Australian Christians are undermining the National Anthem against established protocols. New information from the Office of the Governor-General partly protects this behaviour and partly condemns it.


by Max Wallace


In 1984 Australia’s Labor government adopted the secular Advance Australia Fair as the National Anthem. This was a step in the direction of republicanism.  Previously, God Save the Queen was the anthem, which is still sometimes played at Anzac Day ceremonies before dawn and on occasions when there is a royal visitor.

In 1988, Dr Robin Sharwood, then a lecturer in the Law School at the University of Melbourne, wrote to the Governor-General, Sir Ninian Stephen, suggesting a new verse for the National Anthem, to put God back into the picture.

We know this because a Tasmanian Senator, John Watson,  felt compelled to give us this news in a speech in the Senate on 20 October 1997.

This is what he said:

When Robin Sharwood watched the 1988 Bicentennial Australia Day celebrations of 200 years of  European settlement and heard Australia’s National Anthem sung, it struck him that Peter Dodds McCormack’s amended words contained no references to God. Despite Christianity being an intimate feature of Australia’s history and the fact that our institutions are founded on Christian beliefs, there was no acknowledgment of God in the song which was proclaimed as our National Anthem on 19 April 1984.

Mr Sharwood immediately composed an alternative verse and proceeded to obtain official status for it from the Governor-General. The words were sung with sincerity and spirit at the recent opening of the extension to the St Brendan-Shaw College in Devonport, where I was privileged to pull the curtain covering the opening tablet with the Archbishop of Hobart, His Grace the Most Reverend Dr D’Arcy.

Rather than sing the amended words for the benefit of the Hansard record I will read them. They are:

O God, who made this ancient land
And set it round with sea,
Sustain us all who dwell herein
One people, strong and free
Grant we may guard its generous gifts
Its beauty rich and rare
In your great name, may we proclaim
Advance Australia Fair!
We thankful hearts then let us sing
Advance Australia Fair!

On 18 November 2013 the NSW Rationalists Association faxed a letter to then Governor-General, Ms Quentin Bryce (now Dame Quentin Bryce) asking questions that led from Senator Watson’s speech. On 6 February 2014 the Deputy Official Secretary to the Governor-General wrote back, apologising for the long delay in replying.

He said:

The verses that were created [by Dr Sharwood] have not been proclaimed and do not have official status as an alternative the Australian National Anthem.

The  letter continued:

The verses written by Dr Sharwood may be used in the context of a church service as a hymn, but may not be used as an alternative to the National Anthem on those occasions when the National Anthem should be sung.

This reply is very interesting for three reasons:

(1) The Governor-General’s office contradicts Senator Watson’s claim in the parliament that the Governor-General ‘amended’ the national anthem. The Christian verses were not proclaimed and do not have official status. In fact, in any case, it would appear that under the constitution the Governor-General has no power to amend the National Anthem. When Advance Australia Fair was adopted on 19 April 1984 it was by proclamation on the advice from government.

(2)  What business is it of the office of the Governor-General to say that Dr Sharwood’s verse ‘may be used in the context of a church service as a hymn’? Why should it involve itself  in what might be sung as a hymn in a church? Why make any comment about this at all?

I suggest this part of the answer to our queries reveals more than was intended: namely, the office of the Governor-General feels comfortable involving itself in religious matters, as you would expect in a country that is a constitutional monarchy, where the head of state, the Queen, is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England in England.

(3) The letter did not say the Christian verse may be sung in a school.

Not totally satisfied with this response, on 18 March 2014 we faxed another letter to the Governor-General’s office, a Freedom of Information request, asking to see the correspondence between Dr Sharwood and Sir Ninian Stephen.

On 30 July 2014 our request was denied on the grounds that the documents relate to the ‘substantive functions of the Governor-General.’ They were not ‘administrative in nature’. There were three avenues of appeal.


If this was a matter to do with confidential matters between the Governor-General’s office and the parliament, one could understand the refusal. But correspondence concerning the National Anthem? What is the big secret?

Why did Dr Sharwood think a former High Court judge would fly in the face of the constitution and amend the National Anthem to allow Christian verses? Why did Senator Watson believe that had happened?

Perhaps what the current office of the Governor-General does not want us to read is Sir Ninian’s rejection of Dr Sharwood’s Christian verses.  That would imply, as noted above, Senator Watson’s speech in the parliament was wrong. It would also somewhat undermine the image of the office of Governor-General being associated with Christianity.

On the other hand, if Sir Ninian Stephen said the verse could be sung in a church, this would be an instance of a Governor-General, and former High Court judge, giving advice that was incorrect.

