(Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

On the eighth day of Christmas, in lieu of a productivity-boosting eight maids-a-milking, Australia’s prime minister gave his true love, Team Australia, a light one-word edit to the national anthem. We are now, apparently, “one and free” rather than “young and free”.

It surprisingly gave Australia a global news moment, providing the light relief in this year’s unusually serious silly season, wedged between the mutating UK virus, the emergency vaccine rollout (or not), the Brexit denouement, and the continued careering Trump clown car.

The rewrite had apparently been market tested back in November through NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian (who had her own reasons to look for distractions) and must have passed the focus groups.

Still, the prime ministerial intervention seemed a bit, well, cryptic. Why so urgent that it required Scott Morrison to rouse the governor-general from his Christmas break to sign on to the change so it could be dropped to traditional media on New Year’s Eve, tweeted by Morrison at 12.01am and then used to mark the new year from the solemn Parliament House courtyard lectern?

That’s a lot of public holiday marketing for a light touch of symbolism. But just what was being sold — and to whom?

Here’s a cryptic clue for a cryptic gesture: shedding the odd young and finally free, PM creates Team Australia (3).

The traditional media didn’t seem sure what to make of it — just as they are still unsure of who, or what, Morrison is. Pragmatist? Cynic? Ideologue?

Why the anthem change? Was it the pragmatism of a minor concession to staunch protests at sporting events where Indigenous players have been declining to sing the national anthem? Was it a cynical nod to the great Australian desire for a reconciliation that is simple and pain-free? Was it an ideological wink to the right-wing populist demand to assert one more monocultural Australian identity?

If it was a pragmatic transactional gesture to First Nations’ demands for voice and truth-telling, it flopped.

“A one-syllable change to the anthem is hardly something to celebrate,” wrote constitutional law professor and Cobble Cobble woman Megan Davis in The Canberra Times.

“Symbolism as a substitute for action is killing us,” said lawyer and Wiradjuri/Wailwan women Teela Reid in the Nine mastheads.

“It’s symbolic tokenism aimed at silencing dissent that completely misses the nature of the dissent in the first place,” wrote IndigenousX editor and Gamilaroi man Luke Pearson.

As a cynical offer of effort-free reconciliation to centrist Australia it also flopped. Morrison was forced to brush off questions about the government’s response to the substance of the Uluru Statement from the Heart on voice, truth-telling and constitutional recognition with a “matter for the minister”. (Polls show majority support for the demands.)

On the same day as Morrison’s announce-able, New York University’s media academic Jay Rosen tweeted: “The most important thing I learned in 2020 could be put this way: information is downstream from identity.”

Ideologically, Morrison’s anthem change lies downstream from the identity politics of the populist right: flipping First Nations’ demands into the right-wing populist rejection of diversity and multiculturalism. It’s what conservatives mean by Team Australia: the “one” of One Nation (Luke Pearson in IndigenousX) rather than the “one, but we are many” of, say, the opening line of “I Am Australian”.

It walked the fine line between ideological announcement and trolling of Indigenous and multicultural activists. It reflected the core claim of the populist right, as Jan-Werner Müller says in What is Populism?: “Only some of the people are really the people.”

Now, the anthem tells us, if you’re not “one”, you’re nothing.