It has come to this — a circle of Australian politicians bullying a 9-year-old girl. Such is the case of Harper Nielsen, a pupil who has done what we always claim we want our young students to do: She thought for herself, formed a view and acted on it.
Like those somewhat larger figures from American football, the diminutive Harper stands accused of a lack of respect for the anthem. She’s decided to “take the knee” or, more accurately, sit down while the Australian national anthem was played at her Brisbane primary school.
The Australian anthem, “Advance Australia Fair,” was always produced some controversy. The tune is so-so; the words are clumsy. At one point, it notes that Australia is “girt” by sea, leaving Australians as the world’s only English-speakers who routinely understand that “girt” is an archaic term for “surrounded.”
Young Harper is not concerned with linguistic vigor. Her complaint is about racial politics, which is what has brought such heat to the coverage of her stance. Harper’s issue is the anthem’s lyrics, which emphasize Australia’s relatively recent arrival into nationhood: “Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free.” Harper, who is not herself Indigenous, put it this way in an interview: “When it says Advance Australia Fair, it means advance the white people. And when it says ‘we are young’ it completely disregards the Indigenous Australians who were here before us for 50,000 years.”
Some accuse Harper of parroting the views of her parents, which Harper’s father, Mark, denies. The decision, he says, was all hers: “She’s shown incredible bravery in wanting to stick to what she believes in and make a stance for something she believes right and I couldn’t be more proud of her for wanting to do this,” he told a local radio station.
She now finds herself girt by critics.
One conservative politician — the right-wing controversialist Pauline Hanson — wants to give her a “kick up the backside.” Another calls her a “brat” whose actions represent an affront to Australia’s veterans. Even former prime minister Tony Abbott joined the fray, saying the girl should “follow the rules” and that “it’s just a sign of good manners and courtesy to stand for the national anthem.”
As Harper points out, the lyrics rather ignore the long history of Australia’s Indigenous people. Australia may be a young nation in formal terms — the various states joining as a federation in 1901 — but the continent itself is home to the world’s oldest continuing human civilization. People first arrived in Australia as many as 65,000 years ago — surviving droughts, ice ages and, most deadly of all, the arrival of Europeans in the late 18th century. People who identify as Indigenous make up 3.3 percent of the Australian population.
By the end of the week, some Australians were wondering how such a minor breach of school rules by a single child in a single school could create such a widespread national debate. It may be a measure of the heat that still surrounds relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
Australia’s first peoples have twice the infant mortality rate of the rest of the country, and a life expectancy around a decade short of the non-Indigenous average. Indigenous leader Noel Pearson has argued that his people are also most incarcerated on earth — a claim that’s been assessed as broadly true. That a 9-year-old could speak so clearly about matters of such national shame was, it seems, too much for at least some lawmakers.
In a week in which many on the right of politics supported the “free speech” of Australian cartoonist Mark Knight — creator of what was widely denounced as a racist depiction of Serena Williams — it was often the same voices raised to condemn Harper Nielsen for exercising hers.
Meanwhile, many others were on the side of Nielsen — applauding her courage, her intelligence and the close study she’d made of the anthem’s lyrics. A particularly warm reaction came from Indigenous Australians, some of whom have begun a campaign in her support. Said one Indigenous organization: “We are deeply moved by the wisdom and courage of this young girl.”
Meanwhile, late in the week, the country’s new prime minister, Scott Morrison, had to apologize for posting a video in which scenes in Parliament were teamed with the track “Be Faithful” by the American rapper Fatman Scoop. Morrison hadn’t noticed that some of the lyrics in the song were obscene and derogatory.“The full lyrics of the song used in my earlier video from QT today were just not OK,” Morrison tweeted late on Thursday night, the QT referring to the parliamentary tradition of Question Time. “When I found out, I asked the team to take it down.”
Maybe Prime Minister Morrison — and the rest of Australia — needs a lesson from young Harper Nielsen. Before you use a song, study the lyrics.