Anthem debate worthy of greater discussion

The distress that Indigenous players felt about singing Advance Australia Fair before last Friday's NRL All Stars fixture against New Zealand Maori could be considered a welfare issue.

While the English-only version has been performed before some previous All Stars matches, the unease of the Indigenous players was highlighted this year by the inclusion of the Maori team, who passionately sung the Maori first verse of the New Zealand national anthem.

The NRL had hoped an Indigenous version of the Australian anthem could be performed as it has been before most All Stars games but custom requires it to be sung in the language of the traditional custodians of the land on which AAMI Stadium is built.

However, local elders told NRL officials that they do not support Advance Australia Fair as the national anthem so they have never permitted it to be translated into Woiwurrung language.

The decision has thrust a complex issue into mainstream discussion after Indigenous captain Cody Walker spoke following the match of his discomfort with singing Advance Australia Fair and Australian coach Mal Meninga called for a referendum on the national anthem in his NRL.com column.

The last time the anthem changed was in 1984 after a plebiscite chose Advance Australia Fair over Waltzing Matilda and Song of Australia to replace God Save The Queen.

With Prime Minister Scott Morrison a keen rugby league fan, there has possibly never been a more opportune time for Indigenous Australians, who represent 12 per cent of the NRL's player base, to have their views heard by the country's leading politicians.  

However, members of the Indigenous team did not discuss a boycott of the anthem before the All Stars match but as the players linked arms while it was sung few even bothered to mouth the words and stood solemnly waiting for it to finish.

It was a scene replicated in grandstand seats and corporate boxes around the stadium, as most Indigenous people and many other Australians feel uncomfortable with an anthem written in 1878 by Scottish composer Peter Dodds McCormick, which has been modified several times to remove verses that cause offence to indigenous Australians.

However, it still contains the words "young and free", which fail to acknowledge that Aboriginals are the world's oldest surviving culture or how they were almost decimated after the arrival of British settlers a century before Advance Australia Fair was written.

All Stars founder Preston Campbell told an NRL.com podcast last month that he didn't sing Advance Australia Fair.

"I know for the national anthem, if it is played in a hall or a theatre, I stand up – but I don't sing it," Campbell said. "I stand up in the respect that it’s another culture's national song."

Indigenous players did not consider taking a knee as Colin Kaepernick and other NFL stars have done during the US anthem, nor did any of them tell the media that weren't going to sing Advance Australia Fair.

Each of them acted as they usually would when the Australian anthem is performed but the contrast with the passion of the Maori players towards God Defend New Zealand put the issue in the spotlight and they were asked about it after the match.

Asked if he felt comfortable singing Advance Australia Fair, Walker said: "To be honest, no. It doesn't represent myself and my family. It just brings back so many memories from what has happened."

The fact that Walker and his Indigenous team-mates felt so distressed by singing Advance Australia Fair before representing their culture could be considered a player welfare issues that demonstrates the importance of a national debate about the anthem.

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.