Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and those in favour of the plebiscite on same-sex marriage are convinced that the debate will be respectful and not at all divisive, but the evidence from Australia’s last plebiscite suggests we can expect a heated and bitter debate.

Australia’s last plebiscite, on the national anthem, was in 1977. Australia’s national anthem since federation had been God Save the Queen, but there was debate over whether to replace it with a more Australian song. The nation was divided. Some preferred the Banjo Patterson tune Waltzing Matilda and viewed Advance Australia Fair as having expansionist overtones; some preferred Advance Australia Fair (which the ABC had been using as the tune for its news broadcasts until the early ’50s) and pointed to Waltzing Matilda‘s lyrics about robbery and suicide as being inappropriate for a national anthem. South Australia preferred Song of Australia.

How did the plebiscite come about? In 1973, prime minister Gough Whitlam held a competition to try to find a new anthem, and despite receiving 2500 entries, none were deemed suitable. Reports at the time quote one judge as apologising for the low standard of the six finalists, stating “you should have seen the 2500 we rejected”.

Whitlam then asked the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 1974 to conduct a national poll of 60,000 Australians. The results found that 51.4% of Australians preferred Advance Australia Fair, with Waltzing Matilda coming in second at 19.6%. Whitlam declared Advance Australia Fair as the national anthem but would keep God Save the Queen for events involving the monarchy or their representatives.

An Age editorial at the time found that the nation was “split” over the issue, with state governments, RSLs and other organisations refusing to adopt the new anthem:

“A national anthem is supposed to be a symbol of national unity; in Australia, it has become a focus for division, discord and dissent.”

In 1976, not long after the Fraser government replaced the Whitlam government, Malcolm Fraser returned God Save the Queen as the national anthem but said any of the polled songs could be used. Then in April and May 1976, in the lead-up to the Montreal Olympic Games, Fraser declared that although there was no national song (as opposed to the national anthem, which would remain God Save the Queen), Waltzing Matilda would be used at the Games. Fraser told Parliament:

“Eminently that music is recognised around the world as Australian and as depicting many of the best characteristics of this nation. It is instantly recognisable in each part of Australia. We do not believe that applies to any other tune or song.”

According to documents from the National Archive of Australia, Fraser told a premiers’ conference in 1976 that Australia needed to differentiate itself from Britain if we won a gold medal and the anthem were played:

“There is a need for a national song on occasions when, if God Save the Queen is played, people think that another lousy Sassenach has won a gold medal.”

Fraser pushed for Waltzing Matilda, but some premiers objected to the lyrics. Fraser responded:

“What could be more appropriate for a country with convict origins? We should be proud of our past.”

South Australian premier Don Dunstan, who like his state favoured Song of Australia, responded:

“But that does not apply to South Australia. Our ancestors did not get caught.”


Fraser later said that he hoped a national song would “emerge through a process of natural selection and choice”. One particular issue with Waltzing Matilda was that while the tune was no problem for the government to use, the lyrics remained controversial, and the family of Banjo Patterson held the copyright rights for the lyrics until the 1980s. Patterson’s lawyers told the Fraser government it would be a “five-figure sum” to buy the song outright.

The plebiscite would be held the following year, but Waltzing Matilda did not echo through the sports hall of Montreal — Australia failed to win any gold at the 1976 Olympics.

Just like the same-sex marriage plebiscite, there was concern that the government was going to favour one side. In the lead-up to the plebiscite, rumours floated that the government was attempting to stitch up the result. Labor MP for Chifley John Artmitage accused the government, weeks out, of planning to provide $150,000 for advertising for God Save the Queen (despite Fraser’s previous preference for Waltzing Matilda). Armitage also suggested that by giving God Save the Queen the top of the ballot paper spot, the government was also favouring the song for the donkey vote.

