1977: National Song Poll

Changing our tune 

Date

21 May 1977

Question

Against the background that 'GOD SAVE THE QUEEN' is the NATIONAL ANTHEM to be played on Regal and Vice Regal occasions, electors may indicate their preferences as to which of the tunes of the songs listed below they would prefer to be played on other occasions. 

This was a non-binding referendum that was not about a constitutional change. 

Result

Australians selected Advance Australia Fair to be the new national anthem. 


If you could pick a song to be Australia’s national anthem, what would you choose?


Australians were asked this very question in 1977. Keep in mind the biggest-selling singles the previous year had included Dancing Queen and Bohemian Rhapsody. It was a slightly different Queen, however, up for discussion at a very unusual kind of referendum.  

Successive Australian governments hadn’t always sung the same tune when it came to the national anthem. For years it had been God Save the Queen/King, which made sense at the time: many Australians identified closely with the United Kingdom. The Whitlam government announced in 1974 that the royal song would be replaced by Advance Australia Fair, written by Peter Dodds McCormick in 1878. In 1976, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser reinstated the royal anthem for some events but said that Advance Australia Fair could still be used, unofficially, during others.  

To settle the issue, the government issued a national poll in 1977, administered by the Australian Electoral Office. The results of the poll reflected Australia in the 1970s – more confident as a nation and looking for opportunities to sing its own song. 

Voters were given four choices based on submissions from the public. The options were Advance Australia Fair, God Save the Queen, Song of Australia and Waltzing Matilda. The question was about which tune, not which lyrics – it was assumed new, appropriate lyrics would be made for whichever tune won, or updated from their originals.  

Advance Australia Fair received the most votes nationwide. South Australia voted for The Song of Australia, written by locals Caroline Carleton and Carl Linger. Canberrans, uniquely, opted for Waltzing Matilda but were girt by a sea of support for McCormick’s anthem. 

In 1984, Advance Australia Fair was formally proclaimed as the national anthem, albeit only the first two verses. The lyrics were slightly updated in 2021, with ‘we are young and free’ changed to ‘we are one and free’, reflecting the occupation of the continent by First Nations peoples for thousands of years prior to colonisation.

A yellowed cover of sheet music to Advance Australia Fair written in detailed cursive script.

Original sheet music by ‘Amicus’ (Peter Dodds McCormick) for Advance Australia Fair, 1878. The original song has four verses, but the national anthem has only two. 

National Library of Australia nla.obj-169688327


Opinions on the songs

Senator Douglas McClelland

'I will be supporting the voting for the tune composed by a Scottish migrant from Glasgow, one Peter McCormick, who came to Australia at about the age of 12 and who, at the age of 35, wrote the words and music for Advance Australia Fair. He died at Waverley in Sydney in 1916 and in good Scottish fashion assigned the rights to Advance Australia Fair to the trustees of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. I mention those matters not because I am of Scottish descent or because I might be a Presbyterian by religion but because I am Australian and I think Advance Australia Fair is more Australian than any of the other songs to be put to the Australian people for their choice.'

- Hansard, 23 March 1977 

Senator John Button

'Honourable senators will recall the words of the song indicate that once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong and he boiled his tea by the billabong. The only point I make about this is that the references to Waltzing Matilda are not offensive in any way to any section of the community. Nobody has any violent opposition to tea drinkers. Nobody has any violent opposition to tea merchants and all honourable senators should have more confidence and more concern that we should be known internationally as a nation of tea drinkers rather than a nation of wine drinkers. We should be known as a nation with its own peculiar culture and certainly the words of Waltzing Matilda are peculiar to foreign visitors to this country. We should be known not as a people which has a national song filled with the sort of chauvinism of the other 3 songs which I have mentioned.'

Did you know...?

The poll was held at the same time as four constitutional referendums, but voters in the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory couldn’t vote on any of them. This was because one of the four questions was about the rights of territory residents to vote in referendums. That measure, along with a mandatory retirement age for judges and changes to the way senate vacancies were filled, passed. That meant that after 1977, Territory voters could vote in referendums on the constitution (although only states were counted for the ‘double majority’).  

This is the only time to date that an optional, non-binding question was asked at the same time as a referendum. Another non-binding question was asked of voters in 2017 on same-sex marriage but this was not a referendum and was conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.