The word ‘God’ does not appear in the constitution, except in the preamble where it has no legal force. The reference to ‘God’ in the preamble  has never been used as a basis for interpreting the constitution. In other words, the constitution is inherently secular.[1] It would seem unlikely Sir Ninian Stephen would have approved the Christian verses, because, under the constitution, as noted above, he does not have the power to amend the national anthem.

In passing, it is worth noting that much was made of Bill Hayden’s atheism when he became Governor-General. However, he followed Sir Ninian who was also, surprisingly, an atheist. No one picked up on this fact as it appears Sir Ninian kept his atheism[2] to himself for decades until an interview with his biographer on 20 December 2011, when he was aged 88. So Australia had two atheist Governor-Generals in a row.


There have been other attempts to get God back into the National Anthem. According to Wikipedia, another Christian verse was sung during the global March for Jesus in 1998 and again during World Youth Day in 2008, the latter with the eye-opening qualification that ‘This is not the official verse, but a Catholic adaption of the Australian National Anthem’.

The Catholic Church can alter the Australian National Anthem when it chooses?

In 2011 the question was put to the then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, whether these Christian verses were acceptable. The reply was that

Under national protocols the Anthem should not be modified and alternative words should not be used.[3]

I expect any prime minister of Australia would confirm that.

National protocols are not laws. They are procedures government recommends concerning symbolic activities relating to nationhood, such as how the flag is to be handled and displayed on Australia Day. But there is an issue here.

In 2014 the office of the Governor-General is saying that while Dr Sharwood’s verses may not be used on occasions when the National Anthem is sung, they may be sung in a church. While the prime minister in the comment cited above did not address the question of alternative verses being sung inside a church, surely it’s a bit of a stretch to say that what is against protocols outside a church is unacceptable, but what is against protocols inside a church is acceptable.

In an authoritative text on protocols in Australia, the authors do not concede the National Anthem may be subject to alternative verses.[4]

Nevertheless, it seems to be the case that the use of alternative Christian verses is widespread in Christian, private schools.  Another set of Christian lyrics caused controversy in 2011. The federal education minister at the time, Peter Garrett, himself a Christian, was adamant alternative Christian verses should not be used.[5]

The Australian Christian Lobby was quick to try and muddy the waters of what is a clear cut issue of protocol.[6] However, the 6 February 2014 letter from the office of the Governor-General, cited above, which does not say alternative verses may be sung in schools, puts paid, I suggest, to the ACL’s dissembling.


So, where does they leave us?

In religious ceremonies,  it seems, Australia’s secular National Anthem is being undermined, with the approval of the Office of the Governor-General, against  the advice of a prime minister and a federal minister for education.

In private, religious schools, Australia’s secular National Anthem is being undermined against the 2011 advice of a prime minister, a federal minister for education and now, it seems, the office of the Governor-General.

If it is acceptable for Christians to alter the Australian National Anthem in religious ceremonies, surely it follows that it would be acceptable for other religions to do likewise. Australian Muslims and Australian Jews, and others,  could compose their own verses. And what about atheists and indigenous Australians? They could have a version too?

Surely the whole point of having a secular National Anthem is that it is inclusive of all doctrines. It is something to unite citizens, not divide them.

The ongoing Christian undermining of Australia’s National Anthem, creating two Australias, one for public consumption on occasions when Christian versions would be seen to be politically inappropriate, and other, mostly private versions, to keep those in the know privately confirming in their own minds, and the minds of children they are attempting to indoctrinate, that, as Dr Sharwood and Senator Watson implied in 1988 and in 1997, Australia is a ‘Christian nation’.

It seems constitutional correctness is not an issue for public officials, and others, who use their authority to quietly undermine Australia’s nascent republicanism, which found some expression in the 1984 adoption of a secular National Anthem. And when you ask hard questions about these matters they use their legal defences to deny information.

Another brick in the wall to fend off Australian republicanism and maintain the image of government, and the nation,  as ‘Christian’?

Who in the parliament will present a bill making it an offence to sing alternative verses to  the National Anthem? Protocol is obviously not enough.

Max Wallace is vice-president of  the Rationalists Association of NSW.


[1] H. Irving, ‘Australia’s Foundations Were Definitely and Deliberately Not Christian’, in M. Wallace (ed) Realising Secularism, ANZSA, Melbourne, 2010.

[2] P. Ayres, Fortunate Voyager, The World of Sir Ninian Stephen, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2013, p.255, n.16.

[3] ‘Schools Change National Anthem’, West Australian, 23 September 2011.

[4] A. Joel & H. Pringle, Australian Protocol and Procedures, UNSW Press, 2007, pp 173-5.

[5] ‘Outrage as ‘Christ’ inserted into Australian National Anthem’, Sunday Mail (SA), 2 October 2011.

[6] Interview with Stephen O’Doherty, CEO of Christian Schools Australia, www.acl.org.au, 4 October 2011.

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