“By logic, if the tunes were placed on the ballot paper in alphabetical order, in accordance with the electoral law of this country, Advance Australia Fair should be on the top of the ballot paper. But no, this Government has made a firm decision. It shall be God Save the Queen which is placed at the top of the ballot paper followed by the various other songs … I do not think that it is in the interests of this country for this Government, simply because of its old-fashioned extreme conservative attitudes, to attempt by using taxpayers money to gerrymander the decision by the manner in which it prepares the ballot paper.”

According to cabinet documents, the government spent about $94,000 on advertising in the week before the vote to explain how the plebiscite would work. Only one week of ads was bought to prevent the government being accused of extravagant spending on the plebiscite. This consisted of nine 60-second TV ads in metropolitan areas and four ads in regional areas, as well as ads in the Sunday papers, Women’s Weekly, Woman’s Day and New Idea. Special recordings of all four songs were made, and cassette tapes were sent to radio broadcasters. The women’s mags were chosen because, according to cabinet documents, the issue was believed to affect women more.

On the day of the plebiscite on May 21, 1977, the national song question was one of four posed to Australian voters on the day, with voters also asked to decide on holding House and Senate elections at the same time, rules about Senate casual vacancies, and to allow voters in territories to vote in referendums. The question ultimately posed to voters was as follows:

“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.”

The below was a draft of the absentee ballot from the National Archives of Australia:


The result was overwhelmingly in favour of Advance Australia Fair, at 43.29% of the vote. Waltzing Matilda earned 28.8% of the vote. Some 7.1 million out of a total 8.4 million people on the rolls voted in the plebiscite. Although Advance Australia Fair won the majority vote, it didn’t win in every state. South Australia voted for Song of Australia at 33.95%, and the ACT voted for Waltzing Matilda at 48.68% (773,061 Australians voted informally in the poll, more than the total vote for Song of Australia).

After the distribution of preferences, Advance Australia Fair had 4.4 million votes, compared to 2.4 million for Waltzing Matilda. The government wrote to premiers advising them of the outcome. It was mostly not opposed. Queensland never responded to the message, according to cabinet documents, except in media reports stating that Advance Australia Fair would be “played only at sporting events”. Victorian Premier Rupert Hamer wrote to Fraser in 1977 recording the result and stating that the words of Advance Australia Fair “are not appropriate to today’s conditions” (the second verse made reference to Britannia ruling the waves), and suggested new lyrics be developed.

Despite the overwhelming endorsement of Advance Australia Fair as the national song, it would be another seven years before the then-Hawke government would adopt Advance Australia Fair as the national anthem in 1984, before the next Olympic Games. Then-prime minister Bob Hawke had to change lines like “Australia’s sons, let us rejoice” to “Australians all, let us rejoice” and had the “hopelessly dated” second verse removed entirely. God Save the Queen remains Australia’s royal anthem.

The plebiscite never settled the matter, however. According to reports from the Herald Sun at the time, the reaction was mixed.

Mrs Rebecca Browne, of East Bentleigh, said: “I don’t really like Advance Australia Fair as a national anthem. I think the Waltzing Matilda tune, not the words, should be the anthem.”

Mr Peter Brown, 21, of Middle Park said: “I don’t like flag-waving songs, Click go the Shears would be just as good — at least sheep can identify with it.”

In 1987, a WA state Liberal politician Phillip Pendal called the anthem “a national embarrassment because it is too hard to sing and no one can remember the words”, after he watched Daryl Somers sing the anthem at the VFL grand final and “it soon became clear that only he knew the words”. He said he fancied Waltzing Matilda.

Although several generations of school children have now grown up singing the anthem, there remains a lingering debate over whether the song best represents Australia. In the 1990s, in the lead-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, then-NSW premier Bob Carr publicly advocated for Waltzing Matilda to be used for winning athletes, stating it was “1000 times more melodious” and “more likely to make Australians swell with pride or bring a tear to their eyes”. He was unsuccessful, but at least that time it would have mattered. Advance Australia Fair rang out 16 times during the Games.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey