past, which we are too polite to mention, enables the new story. The other past is erased together with the others who inhabited it. In the world outside of the song however, the others, whom we might be too polite to see, do still inhabit. They inhabit the new story, not as flies on the wall but as flies in the ointment.

Should the song be scrapped? Should the lyrics be scrapped? The project of dismantling empires and their signs is, as the eastern bloc has been learning, not as straightforward as it may seem. Cutting the star out of the flag may leave a star-shaped hole for all to see.

Advance Australia Fair, its evolution, its status, its popular reading, taboo readings (e.g. this one), the suppression of its earlier version, the fact that what it says and fails to say is officially accepted by Australians to represent Australians: all these things are living reminders of where Australians come from, of the thinking that brought us, of what we possess and how we come to possess it. Fostering awareness of these is of great value to Australians both in understanding ourselves and in deciding where we should go with that knowledge.

Thanks to my mother, Sylvia Kelen, for help with research on this paper.

Author Biography

Christopher Kelen