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Australia in three words, part 1-“Mateship”

“Mateship” is an Australianism – my American spell-checker doesn’t recognise it – and it’s one that captures something widely held to be distinctive about Australia.

Like many Australianisms, the word existed well before there were any Australians in the ordinary sense: it was a coinage of Elizabethan English. But the word long languished in apparent desuetude: the most exhaustive reader of the collected works of Dickens, Hardy, and Melville would never have encountered it. And it seems the European settlers of Australia had for a century no use of the word, either; it has been ventured that her colonial orators would never have heard of it.

It was in the 1890s that there surged a sense of Australian identity, articulated most widely in the fiction of Henry Lawson. The word ‘mateship’ seemed to serve well one of the defining features of that identity: a highly developed sense of peerness; a magnification of the sphere of life that comprises the recognition of counterparts, compeers, and comrades. Every culture’s social weather map will include instances of this pressure system, but in Australia it seems to blow stronger and wider than many obvious comparator countries.

But the nature of mateship is easily mistaken.

Essentially masculine, there is, for all that, nothing ‘patriarchal’ about it. Quite the opposite. Mateship is brotherhood and a brotherhood is not family. Mateship has for this reason been implicated in Australia being a ‘psychologically fatherless community.’ A “matriduxy”, in fact. (Enter Dame Edna …)

Cutting railway Sleepers, Woodside, Victoria, circa 1912 by Museum Victoria. Public Domain via Museum Victoria.

Neither should mateship be confused by an impulse to associate, so often attributed the ‘nation of joiners’, the United States. That sort of civicness is born of ideals, and ideals are a weak current in Australian life.

Above all, mateship is not to be mistaken for a diffuse, philanthropic sociality; something for which Australians have no unusual predilection. (Cross-country surveys indicates the sympathy of the average Australian to asylum-seekers sits midway in the range of international opinion). And mateship cannot admit such a predilection: to grant everyone membership of your peer group is to have no peer group at all. Mateship, then, looks both inwards and outwards.

The ambiguity in the implications of mateship is illustrated in the revolutions in Australian attitudes towards Chinese and Aboriginals. The Australian Federation of 1901 was very much conceived as a Commonwealth of Mates. Mates were expected to be able to trace their descent from the British Isles – “the crimson thread of kinship” – and, certainly, were to be white. Two groups, then, were clearly not mates: Australia’s population of Chinese and Aboriginals. The new Federation promptly legislated to debar completely the immigration of non-whites; something Australia’s colonial parliaments of the preceding century had never done. And, complementing that, Aboriginals were swiftly made ineligible to vote; also something that largest parliaments of colonial Australia had never done.

Australia is now much changed. The Aboriginal flag flutters over just about every Australian school. Strenuous and unrelenting efforts – undiscouraged by any failure –  are made to receive Aboriginals into the ordinary course of Australian life. The 2006 census revealed one utterly middle class Sydney district, that had been electing the conservative Prime Minister John Howard for 30 years, included a larger number of persons of Chinese and Korean birth and descent than English. The revolutions in policy towards Chinese and Aboriginal can be construed as persistence in this sense of peerness, combined with a revision in who will count as a peer.

Yet the strength of mateship has surely declined. There are some particular signs of this. Trade unionism, that always claimed an emotive foundation in labour camaraderie, has experienced a collapse in membership. 50 years ago there was no country larger than Australia that had a greater proportion of its workforce with union membership. That proportion is currently distinctly smaller than in the UK, and nearer that of the US than Canada. Beer drinking was always the popular and graphic Australian emblem of mateship – about half as much is drunk per head as 40 years ago.

The general hue of Australian life is also changing as one of its primary colours fades. Mateship never neatly chimed with political and intellectual authority. As its core energy was not an impulse to control, it was left unanimated by the exhortations and injunctions of those in control. Thus mateship –  with its “sardonic humour” and nonchalant demeanour – constituted a humanizing force on Australian life. And if it never constituted an outright disposition for acceptance, it had the potential for it. For if it was impossible for everyone to be a mate, it was also true that it was possible for almost anyone to be a mate, by sufficient identification with the trials of the other. Indeed, the ethic seems not to have absolutely required a mate be a human being. Thus “Red Dog, The Pilbara Wanderer”, a kind of canine swagman of the 1970s, whose life has been told – in pastiche Lawson – by Louis de Bernières, and to whom a statue now stands in Western Australia, “erected by the many friends made during his travels.” With that unique sense of identifying with their owner’s estate, dogs found space in the mateship ethic; a truth epitomized by yet another dog statue, that fey piece of Australiana, “The Dog on the Tucker Box”, inspired by verse of the “bush troubadour” Jack Moses, a friend and stalwart of Lawson.

Australia is, indeed, now much changed. One member of Australia’s Senate recently called for “army snipers” (his term) to be stationed in national parks to dispose of household dogs who might stray within their boundaries. A keener, colder wind now blows.

Feature image credit: Storm clouds over Uluru by Ed McCulloch. CC-BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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