As the anniversary of the March 15 terror attacks in Christchurch approaches, there has been a call to change the way we sing the national anthem, God Defend New Zealand. And the Prime Minister has acknowledged that many people may back that call.

Hobsonville woman Fiona Downes wrote to Jacinda Ardern last year saying the anthem has outdated language.

"I feel the language in the first English verse is arcane," she wrote, "and that words like 'triple star', 'shafts of war' and 'entreat' are meaningless to many migrants with limited English, as well as most NZers under the age of 30."

The All Blacks sing the national anthem before their Rugby World Cup semi-final match against England, in Japan. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The All Blacks sing the national anthem before their Rugby World Cup semi-final match against England, in Japan. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Ardern agreed. She told Downes the "language is certainly a product of its time", and advised that change "could evolve if enough people supported it".

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Downes also said she believed more people would be able to relate to "the simple and direct words of the second verse".

A vigil in Hagley Park, Christchurch, on March 24, 2019, to remember the victims of the terror attacks nine days earlier. Photo / Mike Scott
A vigil in Hagley Park, Christchurch, on March 24, 2019, to remember the victims of the terror attacks nine days earlier. Photo / Mike Scott

The second verse has a strongly inclusive theme. It reads:

Men of every creed and race,
Gather here before Thy face,
Asking Thee to bless this place,
God defend our free land.
From dissension, envy, hate,
And corruption guard our state,
Make our country good and great,
God defend New Zealand.

However, Downes suggested the line "Men of every creed and race" should be replaced with "Those of every creed and race".

"It suddenly occurred to me," she wrote, "that a marvellous memorial gesture at the time of commemorating the event next March would be to announce that the second verse would be used henceforth, following the Māori first verse, as our national anthem, instead of the old first verse".

Downes wrote her letter to Ardern as Prime Minister, but Ardern's reply, dated November 11, was written in her capacity as Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage. "The attack on our Muslim community has had a profound effect on our nation," she said, and "the Government is giving careful consideration to strategies for promoting inclusiveness and respect for diversity".

Ardern also said, "I agree with you, the wording of the second verse holds particular significance in the wake of the 15 March attacks."

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Downes told the Herald she has been keen on this change for a couple of years. "What a dirge the first verse is," she said. "And I noticed that after the mosque attacks on March 15 people were quoting the second verse extensively. It's all about what people come to New Zealand for and value living here for: to escape corruption, envy and hate."

When the Weekend Herald asked the Prime Minister for further comment, a spokesperson said she had "noted that a number of people have said over the past 12 months the words of the second verse, often unsung, have particular resonance".

But, he added, there are "no plans to change the national anthem … Simply put, there are far more important priorities the Government is focused on."

Downes said she understood that but hoped her suggestion would become popular.

God Defend New Zealand was written as a poem by the journalist Thomas Bracken, and published in 1876. Once set to music it was widely performed and became a popular hymn.

Manakau School pupils sing the national anthem at the Manakau Cenotaph, Anzac Day, 2018. Photo / supplied
Manakau School pupils sing the national anthem at the Manakau Cenotaph, Anzac Day, 2018. Photo / supplied

But it did not achieve any kind of official status until 1940, when a public campaign resulted in it becoming the "National Song of New Zealand". That was the year of the Centennial celebrations, marking the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

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In 1972 the song was performed as the New Zealand anthem when the men's rowing 8 won gold at the Munich Olympic Games. But it did not become an official anthem until 1977, when it was named as one of two, alongside God Save the Queen.

There is no chance there will be any formal change before March 15. Ardern advised Downes in her letter that any new protocols for the song would require "a formal government process" which would "not be taken lightly in view of the anthem's national, historical and constitutional significance. An official change would required significant public consultation and there would need to be a considerable groundswell of support before this would be considered".

Henare O'Keefe, a member of the Hastings District Council, sings the national anthem with competitors at the NZ Junior Youth Tenpin Bowling national championships, Hastings. Photo / Warren Buckland
Henare O'Keefe, a member of the Hastings District Council, sings the national anthem with competitors at the NZ Junior Youth Tenpin Bowling national championships, Hastings. Photo / Warren Buckland

But she also said people were free now to sing the song any way they like.

"There is nothing in legislation or any other proscription which prevents people from singing the verses in a different order, or leaving verses out. You are certainly free to sing, and encourage others to sing, the second verse first."

Ardern said this was similar to the way the Te Reo version of God Defend New Zealand has evolved. "Te Reo verses may be sung before or after an English verse, not used at all, or used in place of the English version."

New Zealand Black Sticks sing the national anthem ahead of a game with the Australia Hockeyroos, Hastings, 2017. Photo / Duncan Brown
New Zealand Black Sticks sing the national anthem ahead of a game with the Australia Hockeyroos, Hastings, 2017. Photo / Duncan Brown

The song has been in the public domain since the 1980s, which means there is no copyright and anyone is free to use it as they see fit.

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Simon Wilson: on changing the national anthem.

God Defend New Zealand: a timeline

1870s: Dunedin journalist Thomas Bracken writes the poem.

July 1, 1876: The Saturday Advertiser in Dunedin publishes Bracken's poem for the first time and stages a competition to find a tune. The competition is won by schoolteacher John Joseph Woods, of Lawrence, Otago.

Christmas Day, 1876: First public performance, by the Lydia Howard Burlesque and Opera Burl Troupe, accompanied by the Royal Artillery Band, in the Queen's Theatre, Dunedin.

1878: First Māori translation, by Native Land Court judge Thomas Smith, commissioned by Premier George Grey and published under the title Aotearoa in Otago newspapers.

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1897: Premier Richard Seddon presents a copy of the words and music to Queen Victoria.

1940: Prime Minister Peter Fraser announces it will be the National Song of New Zealand, in time for the Centennial celebrations of that year.

1950: First played at the British Empire Games, forerunner to the Commonwealth Games.

1972: First played at the Olympic Games, when the men's rowing 8 wins gold.

1973: Prime Minister Norman Kirk tries to have the song made the national anthem but cannot gain enough support from his own party, Labour.

1976: A petition with 7750 signatures, calling for the same, is presented to Parliament.

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1977: God Defend New Zealand is gazetted by the National Government as one of two national anthems "of equal status". God Save the Queen remains an official anthem too.

1979: Choirmaster Maxwell Fernie shifts the key from A-flat major to G major, to enable easier singing, especially by crowds.

1999: First major use of only the Māori version, at a Rugby World Cup match. Thereafter singing the first verse in Te Reo and then English became common. The song has five verses.

Messages of love and support adorn the front fence of the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch. Photo / Alan Gibson
Messages of love and support adorn the front fence of the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch. Photo / Alan Gibson