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In 2018, our country stands at a strange point. Our children are promoting nuanced, adult discourse, whereas we’re relying on schoolyard fare to get our points across.
When 9-year-old Harper Nielsen refused to stand for the national anthem some weeks ago, she was told she was being disrespectful, given detention at school and subjected to a barrage of vitriol from the likes of Pauline Hanson, Tony Abbott, Mark Latham and various others, people pushing their own agendas and who further discredit themselves by treating a child so appallingly.
Harper’s action and the responses to it have had wide media coverage so we won’t go over it all again here. One thing, however, that really stands out in all of this is that the children seem to be more adult than the adults. A primary school girl prodded the conscience of a nation. She didn’t say anything that others have not already said, but her youth and the fact that she is white and only nine years old have made many people reassess the real message of Advance Australia Fair. Harper maintains that our national anthem condones, even celebrates racism and as a matter of principle she made her peaceful protest. Just weeks after taking her stand, many other children across the country are following suit, refusing to stand for the anthem when it’s played in schools.
A racist anthem? As much as we’d like not to believe this, the fact is that the song’s very title glorifies the “fair” and claims that our land is “young”. In a recent article, I looked at how certain words can be interpreted in different ways. We like to think that “fair” has two meanings – “just” and “beautiful” – the country where everyone gets a fair go; but for others, the clear meaning is “white” or “fair-skinned”, reflecting the beginning of Anglo-Irish-Scottish settlement in Australia. It’s easy to see why Indigenous Australians may interpret “fair” to mean “non-Aboriginal”. It’s also easy to see that that opening lines of our anthem, “Australians all, let us rejoice/For we are young and free” are insulting to our country’s first peoples. The country is not young: our first peoples have been here for 60,000 years, and the notion of “freedom” is a sore point for them.
Harper Nielsen spelled out the institutionalised racism and inequity of our anthem. She clearly gave a great deal of thought to the words and what they meant before she acted. Over recent years, Indigenous leaders have called out the anthem as racist, to no avail. That itself speaks volumes. Mainstream Australia ignores the comments of prominent Aboriginal Australians including sportsman Anthony Mundine and soprano Deborah Cheetham, but sits up and notices when the same thing is said by a white child. There’s racism right there. It’s difficult to deny.
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The attacks on Harper in the media say more about those making them than the child at the centre of all this. Hanson wanted to kick her “up the backside” and Latham, of all people, suggested she had “behavioural problems”. Why do these people, these so-called adults, think they have the right to bully a 9-year-old because she doesn’t happen to agree with them? What is it about these people who feel they have the right to belittle a girl who acted on principle? What political mileage do they think they’re getting by slagging off a child? These people are like schoolyard bullies: mean, petulant, childish.
In marked contrast, it’s the children who are calling the adults to account. Stop, they’re saying, read the words, think about what they really convey, put yourself in the shoes of an Indigenous Australian. Harper said she didn’t feel right about standing for those words. This is a child who is prepared to cop detention and as it turned out a whole lot worse, to stand by her principles. She committed no crime, was not vocal or outspoken, didn’t incite others to follow her – she simply decided to make her own personal protest and by doing so, kept her principles intact.
Now have a think about Malcolm Turnbull. When he first became prime minister many felt that as a man of principle he’d fight for issues such as climate change, same sex marriage and becoming a republic, issues he’d openly and very vocally supported for years. Australia watched as this man essentially threw away all he stood for in order to retain the leadership of his party. Even those who didn’t support those issues respected the man for his principles. And yet he shrivelled before our very eyes, putting the demands of others ahead of the things he himself believed in. Sure, it can’t be easy being a politician, and keeping everybody happy is obviously impossible but people respect those who stand by their principles.
Harper Nielsen and the other children, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who’ve emulated her actions are not prepared to stand for an anthem they feel ignores our first people. They’re honest and open about why they refuse to stand. Already better role models than many adults, these kids have a strong sense of what is right and just. Maybe we need to let them lead, and just follow.